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Book Review: Travels with Herodotus by Ryszard Kapuściński

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Before his death in January of this year, Ryszard Kapuściński was often mentioned as a possible candidate for the Nobel Prize in Literature. Yet Kapuściński wrote almost no literature in the conventional sense. He was, first and foremost, a journalist – and how could a reporter deserve the most coveted international award in literature? But to mistake Kapuściński for your common garden variety journalist would be akin to confusing Herman Munster for Herman Melville. As Salman Rushdie has noted: "One Kapuściński is worth more than a thousand whimpering and fantasizing scribblers.”

During his long career with the Polish Press Agency, Kapuściński covered some twenty-seven revolutions and coups in various parts of the Third World. But his fame rests more on his book-length accounts of regimes in collapse, including The Emperor, his intimate depiction of the fall of Ethiopian ruler Haile Selassie, and Shah of Shahs, which did the same for Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the last Shah of Iran. Now his final book, Travels with Herodotus, has been made available in English and will serve to solidify the posthumous reputation of this modern master of reportage.

Herodotus of Halicarnassus (present day Bodrum in Turkey) is often lauded as the “Father of History,” but he too was a reporter of sorts. His famous work, The History, might (as Kapuściński points out) just as well be called “The Investigation” or “The Inquiry,” and its loosely organized structure makes ample room for gossip, rumors, innuendoes, first hand observations, and notes from various interviews and meetings. Put simply, Herodotus was a historian who spent little time in libraries and archives. Instead, he did his research on the road, and his wanderings throughout Europe, Asia Minor, and North Africa in the 5th century BC were comparable to the similar journeys Kapuściński would undertake almost 2,500 years later.

In Travels with Herodotus, Kapuściński interweaves episodes from his career as a reporter with the great historian’s accounts of the ancient world, culminating in the dramatic 5th century BC conflict between Greece and Persia. Although Kapuściński clearly sees himself as a modern Herodotus, he avoids grand comparisons and constantly depicts himself in modest terms, emphasizing his confusion and ignorance in the face of the cultures and traditions he confronted during his career. Indeed, Kapuściński makes no room for pride or vanity in these pages. By the same token, this account brings Herodotus down to earth, and presents the “Father of History” in simple human terms.

There are few comparable guides to this essential ancient writer and certainly none so beguiling. I once tried introducing my son to these vital chapters in ancient history through John White’s (hundred year old) The Boys' and Girls' Herodotus, but I gave up in despair at the user-unfriendly prose. Kapuściński’s book, in contrast, is artfully written, well paced, and full of insights. Although not explicitly written for teenagers, Kapuściński’s book comes across as an old sage’s advice to the young (or young at heart).

Since Kapuściński’s death, his reputation has been tarnished by allegations that he was a spy for the Polish secret police during the late 1960s and early 1970s. At one point in his book, he explores the possibility that Herodotus was a spy and used his travels to gather intelligence. But of his own involvement in espionage, Kapuściński remains silent. It is a shame that the he did not use the occasion of this autobiographical work to set the record straight. The frank, confessional tone of the book would have made it an ideal setting to broach such topics.

In truth, it is hard to reconcile the image of Kapuściński the spy with the open, warm-hearted narrator depicted in these pages. As Kapuściński points out, Herodotus succeeded in his inquiries because he inspired the trust and confidence of those around him. The same can be said of the author of Travels with Herodotus, who imparts a human dimension to every scene. Readers certainly have many other options if they are seeking history lessons or guides to current events, but few with the magic and intimacy of this rich work.

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About Ted Gioia

  • This article has been selected for syndication to Advance.net , which is affiliated with newspapers around the United States, and to Boston.com. Nice work!

  • James Carson

    “Artfully written, well-paced and full of insights.” – not unlike your review. I look forward to reading the book. Many thanks for highlighting it.