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The Credo of a Great Reporter

Travels with Herodotus

by Ryszard Kapuscinski, translated from the Polish by Klara Glwczewska
Knopf, 275 pp., $25.00

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 to book learning, these early travels are the reverse of everything Kapuscinski was later to advocate and exemplify: lived experience—the need to be there—as the catalyst of thought. He remarks that years later Africa would exert its appeal partly through the continent’s very fragmentation: it is somehow more manageable than Asia, whose monolithic civilizations bewilder and intimidate him.

This, of course, was the experience of a raw young man from an enclosed Eastern Europe. He carries his provincialism, even his paranoia, with him, like an inherited curse. And he is slow to shed it, so that even in later chapters, on the Sudan and Nasser’s Egypt, he translates the sedentary, watchful habits of the people into ubiquitous police surveillance.

Ironically, he was himself to become officially an informer. In late May this year the Polish edition of Newsweek exposed his collaboration with his nation’s secret police between 1967 and 1972. The autobiographical chapters of Travels with Herodotus would have been the ideal site for him to confess this. Unfortunately he does not. But no one could suppose that his work abroad for PAP, the official Polish news agency, would have been permitted without such a liaison.

His situation, in fact, resembles that of the character Mahmud, the Iranian returnee whom he describes so feelingly in Shah of Shahs, his account of the overthrow of the last shah of Iran. Mahmud was asked to join the Rastakhiz, the Shah’s party:

When the visitors handed him a membership application, Mahmud replied that he had been apolitical all his life and did not intend to join. They looked at him dumfounded…. So they gave him a leaflet in which a statement of the Shah’s was printed in capital letters: THOSE WHO WILL NOT JOIN THE RASTAKHIZ PARTY ARE EITHER TRAITORS WHO BELONG IN PRISON OR PEOPLE WHO DO NOT BELIEVE IN THE SHAH….

Mahmud soon realized his mistake.

You have no choice,” his brother said. “We all belong! The whole nation has to belong as if it were a single man.” Mahmud went home, and when the activists returned next day he declared his allegiance to the party. Thus he became a warrior of the Great Civilization.

Nothing that Kapuscinski reported to his would-be masters, we gather, was of much interest to them. In fact his reports were carefully innocuous. He betrayed nobody. Later his books, especially The Emperor (on the fall of Ethiopia’s ruler Haile Selassie), were read in Poland as veiled allegories of the Communist regime, and in 1981 his working credentials were withdrawn under Jaruzelski’s martial law.

From the start Kapuscinski was pulling in another direction from the regime, and his self-identification with Herodotus, even if retrospectively refined (and with Kapuscinski you can never be sure), is a response to a generously open mind:

I began to feel something akin to warmth, even friendship, toward Herodotus. I actually became attached not so much to the book, as to its voice, the persona of its author. A complicated feeling, which I couldn’t describe….

What the two men shared most fully—across the divide of two and a half millennia—was a curiosity and passion for remote societies. They both loved the multiplicity of the world. Herodotus esteemed the civilizations of both Egypt and Persia (the arch-enemy) in his day, bringing back data that might puncture the insular superiority of the Greek culture. Kapuscinski, on his part, sometimes referred to the silva rerum, “the forest of things,” as his desired habitat: the sheer, dense variousness of the world, waiting to be deciphered. He also may have felt that he was generating perspectives that would mitigate the self-righteousness of the Soviet Bloc. Certainly he claimed that the best way to learn about your own culture was to study that of others.

Kapuscinski imagines this inquisitiveness first arising in a child playing by the seashore, then looking up to question the horizon (an echo, perhaps, of one explanation for Greek adventurousness: the beckoning presence of offshore islands). “It is a seldom encountered passion,” Kapuscinski writes, and adds with a much-simplified anthropology:

Man is by nature a sedentary creature; from the moment he began cultivating the land and left behind the perilous and uncertain existence of a hunter or gatherer, he settled down happily, naturally, on his particular patch of earth and fenced himself off from others with a wall or a ditch, prepared to shed blood, even give his life to defend what was his.

But he identifies in himself a feeling of wanting simply to cross the border. He longed to encounter difference. He calls it a psychological hunger, and perhaps it can be so acute only when it is almost impossible. The crossing, he thought, would be a near-mystical experience, an end in itself.

Herodotus was born in Ionia, on the modern Turkish Aegean, perhaps in 484 BCE, in a Greek city-state overshadowed by Persia but open to the cultural traffic of the eastern Mediterranean. Ionia, famously, was the cradle of Greek philosophy, a place where rational thought held no threat of heresy. Herodotus seemed to carry this freedom with him. The Greek word for “Histories” translates more accurately as “Inquiries,” and he never saw the past as precisely educational, as did his successor Thucydides. Empires collapse, as they do for Kapuscinski, through the profound human failings of their rulers; but Herodotus lays these before his readers without moralizing or outrage. His accounts are often hedged about with circumspection. To the admiration of Kapuscinski, he continually flags the reliability (or otherwise) of his sources, issues warnings, and cites variant opinions.

At such times Kapuscinski’s identification with his hero veers into the wishful. The Polish writer is more partial than his ancient model. His descriptions are dense with unspoken opinion. They are ethically driven. Their very texture—sometimes their irony—makes our choices for us. But “I endowed him [Herodotus] with the appearance and traits I wished him to have,” Kapuscinski writes, and by inference he endows himself with these traits as well. So, in his mind, the two converged.

Certainly both men exemplify the value of personal encounters, Herodotus by necessity—he lived in a world of oral transmission—Kapuscinski (for all his preparatory research) by choice. He studied Herodotus’s encounters

precisely because so much of what we [reporters] write about derives from our relation to other people—I-he, I-they. That relation’s quality and temperature, as it were, have their direct bearing on the final text. We depend on others; reportage is perhaps the form of writing most reliant on the collective.

Working for an impoverished press agency, he writes, without benefit of the translators or technology of his foreign colleagues,

I walk, ask, listen, cajole, scrape and string together facts, opinions, stories. I don’t complain, because this method enables me to meet many people and find out about things not covered in the press or on the radio.

Kapuscinski understands how much more potent is the person whose life illustrates a tragedy, even inarticulately, than one who only supplies spoken information about it. Reticence sparks the imagination. He describes a journey he made in Ethiopia with a driver named Negusi: they had two words in common (“No problem”) and these two sufficed, he says, to close the chasm between them. Elsewhere he has imagined Herodotus working the same way, voicing his respect for another man. “He listens carefully to his heartbeat, and the way thoughts cross his mind….”1

Both Herodotus and Kapuscinski knew the frailty of human memory. Herodotus, like any reporter, relied on spoken accounts. His history, in effect, came secondhand. Subjectivity was impossible to strain out. “This has been the nature of the enterprise always,” writes Kapuscinski, “and the folly may be to believe one can resist it. This fact is perhaps Herodotus’s greatest discovery.” Simone Weil wrote that “only the past, when we abstain from re-concocting it, is pure reality.” Nobody brought up under the Soviets (or perhaps the Persian empire) could believe such abstention possible. “The past does not exist,” writes Kapuscinski. “There are only infinite renderings of it.” In one of those sudden insights at which he excelled—but of which there are too few in this book—Kapuscinski imagines the slaves who must have traveled with Herodotus, serving him later as living memories, walking encyclopedias.

Herodotus felt the need to record things before they were lost: to prevent the traces of human events from being erased by time. He, after all—“the Father of History”—was the first to attempt a description of the entire known world, and his archive of remembered stories must have been prodigious. Kapuscinski affects to feel this urgency too. He knows that nations, like people, lose their identity if they lose their history. But the task he conceives is different. Typically the events themselves are known (they have been cabled out by the press). It is their significance, their moral implications, that demand another voice.

Among the passages of greatest interest in Travels with Herodotus—such passages often have little to do with Herodotus—Kapuscinski recalls arriving in Algiers in 1965 to find that the coup d’état against its popular leader, Ben Bella, had occurred the night before. At first he feels he has nothing to witness, nothing to report. He is momentarily excited by two gathering crowds. Then he sees that one is gawking after a minor road accident, the other is waiting for a post office to open.

Slowly it dawns on him that he is on the wrong track, that the journalistic instinct to cover the world’s convulsions—“spectacular imagery”—is pre-empting other, less palpable things. He wonders instead:

What do these scenes of destruction, replete with shouts and blood, mean to express? What forces—subcutaneous and invisible, yet powerful and unrestrainable—brought them about? Are these scenes the end or beginning of something, portents of tensions and conflicts still to come? And who will monitor them? We, the correspondents and reporters? No. The dead will barely have been buried, the wrecks of incinerated cars will have just been cleared away and the streets swept of the broken glass, and we will have already packed our bags and moved on, to where others are burning cars, shattering shop windows, and digging graves for the fallen.

Unable to write about the violence—he had seen none—he went in search of the “background and the wellspring” of the Algerian coup, its subtle and less quickly identifiable signs: “to try to determine what lay behind it and what it signified; to talk, to observe people and places, and to read—in short, to try to understand.”

Elsewhere Kapuscinski has suggested that his more reflective writing was a reaction against the speed and banality of the press agency journalism in which he was routinely employed:

Once I had sent the cable, I was always left with a feeling of inadequacy. I had only covered the political event, and not really conveyed the deeper, and, I felt, truer nature of what was going on…. It is not the story that is not getting expressed: it’s what surrounds the story. The climate, the atmosphere of the street, the feeling of the people, the gossip of the town, the smell; the thousand, thousand elements of reality that are part of the event you read about in 600 words in your morning paper.2

Such notions point him away from investigative journalism toward the more flexible tradition of travel writing (a largely British domain)—or even fiction.

The everyday language of information that we use in the media is very poor, stereotypical and formulaic,” he has said.

For this reason, huge areas of reality are then rendered beyond the sphere of description…. I looked for answers in the writings of Truman Capote, Norman Mailer and Gabriel Garcìa Márquez, whose work straddles the border of fiction and press chronicle. They introduced the term “New Journalism,” “Nuevo periodismo.” By this, they meant the kind of writing in which descriptions of real events, true stories and accidents are supplemented with the writer’s personal opinions and reactions, and often with fictional asides to add colour….3

The “fictional asides to add colour” have got him into trouble, of course; but (in subtle self-defense, perhaps) he infers that Herodotus too “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.” Herodotus, one remembers, was also called “the Father of Lies,” and Kapuscinski has been accused of outright fantasy. In a now-notorious example from Imperium, he describes how in the extreme cold of northeast Siberia a passer-by, long after he has gone, leaves a man-shaped corridor behind him in the shining mist. The person vanishes, yet this passageway remains, like a silhouette. But this fallacy is in fact told to Kapuscinski by a nine-year-old girl. It is her fairy tale, not his. And it remains a memorably beautiful image of the Siberian cold.

More serious are the lapses with recorded facts. Kapuscinski’s insights emerge from specific data, and when he mistakes it, mistrust arises. In Imperium, near the Gulag town of Vorkuta, he describes a scattering of crudely labeled stakes and imagines each one to mark a mass sepulcher. In fact they are the graves of individuals. Africanists have claimed that his writing contains a host of errors.

Yet Kapuscinski’s sensitivity—his ear and eye—preserved him from wider misapprehensions. Whatever his artifice, his convictions rose out of an observer’s instinct, the raw nerve-ends of understanding, which combine with the frequent beauty of his writing to create a piercing sensation of truth.

The problems with Travels with Herodotus are not those of accuracy but of their author’s unstinting passion for his great mentor. He recycles the familiar stories as if The Histories were as new to Western readers as they once were to the deprived Polish youth on his way east. It is easy to imagine Kapuscinski in India or China, clutching the wondrous volume, translated into his own tongue, like the talisman of an Asia more accessible than the surrounding ghats or hutongs.

Kapuscinski’s response to Herodotus’ great narratives—Darius’ invasion of Scythia, Xerxes’ invasion of Greece—is habitually couched in repetitive questions, speculating where the narratives are silent. But the questions are wondering and rhetorical rather than probing. Sometimes they seem naive. After recounting Herodotus’ graphic story of how the Greek Hegesistratus freed himself from the stocks by cutting off half his foot, Kapuscinski labors on: “How did he stanch the blood? Did he not faint from exhaustion during the flight? From thirst? From pain? Did he not feel himself on the verge of madness? Would he not have seen ghosts? Was he not plagued by hallucinations? Apparitions? Vampires? And did the wound not get infected? After all, he had to scrape that stump over the ground…” and so on. He takes The Histories almost entirely on trust. Even the hoary tale of Croesus—the Lydian king who, with all his riches, comes to grief—he accepts literally, despite the caveats of scholars and the fact that it reads like a Sophoclean play.

Usually Kapuscinski records the stories for sheer love of them, their drama, their strangeness. But he has a problem relating them to his own experience. They are interpolated seemingly at random, usually unconnected even by geography to his own travels. But Kapuscinski’s readers are so used to his reports carrying some tense charge of significance—this, after all, is their magic—that its absence baffles. Sometimes, too, the beauty of his style—that limpid economy—deserts him, even in the translation of his faithful mediator, Klara Główczewska. A clumsiness creeps in, and old-fashioned mannerisms (characteristic triads of adjectives) with a sense of labor.

In the chapters on his own experience abroad, however, there are flashes of the old fire. On a street in the anarchic Congo he describes the appearance of two policemen—walking arsenals—who may, or may not, kill him. He cannot run; there is nowhere to go. Here foreigners are easy game. Now, as he walks toward them, he imagines the swathes of world history behind this encounter: the brutal slave traders, the plantation bosses, the cruelties of King Leopold’s myrmidons. What will happen? Then, from one of the armored robots, there issues a humble voice: “Monsieur, avez-vous une cigarette, s’il vous plaît?

Earlier, in 1979, the year of revolution in Iran, he reaches the ruined palace of Persepolis, seat of Persia’s ancient kings. Climbing its famous ceremonial staircase, carved with the bas-reliefs of guards beside each step, he has the unnerving sensation of standing still. Each guard hands him on, as it were, to the one above; but each carving, carrying its regulation spear, is identical to the last, so that his ascent creates a paradoxical impression of immobility. This is not art appreciation in the classic tradition, but the response of an acutely delicate, visceral sensibility.

And here are the insects interfering with Kapuscinski’s evening reading on the Senegalese island of Goree:

The instant you light the lamp, the darkness comes to life and billowing swarms of insects begin to move closer. The most excited and inquisitive specimens, seeing a brightness before them, rush blindly in its direction, slam their heads against the burning bulb, and fall dead to the ground. Others, still only half-awake, circle more cautiously, although unceasingly, tirelessly, as if the light infused them with a kind of inexhaustible energy…. But the greatest obstacle to reading are certain moths, which, apparently alarmed and irritated by something about human eyes, try to cluster around and cover them, papering them over with their dark grey, fleshy wings.

Whatever light Travels with Herodotus sheds on Kapuscinski’s way of working, it offers no insight into his personal life. This he never wittingly did. His identification with Herodotus may seem superficially grandiose, yet it comes over rather as affectionate and a little lonely. In a passage that veers most nearly to the personal, he imagines Herodotus, or “creatures like him”—and there is little doubt to whom he is referring—as sponge-like but chronically restless, forever ingesting events, regions, peoples, then spewing them out again:

Such people, while useful, even agreeable, to others, are, if the truth be told, frequently unhappy—lonely in fact…. They do not grow attached to anything, do not put down deep roots. Their empathy is sincere, but superficial. If asked which of the countries they have visited they like best

—and one can almost hear the question coming from an audience after one of Kapuscinski’s (or Herodotus’) recitations—

they are embarrassed—they do not know how to answer. Which one? In a certain sense—all of them. There is something compelling about each. To which country would they like to return once more? Again, embarrassment—they had never asked themselves such a question. The one certainty is that they would like to be back on the road, going somewhere.

  1. 1

    Herodotus and the Art of Noticing,” Lettre Ulysses Award Keynote Speech, 2003.

  2. 2

    Interview with Bill Buford, Granta 21.

  3. 3

    Herodotus and the Art of Noticing.”

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