Ryszard Kapuściński’s Travels With Herodotus

Of the many faults I could charge myself with, a preference for familiarity and mundanity, for the comfort of routine, troubles me the most, the more so as many of my closest family members are inveterate travellers and novelty seekers, most alive when abroad. It takes a particular personality type to eschew routine and actively seek out novelty, to feel exhilarated by foreign sights and sounds, to thrill in being lost, and whatever admixture makes such a man, I do not possess it. However, that does not prevent me from enjoying those who do, if only vicariously, and the Polish journalist and travel writer Ryszard Kapuściński was the consummate traveller, a peripatetic par excellence.

Travels With Herodotus was first published in 2004 and only translated into English upon Kapuściński’s death in 2007, and the lateness of this work lends to its retrospective qualities: this is not the reportage of the young Kapuściński, catching history in action, but the the reminiscences of an aged man reflecting on a life spent in travel. Some background information is necessary. Kapuściński was born in Poland in 1932, graduated from Warsaw University in 1955 with a degree in the study of history (and the requisite commitment to communism), and then immediately began working for a Polish newspaper. It was that job that gifted him a rare opportunity for young Polish men and women: the chance to travel abroad, and thereby not only come to know foreign societies, but to gain new perspective on his own. Kapuściński’s editor hands him a plane ticket to India, by way of Italy, and a copy of Herodotus’ The Histories, only made available in Poland one year before. What does a Greek historian who lived roughly 2,500 years ago have to communicate to a Polish newspaper writer living under the watchful eye of Soviet communism? A great deal, as it turns out, for the Polish reading public had long accustomed itself to a special kind of reading, one that would make them specifically attuned to Herodotus.

[…] all our thinking, our looking and reading, was governed during those years by an obsession with allusion. Each word brought another one to mind: each had a double meaning, a false bottom, a hidden significance; each contained something secretly encoded, cunningly concealed. Nothing was ever plain, literal, unambiguous – from behind every gesture and word peered some referential sign, gazed a meaningfully winking eye. The man who wrote had difficulty communicating with the man who read, not only because the censor could confiscate the text en route, but also because, when the text finally reached him, the latter read something utterly different from what was clearly written, constantly asking himself: What did this author really want to tell me?

Herodotus is, emphatically, an allusive writer, happy to allow his histories to speak for themselves, but so, too, is Kapuściński, whose fame in Poland derived in no small part from how his travel writings – ostensibly about regimes in Africa, Latin America and the Middle East – were read as important criticisms of the puppet government known as the Polish People’s Republic.

For Kapuściński, then, Herodotus becomes both a companion and an avatar, the model of a life lived in pursuit of the horizon. He has this to say of his Greek teacher:

He is the first to discover the world’s multicultural nature. The first to argue that each culture requires acceptance and understanding, and that to understand it one must first come to know it. How do cultures differ from one another? Above all in their customs. Tell me how you dress, how you act, what are your habits, which gods you honor – and I will tell you who you are. Man not only creatures culture, inhabits it, he carries it around within him – man is culture.

These insights are then blended into his own observations on his various travels, all of which are conducted haphazardly, putting him in desperate and often dangerous circumstances. He arrives in India, for example, as a total stranger, unable to navigate the streets or make himself comprehensible to taxi drivers and samaritans; his next destination is China, which in 1957 is less than a decade into its own communist revolution, and as a foreign press agent, he is treated with the utmost suspicion. In 1979, he arrives in Iran, just in time to witness the exile of the Shah and the ascendancy of Ayatollah Khomeini.

I am witness in Tehran to the last weeks of the shah’s regime. The gigantic, even normally chaotic city scattered over a large swath of sandy terrain is now in a state of total disarray. Traffic is paralyzed by endless daily demonstrations. Men, invariably black-haired, and women, invariably in hijabs, walk in kilometre- and even several-kilometre-long columns, chanting, shouting, rhythmically shaking their raised fists. Every now and then armored trucks drive into the streets and squares and fire at the demonstrators. They fire for real, and as the dead and wounded fall, the panicked crowds disperse, or hide in the entryways of buildings.

Like Herodotus himself, but like so few others before or since, Kapuściński was witness to history as it was being made, and his reportage on these events is always earnest and visceral for the simple reason that that was his experience of them.

Travels With Herodotus is more than just a synopsis of a lifetime of traveling and travel writing. It is also an attempt to synthesize those experiences into lessons about man and society and culture, often but not always filtered through the stories of Herodotus. What are we to make of the seemingly universal worship of gods, for example, or the painful but undeniable link between man’s greatest accomplishments (the Pyramids, for example) and his greatest depredations (the slave labor needed to construct them)? Kapuściński is admirable for his bravery and for his gift with language, but his fundamental humaneness is what has won him an international audience, devoted to him even in death. He approaches pompous dignitaries and humble beggars with the same openness, the same conviction that both have something important to teach him, if only inadvertently, and he invites us, his readers, to share in the experience.