Reviewed by Tahir Shah
Sunday, June 24, 2007
TRAVELS WITH HERODOTUS
By Ryszard Kapuscinski
Translated from the Polish by Klara Glowczewska
Knopf. 275 pp. $25
A year ago, while on an official visit to Ethiopia, I was given a tour of the Imperial Palace in Addis Ababa by the president. He showed me the treasure vaults in the basement where ancient Ethiopian crowns sit alongside other national treasures, including a vial of moon dust presented by NASA and a signed portrait of JFK, furnished by Jackie O. And I was taken into the bedroom of Emperor Haile Selassie, which has been left untouched in the decades since he was smothered with a pillow during a coup d'etat. On the nightstand were the emperor's medications, and in his closet a line of starched white uniforms, all in extra small. As I stood there, amazed that the palace's interior could have escaped the anarchy that had swept the surrounding capital, I found myself wishing that a certain unassuming Polish journalist could be there with me to share the experience.
His name was Ryszard Kapuscinski, and he was a character right out of a Graham Greene novel.
As World War II slipped into the Cold War, developing nations were lured fervently by Washington and Moscow. The front line was often a despotic African state such as Angola or Zaire, or a tumultuous Central Asian republic such as Afghanistan. "Third World" guerrilla conflicts were covered by a hardcore group of Western reporters, most of them backed by legendary expense accounts. But Kapuscinski lived in a world apart.
A correspondent for the Polish News Agency, he could hardly afford to file his stories by Telex, let alone hire helicopters or personal security. But unlike his suave competitors at the international networks, he became known for treating the stories he was sent to cover with a gentle sensitivity that was almost unknown in the business. Africa was the cornerstone of his writing life. He considered it his second home. During his long career he observed 27 coups and revolutions and reported from a roll call of hotspots -- among them Uganda, Zanzibar and Ethiopia.
Kapuscinski famously kept two notebooks -- one for journalism and another for his own form of reportage-based literature. His unique style won him many awards, translations and an enormous international following. He died in January of this year, and his last book, published posthumously in English, is called Travels with Herodotus. The Greek's 5th-century B.C. Histories, presented to Kapuscinski by his editor as he stepped out on his first foreign assignment, was his traveling companion on almost all his journeys.
Travels with Herodotus is a work of art: so eloquent, so simple, that you find yourself marveling at its prose, its gentle observation and the rhythm of the words. And you find yourself applauding such good translation as well. Kapuscinski reminisces on his first view of the Nile, back in 1960; on his great love, India; and on the time he watched Louis Armstrong play to a bemused audience in the Sudan. "He greeted everyone," Kapuscinski writes, "raising into the air the hand holding his golden trumpet, and said into the cheap, crackling microphone that he was pleased to be playing in Khartoum, and not only pleased, but downright delighted, after which he broke into his full, loose, infectious laugh. It was laughter that invited others to laugh along, but the audience remained aloofly silent, not quite certain how to behave."
All through the book, Herodotus is by Kapuscinski's side, a traveling companion, mentor and trusted friend throughout a long career. He reflects on the Greek historian's vision of the world he knew, and of the lands through which he himself traveled. My only criticism is that such fine writing doesn't need a gimmick, if the use of Herodotus's great work could be construed as that. And of course some may consider this yet another work by an author sometimes regarded as being loose with his facts. Even if Kapuscinski did meddle with the truth from time to time, I would say he understood the subjects of his reportage and their environment in a way that's rare. For me, this is a travel book that all students of writing and of literature ought to read, not so much to learn what to put into their writing, as to glean what to leave out.
The deeper, tacit message in Travels with Herodotus is surely that journalism now, with its celebrity roving correspondents who jet in and out of conflicts, misses the point. This new brand of reporting never connects with the subtleties and with the people on whose land trials and tribulations fall. Kapuscinski will be remembered for a kind of writing and a standard seldom present in the reportage we read today; just as he will be remembered for a humility, a selflessness, that touched every word he wrote. ·
Tahir Shah is the author, most recently, of "The Caliph's House: A Year in Casablanca."