Ryszard Kapuscinski’s Travels with Herodotus came to me as a birthday present in the beautiful Adirondacks in August. Not till the last couple of weeks, while traveling in Turkey and Jordan, did I get the chance to read it. The timing, as it turned out, was just about perfect.
I wouldn’t call it a great book so much as deeply and earnestly good. It speaks to me less as fine literature than as the rambling talk of a grandfather with more advice to me in his words than he quite seems to know.
Kapuscinski, a Pole whose youth was made of death by World War II, set off in the mid-fifties on a lifelong career as a foreign correspondent that took him all over the world. Earlier books of his, advertised on the back pages, include chronicles of the Iranian revolution and the collapse of the Soviet bloc. Travels with Herodotus, Kapuscinski’s last book before his death in 2007, is both grander and more minute in scope than those. He recounts stories from Herodotus’s Histories—the ancient world’s most important picture of itself—against the backdrop of moments, mostly little and uneventful ones, from his own career.
From when Herodotus’s book was given to him at the start of his first assignment, he nearly always brought it along, reading and rereading. In a manner that is anything but scholarly, he claims Herodotus not as the first historian, as is conventional, but the first journalist.
What propelled him, fearless and tireless as he was, to throw himself into this great adventure? I think it was an optimistic faith, one that we men lost long ago: faith in the possibility and value of truly describing the world. (p. 259)
Like Herodotus’s book, Travels lets the past and present mingle together, unable to say which is the more real.
The most affecting chapters for me were the early ones, which tell of Kapuscinski’s first assignment in India. He arrived knowing nothing of the place and with only a few words of English at his command, yet he was expected to report its goings-on for the Polish press. For Herodotus, too, India is the very limit of the known earth, and his reports betray more gullibility than knowledge. The two, ancient Greek and modern Pole, report on India naively together.
I was right there with them. As I read, I was on my first trip abroad on assignment, and my main preoccupation was not to betray how little I knew what I was doing. But the journey opened worlds. And it was incredibly fun. Being in these places, seeing their details, lent me a new admiration for simple facts, the tiny incontestables that are so plain to see and so easy to report if only there is someone to do so. This world of human beings, where the right hand doesn’t know what the left hand is doing, starves for simple facts.
Since I began working toward writing for a living ten months ago, I’ve been calling myself, vaguely, a writer, thinking of the work as mainly interpretation mixed with art. But as the plain facts began to present themselves, and before I was halfway through Kapuscinski’s book, I decided to join him and his Herodotus in their particular compulsion and its service to the world. When asked, while gathering, collecting, and assembling, I’ve begun saying that I am a journalist.