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Travels with Herodotus (Vintage International)by Ryszard Kapuscinski
Several months ago, I happened upon a copy of The Shadow of the Sun. From its opening pages, I understood why I'd been hearing such laudatory praise about Ryszard Kapuściński for years — here was some of the most astonishing travel writing I'd ever encountered. Copy-whole-passages-into-a-notebook astonishing. So it was with no small excitement that I sought out Travels with Herodotus, in which Kapuściński recounts his first excursions beyond the Iron Curtain, 50 years ago, to India and China, to Egypt and the Congo and Iran, toting a copy of Herodotus's Histories in-hand.
Herodotus wanted to know why cultures wage war against each other. The far roaming Greek writer was "the first to discover the world's multicultural nature," Kapuściński writes, "the first to argue that each culture requires acceptance and understanding, and that to understand it, one must first come to know it." As Kapuściński describes his own initial, awkward encounters with cultures utterly unlike his native Poland, Herodotus emerges as a journalistic model and moral compass, giving direction and purpose to the green writer's burgeoning body of work.
Herodotus is never shocked at difference, never condemns it; rather, he tries to learn about it and describe it. Difference? It serves by some paradox only to emphasize a greater oneness, speaking to its vitality and richness.The result is stunning. Travels offers both a compulsively readable portrait of Kapuściński's formative years and a timeless commentary on international conflict.
Recommended by Dave, Powells.com
Synopses & Reviews
From the master of literary reportage whose acclaimed books include Shah of Shahs, The Emperor, and The Shadow of the Sun, an intimate account of his first youthful forays beyond the Iron Curtain.
Just out of university in 1955, Kapuscinski told his editor that he'd like to go abroad. Dreaming no farther than Czechoslovakia, the young reporter found himself sent to India. Wide-eyed and captivated, he would discover in those days his life's work — to understand and describe the world in its remotest reaches, in all its multiplicity. From the rituals of sunrise at Persepolis to the incongruity of Louis Armstrong performing before a stone-faced crowd in Khartoum, Kapuscinski gives us the non-Western world as he first saw it, through still-virginal Western eyes.
The companion on his travels: a volume of Herodotus, a gift from his first boss. Whether in China, Poland, Iran, or the Congo, it was the "father of history" — and, as Kapuscinski would realize, of globalism — who helped the young correspondent to make sense of events, to find the story where it did not obviously exist. It is this great forerunner's spirit — both supremely worldly and innately Occidental — that would continue to whet Kapuscinski's ravenous appetite for discovering the broader world and that has made him our own indispensable companion on any leg of that perpetual journey.
"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,... Washington Post Book Review (read the entire Washington Post review) 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' 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.'" Reviewed by H.W. BrandsRon CharlesMarilynne RobinsonTahir Shah, Washington Post Book World (Copyright 2006 Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group)
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"Kapucinski's rapture is contagious... In this dramatic telling by one of modernity's ablest chroniclers, Herodotus stands for democracy, openness, and tolerance. The same can be said of the equally enigmatic, and certain to be missed, author." Lawrence Osborne, Men's Vogue
"A final gift, a call to wander widely and see deeply." Patrick Symmes, Outside
"An apt concluding chapter to Kapucinski's corpus, an attempt by a consummate observer to account for the route traced by his own life via the great Greek traveler and proto-historian. The two men, separated by 2 millenniums, shared a compulsive, openhearted curiosity... Who better to write about a man who could not sit still than a man who could not get still?" Ben Ehrenreich, Los Angeles Times Book Review
"Extraordinary... Punctuated by wonder." Elizabeth Speller, Financial Times
"Personally revealing... Kapucinski is not often didactic and never triumphalist. His luminous narratives are filled with odd juxtapositions and the ambiguities of real experience... Like Herodotus, Ryszard Kapucinski was a reporter, a historian, an adventurer and, truly, an artist." Matthew Kaminski, The Wall Street Journal
About the Author
Ryszard Kapuscinski, Poland's most celebrated foreign correspondent, was born in 1932 in Pinsk (in what is now Belarus) and spent four decades reporting on Asia, Latin America, and Africa. He is also the author of Imperium, Another Day of Life, and The Soccer War. His books have been translated into twenty-eight languages. Kapuscinski died in 2007.
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