Monday, August 18, 2008

Travels with Herodotus: Ryszard Kapuściński

Struck by a desire to cross the border, even if to just cross it and come right back, Ryszard Kapuściński tells his editor in chief Irena Tarlowska that he would like to go abroad, perhaps to Czechoslovakia. As fate would have it, he is identified to go slightly further than that: to India.

At the end of our conversation, during which I learned that I would indeed be going forth into the world, Tarlowska reached into a cabinet, took out a book, and handing it to me said: “Here, a present, for the road.” It was a thick book with a stiff cover of yellow cloth. On the front, stamped in gold letters, was Herodotus, The Histories.

A simple and rather uneventful start to a great friendship.

Kapuściński arrives in India and let alone the sundry Indian languages, he doesn’t even know English. So he reads Ernest Hemingway, yes, Ernest Hemingway, to learn English. And as he gets going on that, he marvels (or should that be shudders?) at the power of language.

Language stuck me at that moment as something material, something with a physical dimension, a wall rising up in the middle of the road and preventing my going further, closing off the world, making it unattainable.

This fear of language persists with Kapuściński as he moves on to China and to some of the other countries he travels to as well. Thankfully, it didn’t deter the man who had lived through twenty-seven revolutions and coups, been jailed 40 times and survived four death sentences according to his Wikipedia entry.

The key to Kapuściński’s success perhaps lies in his curiosity. Even as he encounters Herodotus, he wonders about how he was as a boy, what his toys were, what his father did, even what his memories of his childhood were.

Curiosity naturally leads to observation, a trait manifested when, after going through India and China, he wonders about the faces of Hindus and Chinese.

The face of the Hindu contains surprise: a red dot on a forehead, colourful patterns on cheeks, or a smile that reveals teeth stained dark brown. The face of a Chinese holds no such surprises. It is smooth and has unvarying features. It seems as if nothing can ruffle its still surface. It is a face that communicates that it is hiding something about which we know nothing and never will.

Kapuściński’s readings of Herodotus are as interesting as his discoveries in this travel. His profile of Herodotus indicates his veneration for the Greek historian.

He is a consummate reporter: he wanders, looks, talks, listens, in order that he can later note down what he learned and saw, or simply to remember better.

And his verdict on The Histories?

The Histories is the product of natural talent but also an example of writerly craft, of technical mastery.

Kapuściński’s insight on the Greeks of Herodotus’ era suggests that he follows Herodotus’ approach as well.

They are far from being born killers. They do not have a taste for soldiering. If there is an opportunity to avoid a clash, they eagerly seize it. Sometimes they will go to great lengths just to avoid as a skirmish. Unless the opponent is another Greek, of course—in which case they will wrestle with them furiously.

Herodotus believes that history is the narrative of conflict. Kapuściński layers that by wondering: if reason ruled the world, would history even exist?

Kapuściński’s adoration of Herodotus perhaps emerges because of the latter’s view of the subjectivity of history.

…however evolved our methods, we are never in the presence of unmediated history, but of history recounted, presented, history as it appeared to someone, as he or she believes it to have been.

This is precisely what Kapuściński does for a living – listening and recounting. So when he asserts that reportage comes from travel, people you meet and homework (from his Lettre Ulysses Award Key Note Speech 2003), he is referring to history as well.

Travels with Herodotus is part travelogue, part memoir, part biography and part book review. You can quibble on whether it is too much of one and perhaps a little less of another, but you are unlikely to disagree that it is a great book.

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