The books of Ryszard Kapuscinski, who died after a heart attack in January, have always been baffling to categorize; and now, in his last work, Travels with Herodotus, he offers a meditation on the ancient Greek historian, quoting lavishly from The Histories (the English edition uses the translation of Robin Waterfield), interspersed with his own experiences as a journalist, mainly in Africa, over some forty years. It reads by turns as a pious tribute, a fragmentary autobiography, and an extended credo.
In 1955, when he first encountered The Histories, Kapuscinski was a novice reporter on Poland’s Sztandar Ml/odych (“The Banner of Youth”). He had already lived through horrors. In Imperium, his study of the collapsing Soviet Union, he has written about his childhood in the Polish town of Pinsk, overrun by Soviet troops after Stalin’s secret pact with Hitler in 1939. As a seven-year-old boy he glimpsed the railway carriages carrying their deported human freight eastward. Classmates and neighbors disappeared one by one. His father—a Polish officer—vanished into the night. Hunger came with the winter.
In Travels with Herodotus he barely touches on this childhood, only remembers sitting on the crowded benches of Warsaw University, trying to learn ancient history, with the city in ruins around him. But it is hard not to see his passion for extreme experience, his obsession with tyrannies, his questing into the nature of human injustice, as rooted in early trauma.
Travels with Herodotus begins at a different watershed, just before his first assignment abroad, when his editor in chief gives him a farewell gift: an edition of The Histories at last available (Stalin is dead) in Polish translation. The young journalist carries it with him to India. He is callow and frightened. He had asked to be posted abroad, but had imagined he might be sent to Czechoslovakia. He cannot speak English, let alone any language of the Indian subcontinent. He does not know what to do, cannot file any coherent report. Soon afterward he is assigned to China, where he is monotonously supervised by the authorities, and leaves in confusion.
From both places the recollections recorded here are thin and avowedly naive. Of India, he writes that what “I perceived all around me were merely external signs, images, symbols, of a vast and varied world of hidden beliefs, ideas about which I knew nothing.” Later he would excel, above all, in the significant detail, the nuance that others missed. But here, in the nature of far-remembered things, it is precisely the richness of detail that is lost, and these chapters are most comfortably read not as evocations of Peking or Benares but as essays in frustration and ignorance. The stranded reporter realizes the complex immensity of the civilizations that surround him. Their forms of writing tease him unbearably. His passages on Chinese or Hindu thought or metaphysics are elegant but cursory and unoriginal. He teeters on the edge of stereotype (with some embarrassing clichés about Chinese inscrutability). Reduced …