Travels with Herodotus
by Ryszard Kapuściński
REVIEW OF TRAVELS WITH HERODOTUS BY RYSZARD KAPUŚCIŃSKI

Reviewed by Ted Gioia


Before his death in January of this year, Ryszard Kapuściński was often mentioned as
a possible candidate for the Nobel Prize in Literature. Yet Kapuściński wrote almost
no literature in the conventional sense. He was, first and foremost, a journalist – and
how could a reporter deserve the most coveted international award in literature? But
to mistake Kapuściński for your common garden variety journalist would be akin to
confusing Herman Munster for Herman Melville. As Salman Rushdie has noted: "One
Kapuściński is worth more than a thousand whimpering and fantasizing scribblers.”

During his long career with the Polish Press Agency, Kapuściński covered some
twenty-seven revolutions and coups in various parts of the Third World. But his fame
rests more on his book-length accounts of regimes in collapse, including
The Emperor,
his intimate depiction of the fall of Ethiopian ruler Haile Selassie, and
Shah of Shahs,
which did the same for Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the last Shah of Iran. Now his final
book,
Travels with Herodotus, has been made available in English and will serve to
solidify the posthumous reputation of this modern master of reportage.

Herodotus of Halicarnassus (present day Bodrum in Turkey) is often lauded as the
“Father of History,” but he too was a reporter of sorts. His famous work, The History,
might (as Kapuściński points out) just as well be called “The Investigation” or “The
Inquiry,” and its loosely organized structure makes ample room for gossip, rumors,
innuendoes, first hand observations, and notes from various interviews and
meetings. Put simply, Herodotus was a historian who spent little time in libraries and
archives. Instead, he did his research on the road, and his wanderings throughout
Europe, Asia Minor, and North Africa in the 5th century BC were comparable to the
similar journeys Kapuściński would undertake almost 2,500 years later.

In
Travels with Herodotus, Kapuściński interweaves episodes from his career as a
reporter with the great historian’s accounts of the ancient world, culminating in the
dramatic 5th century BC conflict between Greece and Persia. Although Kapuściński
clearly sees himself as a modern Herodotus, he avoids grand comparisons and
constantly depicts himself in modest terms, emphasizing his confusion and ignorance
in the face of the cultures and traditions he confronted during his career. Indeed,
Kapuściński makes no room for pride or vanity in these pages. By the same token,
this account brings Herodotus down to earth, and presents the “Father of History” in
simple human terms.

There are few comparable guides to this essential ancient writer and certainly none
so beguiling. I once tried introducing my son to these vital chapters in ancient history
through John White’s (hundred year old)
The Boys' and Girls' Herodotus, but I gave up
in despair at the user-unfriendly prose. Kapuściński’s book, in contrast, is artfully
written, well paced, and full of insights. Although not explicitly written for teenagers,
Kapuściński’s book comes across as an old sage’s advice to the young (or young at
heart).

Since Kapuściński’s death, his reputation has been tarnished by allegations that he
was a spy for the Polish secret police during the late 1960s and early 1970s. At one
point in his book, he explores the possibility that Herodotus was a spy and used his
travels to gather intelligence. But of his own involvement in espionage, Kapuściński
remains silent. It is a shame that the he did not use the occasion of this
autobiographical work to set the record straight. The frank, confessional tone of the
book would have made it an ideal setting to broach such topics.

In truth, it is hard to reconcile the image of Kapuściński the spy with the open, warm-
hearted narrator depicted in these pages. As Kapuściński points out, Herodotus
succeeded in his inquiries because he inspired the trust and confidence of those
around him. The same can be said of the author of
Travels with Herodotus, who
imparts a human dimension to every scene. Readers certainly have many other
options if they are seeking history lessons or guides to current events, but few with
the magic and intimacy of this rich work.