Travels With Herodotus by Ryszard Kapuściński

tr. Klara Glowczewska

Alfred A. Knopf  2007  288 pp.

Copyright © Steven E. Alford


Herodotus’ great work, The Histories, recurs in literary fiction—witness its presence in Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient—but seldom in the work of journalists, whose contemporary concerns veer toward missing cute white girls, bears at large in suburban neighborhoods, pneumatic blond do-nothings, missing brunette pregnant women and things that blowed up real good.  Ryszard Kapuściński  was different.

Polish-born Kapuściński, who died in January, was a renowned international journalist with a storyteller’s imagination and a deep sense of insecurity about his knowledge of the world.  The latter compelled him to infuse his work with a scholar’s comprehension of his subject.  While his most famous beat was Africa, producing one of his greatest books, The Shadow of the Sun, his travels led him across the world, from China, to India, to Latin America and, inevitably back to Africa.

Linking his own movements with that of the world’s greatest traveler seems only natural.  Herodotus, born in 485 B.C.E. in Halicarnassus (modern Bodrum) in Asia Minor, lived for a while in Athens and ultimately settled permanently in southern Italy, in the Greek colony of Thurii, dying around age 60.  His true home, however, was the road, and his record of both his travels, and the origins, actions, and consequences of the Greek-Persian wars formed a book that can be read and reread forever.

For Kapuściński, educated in the war-ravaged Poland of the early 1950s, the Greeks “belonged to some unknown, mythic universe, a world of sun and silver, warm and full of light, populated by slender heroes and dancing nymphs.  We didn’t know what to make of it.”  Drawn to journalism and the promise it held out for travel, he “wanted one thing only—the moment, the act, the simple fact of crossing the border. … It made no difference which one, because what was important was not the destination, the goal, the end, but the almost mystical and transcendent act.  Crossing the border.”

Early in his career he got his chance, traveling to India and China, and accompanying him (a gift of a thoughtful editor) was a copy of The Histories, a book that didn’t appear in Polish bookstores until 1955.

The Histories served a dual purpose for Kapuściński.  On the one hand, Herodotus “strove to find out, learn and portray how history comes into being every day, how people create it, why its course often runs contrary to their efforts and expectations,” lessons invaluable to any journalist.

At the same time, the book, like history itself, became his “accustomed refuge, a retreat from the tensions of the world and the nervous pursuit of novelty into a peaceful realm of sunshine and quiet that emanates from events that have already occurred, people now gone and sometimes who were never there, having been only contrivances of the imagination, fictions, shadows.”

Kapuściński notes that Herodotus’ greatest discovery was that there is no such thing as unmediated, “objective” history, that history always has its origin in the account of some specific individual.  His continual references to his sources, reminders that “someone told me that,” are not confessions that there is no true story of our past, but recognition that our past is the sedimented result of a mass of individual stories.

There is a certain studied artificiality in Kapuściński’s attempts to link his reading of Herodotus to his travels.  Indeed, Jack Shafer’s charmless posthumous attack on Kapuściński’s methods in January’s Slate insinuates some James Frey/Stephen Glass-like duplicity in his accounts.  Poppycock.  In reading Kapuściński’s books, like Herodotus’ inquiries, we are knowingly entering into the world of a subjective vision, one which, however, has as its goal the portrayal of a truth that goes beyond facts.  Unlike Frey and Glass, Kapuściński’s portrayals were never self-serving, but oriented toward the reader’s greater understanding.

Travels with Herodotus is not Kapuściński’s best book (check out The Shadow of the Sun and others), but it introduces the reader to the journalism of a bygone era, one populated by Graham Greene, Ernest Hemingway, André Gide and others, who saw that the facts were the core, but not the entirety, of the truth of reportage.