Book Reviews & Essays

Traveling Light

Travels with Herodotus, Ryszard Kapuscinski, Knopf, 2007 288pp

A version of this article was originally published June 5, 2022 in Dissent

To the extent that the two are separable, Ryszard Kapuscinski is revered as much for his legendary persona as for his work. Until his death last January at seventy-four, the Polish journalist and badass embodied the glamour of the uncompromising foreign correspondent. For decades he rushed toward the places everyone else wanted to flee, to be there for the war, the coup, even the humdrum poverty. Rather than interviewing officials, his preferred research method was idling in bars with locals. And he recorded his impressions with acuity and lyricism, in books that are often said to transcend the limits of journalism. Kapuscinski himself espoused this view in a 1987 Granta interview, describing his genre as “a completely new field of literature,” whose subject was “what surrounds the story. The climate, the atmosphere of the street, the feeling of the people, the gossip of the town, the smell; the thousand, thousand elements of reality that are part of the event you read about in 600 words in your morning paper. . . . This is more than journalism.”

More, but perhaps also less. Critics charge that, due to a combination of sloppiness and fabulism, his books are littered with inaccuracies. Two well-respected reporters, John Ryle and Michela Wrong, have documented errors ranging from the customs of tribes to the character of a given town to the reading habits of Ethiopian despot Haile Selassie. Kapuscinski enthusiasts include unshaven backpackers and esteemed novelists; his detractors tend to be people who know the regions he covered, whether ordinary residents or foreign experts.

In the end, both assessments are right: Kapuscinski transcended and violated the limits of journalism, and is probably best read as a storyteller. The Emperor, his postmortem of Haile Selassie’s dictatorship, is, if not an entirely reliable guide to Ethiopian history, an incisive and mesmerizing study of how tyranny holds together and falls apart. It evokes the choreography of everyday life in the palace, through accounts of former servants, identified only by their initials, and their extravagantly specialized duties. (One source reports that for ten years, he wiped the urine of Haile Selassie’s dog, Lulu, from the feet of visiting dignitaries.) In addition to the manifestations of the emperor’s power, this slim masterpiece also examines his techniques for sustaining it, such as rewarding loyalty while punishing talent.

Several of Kapuscinski’s other books—The Soccer War, Imperium, The Shadow of the Sun—provide a series of dispatches rather than cohesive narratives. They are inconsistent—sometimes swaggering, sometimes tedious—but they frequently crackle with arresting images, kinetic prose, and surprising insights. Substantial stretches are devoted to ostensibly straightforward information about various parts of the world. Given Kapuscinski’s credibility problem—if enough facts are wrong, all of them are suspect—the resourceful reader will skim these sections and relish the anecdotes.

In The Soccer War, the author finds himself on the front lines of a war between El Salvador and Honduras, with a bewildered Honduran conscript. As they roam among corpses in the forest, this young man has an epiphany: he will take the boots of the dead, who no longer need them, for his unshod family. “He had already calculated that he could trade one pair of army boots for three pairs of children’s shoes, and there were nine little ones back home. . . . Now the war had meaning for him, a point of reference and a goal.” Ignoring Kapuscinski’s growing alarm as they linger on the battlefield, the soldier collects the boots and hides them behind a bush, to retrieve later. Whether or not this vignette is literally factual, it succinctly captures a true-to-life scenario. A funny, absurdist, dreadful story, it is classic Kapuscinski.

KAPUSCINSKI’S FINAL book, recently published in English as Travels with Herodotus, is a departure from his previous work. A memoir of youth, it contains very little that can be characterized as journalism. Rather than integrating his stories with reportage, he weaves them in with excerpts from The Histories of Herodotus. In fact, the book is in part an extended reflection on journalism, through Herodotus, whom he considers the first foreign correspondent and his role model. For the first time in his oeuvre (at least, as far as this linguistically limited reviewer can tell), Kapuscinski makes gestures to confide in his readers. Before, he always sought to tell us about some part of the world; now, he wants to say something about how to be in the world. In short, it seems like the work of a man aware of his approaching death.

As a young reporter, Kapuscinski recalls, he was filled with a craving to travel. Although his ambitions were modest—he dreamed only of crossing the Polish border—he was dispatched to India by his newspaper. Before the trip, his editor gave him a copy of Herodotus, which became his dog-eared companion as he collected more and more stamps on his passport.

The version of himself he presents here, unlike the intrepid adventurer of his earlier books, is an overwhelmed and earnest youngster from the wrong side of the Iron Curtain. On a stopover in Rome, en route to India, he musters the gumption to go out alone one night, wearing clothes his hosts have helped him to purchase. In lieu of his “à la Warsaw Pact 1956” getup—a yellow nylon shirt and green plaid tie—he sports “a new suit, an Italian shirt white as snow, and a most fashionable polka-dotted tie . . .” But he nevertheless senses the stares of the Italians, for “there must still have been something in my appearance and gestures, in my way of sitting and moving, that gave me away—betrayed where I came from, from how different a world.”

The source of his ineffable difference—his upbringing in a communist country—had also given him a dogmatic belief in equality, which he gently mocks. In India, he declines to hire a rickshaw driver: “[T]he very idea of sprawling comfortably in a rickshaw pulled by a hungry, weak waif of a man with one foot already in the grave filled me with the utmost revulsion, outrage, horror. To be an exploiter? A bloodsucker? . . . Never!” He pushes the desperate drivers away. “They were astounded—what was I saying, what was I doing? They had been counting on me, after all. I was their only chance, their only hope—if only for a bowl of rice.” But he walks on impassively, smugly proud of his refusal.

The book alternates between these endearing and well-spun reminiscences—after India, we follow him to China, then Egypt, Algeria, Senegal, and other destinations—and long passages quoting, summarizing, and reflecting on Herodotus. He was riveted by this volume, he tells us, sometimes more absorbed in its pages than in his own surroundings. Herodotus, born circa 484 B.C.E., left his home in ancient Greece to explore the world, to soak up maximal knowledge of other cultures, and then to communicate it. He took a special interest in wars and their causes. Kapuscinski, via Herodotus, delves into the rash and savage battles of ancient times. We are treated to plenty of creative maiming and killing, which might make us feel civilized by comparison, and to cautionary tales of hubris—of leaders recklessly taking their nations to doomed wars—which swiftly temper any confidence in progress.

KAPUSCINSKI APPLIES the same keen, imaginative attention to reading Herodotus as he always has to his own experiences. After a series of imperial victories, Cyrus, the Persian ruler, sets off across the desert for further conquests. Kapuscinski contemplates the luxuries enjoyed by the king, who, even on his journey, would drink water only from the River Choaspes. “I am fascinated by this water,” he writes. “Water that has been boiled ahead of time. Stored in silver vessels to keep it cool. One has to cross the desert freighted with those vessels.” As ever, he homes in on the exercise of power and the exploitation of the underlings. “How often do we consider the fact that the treasures and riches of the world were created from time immemorial by slaves? From the irrigation systems of Mesopotamia, the Great Wall(s) of China, the pyramids of Egypt, and acropolis of Athens . . .?”

Kapuscinski contemplates not only Herodotus’s book but also the ancient author himself. “What sent him into motion?” Kapuscinski wonders. “I think that it was simply curiosity about the world. The desire to be there to see it at any cost, to experience it no matter what. It is actually a seldom encountered passion,” he muses. Kapuscinski slyly treads a fine line between holding Herodotus up as a hero and implicitly naming himself the Greek’s modern-day successor.

Through such meditations, Kapuscinski appears to want to expound some lessons. He advocates childlike curiosity about the world, counseling readers to resist provincialism. Provincialism, he reminds us, can be a matter not only of space but also of time. One ought to explore the contemporary world through travel and the past through reading.

Pondering the art of reportage, he concludes that Herodotus must have listened and observed attentively, must have had a voluminous memory, unspoiled by Internet or even library access. He notes approvingly that Herodotus always made an effort to check his facts, scrupulously distinguishing between what he had witnessed personally and what he had heard from sources. Curiously, he never mentions the charges that Herodotus was, in addition to the “father of history,” the “father of lies”—accusations similar to those leveled at him. He addresses neither overtly, but at times one wonders whether he is indirectly defending both of them against their critics.

Although it never comes close to the heights of Kapuscinski’s best work, much of Travels with Herodotus is worth reading. The vignettes from his past are charming, and he treats Herodotus’s world with inquisitive intelligence. The chronologically provincial among us ought to be grateful to be dragged back to antiquity, where we wouldn’t ordinarily venture without a contemporary guide. But the wisdom he offers is bland and feel-good. Herodotus’s greatest discovery? “That there are many worlds. And that each is different. Each is important.”

LIKE THIS paean to multiculturalism, unsophisticated in the context of today’s debates about clashing values, his valentines to travel and reporting seem willfully blinkered. In Kapuscinski’s rendering, he and Herodotus were motivated strictly by curiosity and the wish to share the knowledge they accumulated. Ambition and personal glory are absent from the picture. So are flaws and failures. He concedes that, due to unavoidable limitations, neither he nor Herodotus was able to verify every last fact or to witness every event firsthand. But the fault never lies with the reporter; laziness, arrogance, and the desire to scoop rivals do not exist in his world. What’s more, being good at either reporting or literature—and Kapuscinski was, to perhaps inversely proportional degrees, good at both—also requires a sort of exploitation: people must be treated as sources or material. Kapuscinski neglects to grapple with these complexities.

Such realities afflict the calling in the best of circumstances. But Kapuscinski was from a repressive society, which made the costs steeper still. The Polish government recently revealed that Kapuscinski worked as an informant for the Communist secret police in exchange for his travel privileges, although he evidently provided them with nothing of value. How should we assess the bargain he struck? Unlike Gunther Grass, Kapuscinski did not attempt to control his public relations with a preemptive confession. But in his own examination of tyranny, he never passes judgment on citizens who are forced to diminish themselves to get by. After all, even we—Americans living under Bush/Cheney—are arguably implicated in the crimes of our government. Under any appalling regime, only the most self-sacrificing purists wash themselves of complicity. Think of Thoreau, who refused to pay taxes to a government that supported slavery, asking Emerson from behind bars, “The question is, Waldo, what are you doing out there?” That said, such tactics are not necessarily the most effective.

To my mind, only hypocrites and absolutists will condemn him. Which is not to say the revelation is off-limits in considerations of his work. Indeed, it furnishes some of the messy context that he chose to omit in Travels with Herodotus. The reports he wrote make a discomfiting foil for his other writing, and especially for the philosophy he espouses here. In the reports, rather than observing the world out of zeal for experience, he was reduced to collecting information for basely utilitarian purposes. Instead of writing to enlighten ordinary readers, he wrote for an elite intent on oppression. Even if, to his credit, he deliberately withheld damaging information, the arrangement was a compromise. But the reports were the price he paid for his published work, much of which indisputably evinces curiosity and sensitivity. Kapuscinski reminds us in this book that many of the world’s great wonders relied on slave labor; marvelous products often necessitate a behind-the-scenes process that’s less pretty.

In Travels with Herodotus, then, he hasn’t told the whole story. Even if it is more intimate than his other books, even if he has meted out disclosures of loneliness and vulnerability, he has ultimately maintained a strict reserve. He was not obliged to be confessional, of course. But he would have left us with a much richer last testament had he chosen to probe more deeply—if not into his personal life, then at least into the investigation of traveling and writing, the discomforts and concessions that go beyond squalid hotels.

At the end of the book, on a trip to the Greek island where Herodotus was born, Kapuscinski returns to his hotel, where a young Turkish girl is at the reception desk. “When she saw me, she adjusted her facial expression so that the professional smile meant to invite and tempt tourists was tempered by tradition’s injunction always to maintain a serious and indifferent mien toward a strange man.” This is the last sentence Kapuscinski leaves us with, a strikingly inconclusive yet fitting ending. A perception of a person, linked with an observation about a foreign culture. And a reference to himself—as he was so often in his travels, and in the end, even to his readers—more strange than known.

Source: Dissent

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