Dateline, Thermopylae

Travels with Herodotus BY Ryszard Kapuscinski. Knopf. Hardcover, 288 pages. $25.

The cover of Travels with Herodotus

Taking stock of his habit of reporting from dangerous places, Ryszard Kapuscinski once told an interviewer, “Mine is not a vocation, it’s a mission. I wouldn’t subject myself to these dangers if I didn’t feel that there was something overwhelmingly important—about history, about ourselves—that I felt compelled to get across. This is more than journalism.” Kapuscinski’s celebrated chronicles of war and revolution in Africa, Asia, Latin America, and points elsewhere made him a darling of literary circles, and you hear a lot from his admirers about how he transcended the limits of journalism, how he was a practitioner of “a kind of magic journalism,” as fellow journalist Adam Hochschild has put it. Academics and others have questioned his facts and methods, but Kapuscinski , as he freely admitted, was after something different; literalism wasn’t the point.

For many years, Kapuscinski did double duty, working as a foreign correspondent on tight deadlines for the Polish Press Agency (everybody has to pay the rent) while he gathered up the scraps of reportage and rumination that he used in his much-praised The Emperor (1978), about life in the court of Haile Selassie, and Shah of Shahs (1985), an account of the Iranian Revolution. Studies of despotism, yet oddly apolitical ones— Kapuscinski didn’t do advocacy journalism—these books hover somewhere between history and reportage. Less concerned with the primacy of fact—his critics say his books are better placed in the fiction section—than with impressions, fancy, and speculation, some of it occasionally banal and corny, the journalist created a series of fragmentary evocations out of a welter of material. In Travels with Herodotus, Kapuscinski, who died in January, offers a curious account of his beginnings as a journalist and an homage to the ancient-Greek historian whom Cicero dubbed the “father of history.” Not quite an apologia pro vita sua, it is an autobiography by other means. Kapuscinski was working for a Polish newspaper in the mid-1950s when his editor dispatched him to India and, as a parting gift, gave him a copy of Herodotus’s Histories. The book spurred the young Kapuscinski’s imagination and virtually altered his view of time, space, and the contours of the past. It would become a decisive influence, he tells us, an introduction to politics, foreign places, the nature of tyranny, and the savagery of conflict between peoples, the stuff that became his subject matter.

It is both fitting and a little odd that Kapuscinski looked to Herodotus as an example. Where most of Kapuscinski’s books are relatively pared down, Herodotus’s gigantic work, which details the surge of the Persian Empire under Darius and Xerxes and their clashes with the Greeks (see 300 for the video-game version of one of these battles, at Thermopylae), is a sweeping compendium of anthropology, political science, folklore, and epic narration, among other things. Yet in Herodotus, Kapuscinski found a reflection of his own itineraries and passions. In the character of the Greek writer, Kapuscinski saw, well, a man much like himself—he doesn’t make the comparison, but it’s plain to see. To Kapuscinski, Herodotus is “the first globalist” and The Histories “world literature’s first great work of reportage.” Herodotus, he effuses, is “a reporter, an anthropologist, an ethnographer, a historian. And he is at the same time a typical wanderer, or, as others like him will later be called in medieval Europe, a pilgrim. But this wandering of his is no picaresque, carefree passage from one place to another. Herodotus’s journeys are purposeful—they are the means by which he hopes to learn about the world and its inhabitants, to gather the knowledge he will feel compelled, later, to describe.”

In other words, Herodotus was a wanderer on a mission. The original historian-reporter, his travels took him to Egypt and around the Mediterranean world because he had to see them for himself. Not much is known about him—his biography is scanty on particulars. (He was born in Asia Minor around 485 bc and was a mover in Athenian circles.) Kapuscinski, undeterred, chummily speculates about his character, though some of this gets a little silly. (He is a “hail-fellow-well-met.”) More important, Kapuscinski was struck by “how, wherever he appeared, he instantly became the nucleus, or the mortar, of human community, putting it together, bringing it into being.” From Herodotus, Kapuscinski learned a lesson in how to insinuate oneself into different cultures.

Moving back and forth between accounts of his foreign postings over the years, an anthology’s worth of quotations from The Histories (too many, perhaps), and commentaries on his selections, Kapuscinski fashions a collage of literary reflection and travel writing. For a novice journalist, being suddenly catapulted from chilly Poland, just slightly thawing after the death of Stalin, to India was a bewildering experience, but an eager Kapuscinski pressed on full bore, determined to master its customs. He wondered whether Herodotus had reached India, all the while trying to get his head around his new surroundings. In Calcutta, he observed an extreme regimentation of labor: “This society was a pedantically, meticulously woven fabric of roles and assignments, classifications and purposes, and a great deal of experience, a profound knowledge and a keen intuition were required to penetrate and decipher the delicacies of its structure.” Further dispatched to China, Kapuscinski dismissed the Great Wall as a “sign of human weakness, of an aberration, of a horrifying mistake.” For him, it represented a defeat of the cosmopolitan spirit he saw in Herodotus. Kapuscinski can be a stern critic, and his habit of opinionated generalization might make some uneasy. (He doesn’t do much to situate the Great Wall in its historical context, for example.) Conceding that Asia was unmasterable, he concluded that it was not for him and, in the early ’60s, began to take an interest in Africa, the continent that would consume him for much of his life: “The civilizations of India and China and the great steppes,” he writes, “were for me colossi, and even to imagine drawing near to any one of them required a lifetime of study—one could scarcely hope to know them all well. Africa, on the other hand, struck me as more fragmentary, differentiated, miniaturized by its multiplicity, and thus more graspable, approachable.”

There is a certain shapelessness to Travels with Herodotus, which was published in Poland three years ago. It is a loosely structured, meandering book. We catch up with Kapuscinski in Khartoum, where he took in a Louis Armstrong concert, in the Congo, and later in Iran, where he journeyed to Persepolis, an ancient city built by Darius III. Though Kapuscinski has written a partial memoir, he obsessively returns to Herodotus and his chronicles. Sometimes the liberal use of quotation drowns out Kapuscinski himself, but it’s interesting, given that it’s been alleged that he was something of a fabulist, to note the special attention he pays to Herodotus’s methods. Commenting on the tendency of Herodotus to play up the provocative and the incredible, Kapuscinski slyly remarks that the crafty historian “respects the laws of the narrative marketplace: to sell well, a story must be interesting, must contain a bit of spice, something sensational, something to send a shiver up one’s spine.”

It’s hardly a surprise that The Histories would become Kapuscinski’s go-to book over the years of his foreign postings. In the conflict between the Persians and the Greeks, he saw eternal lessons about the nature of history, collisions between East and West, and much else. As he brilliantly notes, Herodotus “knows to what great degree a man’s way of thinking and his decision making are determined by an inner realm of spirits, dreams, anxieties, and premonitions.” The Histories is heavy on bloodbaths and the wholesale annihilation of civilizations motivated by revenge, which Herodotus identifies as one of the driving forces of history. Violence is a constant. To be sure, the atrocities he describes are hair-raising: For example, when Darius takes Babylon after a siege, he crucifies nearly three thousand of its leading citizens. For Herodotus, the primary act of the historian should be to attempt to answer the question of “who . . . first undertook criminal acts of aggression.” Writes Kapuscinski, “Having this question as to precedence in mind makes it easier to negotiate the tangled and intricate twists and turns of history, to explain to ourselves what forces and events set it in motion.” Historians may quibble with Kapuscinski’s dabbling in historiography, yet his enthusiasm for Herodotus and his world is charming, if repetitive. Like all of Kapuscinski’s works, Travels with Herodotus is deeply personal and highly subjective (at times, it feels like a diary). If a bit self-serving, it is still the work of an optimist. For a man who witnessed and reported on a great deal of violence and misery in his travels, this is no small feat.

Matthew Price is a frequent contributor to Bookforum.