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A Modern Aesop

Travels with Herodotus by Ryszard Kapuscinski Reviewed by G.W. Bowersock
The New Republic Online

Ryszard Kapuciski died earlier this year at the height of his powers. Beginning as a local reporter for the Polish newspaper Sztandar Modych, or The Banner of Youth, he rose to international eminence with his reports from many of the most turbulent places on the planet, and at the age of seventy-four, when he died, he was universally acknowledged to be as great a writer as a reporter. He was a journalist like no other, an incomparable observer whose literary brilliance transformed his reporting into something like the magical realism of fiction -- into magical realist non-fiction, which in some ways has an even greater sting.

Emerging from the stifling repression of communist Poland in the 1950s, Kapuciski took up assignments in India, China, East Asia, sub-Saharan Africa, and Latin America. After his tour in China he switched employers and joined the Polish Press Agency, which gathered news and intelligence from all parts of the world. Amid so many alien cultures, Kapuciski saw not only what was happening abroad, but also what the West needed to know. With the instincts of a novelist and an allusive style forged under the eyes of Polish censors, he wrote with equal facility about Soviet penal colonies, the fall of the Shah of Iran, the court of Haile Selassie (in an amazing book called The Emperor), and a bloody conflict between Honduras and El Salvador over soccer.

In 2004 Kapuciski published the last and perhaps the most unusual of all his books, Travels With Herodotus. This is a work that is full of autobiographical reflections, therefore highly personal -- and yet it is no less full of historiographical reflections about the Greek "father of history" that constantly keep the reader at a distance from Kapuciski himself. This double engine of autobiography and classical reading generates an almost Brechtian effect of alienation. In the end we learn relatively little about either Kapuciski or Herodotus, though the oscillation from one to the other generates the kind of enchantment that only magic kingdoms can create. And yet it is Kapuciski's premise that there is no Shangri-La. Although everything is exotic, it is frequently barbaric. Kapuciski's foreigners are as inscrutable and as merciless as those in Herodotus. The question that keeps arising is why we should be reading now about all these strange peoples, separated by two and a half millennia.

The author himself is the common denominator, of course. It is he who experienced the bewildering cultures of India, China, and Africa, as they are described in this book, and it is he who is assiduously reading Herodotus in all those disparate places. The ostensible reason for this conjunction is that when Kapuciski received his first assignment as a journalist outside Poland, his supervisor presented him with a copy of Herodotus for reading along the way. The gift proved to be portentous. Kapuciski would have us believe that he kept company with Herodotus throughout his journeys for more than two decades after his first trip abroad in 1956. Just as he begins with the assignment that first took him beyond the borders of Poland, he begins at the same time with the opening of Herodotus's investigations. In a dazzling manipulation of narrative structure, he traverses the ancient historian's world in tandem with his own travels. The Massagetae and the Scythians stand side by side with the Indonesians, the Congolese, and the Iranians, and we move seamlessly from a concert by Louis Armstrong in Khartoum to the storming of Babylon by Darius the Great. With unerring instinct, Kapuciski brings his own story to an end just as he takes us through the grand finale of Herodotus, with its account of the Greek defeat of the Persian invaders under Xerxes. In the last pages we are artfully transported to Bodrum in modern Turkey, which just happens to be the site of ancient Halicarnassus, the home of Herodotus.

Kapuciski romanticizes Herodotus in a traditionally European way. Since the historian is imagined to have come from "a land of sun, warmth, and light, of olive trees and vineyards," Kapuciski cannot resist the idea that "someone born here must naturally have a good heart, an open mind, a healthy body, a consistently cheerful disposition." He thinks that Herodotus, as a child of his culture and his climate, sat at hospitable tables "in large groups of a warm evening to eat cheese and olives, drink cool wine, converse." This is Goethe's Kennst du das Land, wo die Zitronen blühn? -- "Do you know the country where the lemon trees bloom?" -- but with a Greek referent and a Polish accent.

Kapuciski asks us to believe that the events described by Herodotus so absorbed him when he was in the Congo "that at times I experienced the dread of the approaching war between the Greeks and the Persians more vividly than I did the events of the current Congolese conflict, which I was assigned to cover." Yet this is a conflict that Kapuciski himself characterizes by "frequent eruption of gunfights, the constant danger of arrest, beatings, and death, and the pervasive climate of uncertainty, ambiguity, and unpredictability." He says that "the absolute worst could happen here at any moment and in any place." Did all that really pale before the Persian Wars?

One may question whether Kapuciski was really reading Herodotus all the time he was covering the trouble spots of the globe for the more than twenty years chronicled in this book. Yet he is clearly concerned to impress upon his reader the impact that Herodotus had upon him, and to draw, by the constant collocation with himself, a parallel. We have to wonder what the point of this exercise is. Kapuciski drops important clues as he goes along. The first is his emphasis on the international scope of Herodotus's inquiries. (It is worth remembering that the Greek word historiê for this particular historian means "inquiry" or "investigation," rather than what we would call history.) For Kapuciski, Herodotus "enters the stage as a visionary on a world scale, an imagination capable of encompassing planetary dimensions -- in short, as the first globalist." A little later, multiculturalism is added to globalism as part of Herodotus's baggage. This multiculturalism "was a living, pulsating tissue in which nothing was permanently set or defined, but which continually transformed itself, mutated, gave rise to new relationships and contexts." And from Herodotus the globalist and Herodotus the multiculturalist we move next to Herodotus the journalist: "How did he work, i.e., what interested him, how did he approach his sources, what did he ask them, what did they say in reply? I was quite consciously trying to learn the art of reportage, and Herodotus struck me as a valuable teacher."

Finally, toward the end of his book, Kapuciski opens up something quite different in Herodotus. When asked what struck him most about the Greek history, he replies, "I answer that it is its tragic dimension." This leads him to a comparison with Herodotus's contemporaries -- Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides. And comparisons with drama and myth lead straight to the fundamental problem of sorting out history from fiction. Herodotus discovered long ago, says Kapuciski, that "people remember what they want to remember, not what actually happened." Accordingly, "getting through to the past itself, the past as it really was, is impossible....The past does not exist. There are only infinite renderings of it." This explicit repudiation of the old ideal of objectivity about history, of Ranke's wie es eigentlich gewesen ("as it really was"), encapsulates the lessons that Kapuciski draws from Herodotus as he understands him.

Not everyone has read Herodotus this way, as an early hero of subjectivity and relativism. Some have seen him as the first anthropologist, giving the results of his field work among alien peoples such as the Egyptians or the Scythians. But at the same time he brought his work to a triumphalist conclusion with the Greeks' resounding defeat of the Persians. There was nothing relativist about that. For Herodotus it really did happen, and it was important. The very directness of his reportage is an impediment to Kapuciski's view of him. Herodotus often says he cannot vouch for the accuracy of what he reports, though he reports it all the same -- but when he can be sure, he tells us what happened. Such transparent reportage poses a problem for Kapuciski -- and may, in the end, explain why his Herodotus is made to look increasingly like Kapuciski himself.

In the opening pages of his book, before we hear of the fateful gift from his supervisor, Kapuciski recalls that he attended the lectures on ancient Greece by Professor Izabela Bieuska-Maowist at Warsaw University in 1951. He found no trace of Herodotus in what he describes as his "careful notes" on these lectures, but he assumes that the Greek must have made a momentary appearance. It happens that I knew Bieuska-Maowist, a superb and widely admired scholar. Perhaps Kapuciski missed a lecture or two in those dark days at the university, but we can have no doubt that Herodotus appeared significantly in that course in Warsaw. Even if the city lay in ruins, as Kapuciski says, and libraries had gone up in flames, Bieuska-Maowist knew her Herodotus well and would have given him the prominence that he deserved, even with due regard for the ever-vigilant secret police.

In beginning as he does, Kapuciski wants to draw attention to the suppression of the Polish translation of Herodotus that Seweryn Hammer had made in the mid-1940s and deposited with the Czytelnik publishing house. He knows that the text had been sent to the typesetter in the autumn of 1951, but the book did not actually appear until the end of 1954, after Stalin's death. He assumes that a Polish censor had blocked its publication, and hence, when the translation came into his hands just before he left the country in 1956, he at last had access to this forbidden fruit. Kapuciski suggests that Herodotus had been suppressed "because all our thinking, our looking and reading, was governed during those years by an obsession with allusion." Every word had "a double meaning, a false bottom, a hidden significance."

I must say that reading the text of Herodotus as a text "utterly different from what was clearly written" takes a colossal effort on the part of someone reared outside a totalitarian regime. Herodotus was the most direct and candid, if sometimes credulous, of all ancient historians. If there was one thing he was not, it was allusive for the purpose of conveying hidden meanings. Still, his tales of bloodthirsty tyrants and insatiable imperialist rulers could indeed be read as cautionary for a modern regime, and conceivably the Polish censors might have been fearful of the inspiration readers might draw from reading about Periander, Croesus, or Xerxes.

In an interview in 1997, Kapuciski acknowledged that he practiced Aesopian writing, by which he meant that one text served, rather like a fable by Aesop, as a means of conveying to knowledgeable readers a message about something else. His book on Haile Selassie, by his own admission, was "not about Ethiopia or Haile Selassie -- rather, it's about the Central Committee of the Communist Party." In taking Herodotus as his mentor and guide during his many travels as a journalist, he is both claiming for himself the Greek historian's multiculturalism and reporting style and, at the same time, imputing his own Aesopian methods to his ancient predecessor. Travels With Herodotus is a beguiling work in which Kapuciski undertakes to cleanse the ambivalence of his own journalism by examining it through the lens of his Greek predecessor. He wants his voice to be Herodotus's voice, and this is probably why he can say, "I actually became attached not so much to the book, as to its voice, the persona of its author." The identification of the two becomes even more pronounced when Kapuciski writes that Herodotus "decides, probably toward the end of his life, to write a book because he realizes that he has amassed such an enormous trove of stories and facts that unless he preserves them, they will simply vanish." This is exactly what Kapuciski chose to do near the end of his own life, and to validate his enterprise by the linkage with Herodotus.

But the Aesopian drive, which Herodotus utterly lacked, never left Kapuciski. Through the interleaved tales from Herodotean antiquity and his own travels there are clearly subtexts that any alert reader is bound to detect. Kapuciski clearly could not stop himself from including the kind of double meanings that were natural to a man who had grown up in a universe of repression and persecution. Consider his retelling of Darius's campaign against the Scythians, who, as Kapuciski says, loved the boundless space of the steppe. Their king told Darius that since they had neither cities nor farmland, they had nothing to defend, and therefore they saw no need to go into battle. Kapuciski accurately describes the resulting confusion of Darius as "the collision of two military styles, two structures." One is the monolithic organization of the Persians' regular army, whereas the other is "the loose, mobile, ever-shifting configurations of small tactical cells." The latter is "an amorphous army of shadows, of phantoms, of thin air." Kapuciski was writing after the invasion of Iraq by the so-called coalition of the willing, to which Poland provided a conspicuous contingent.

Again in retelling the story of Cyrus's invasion of the Massagetae, north of Iran along the Amu Darya, Kapuciski says that in sending first the most unfit and ill-equipped of his army against the Massagetae, "he is in effect condemning these people to death." Darius similarly used weak and ill-prepared troops as part of a pre-arranged conspiracy to break down the resistance of Babylon. After an initial wave in which a thousand men were easily annihilated, Darius sent another two thousand, who were decimated according to Darius's plan. The merciless exploitation of young soldiers was evidently another theme that appealed to Kapuciski's Aesopian instincts. As he remarks, "It is an interesting subject: superfluous people in the service of a brute power."

This interesting subject provokes reflections on spying as well as on warfare. Someone who is searching for significance in life can, according to Kapuciski, find life more meaningful if he works covertly for the authorities and thereby acquires "the comforting sense of immunity." In this way, "the dictatorial powers, meantime, have in him an inexpensive -- free, actually -- yet zealous and omnipresent agent-tentacle." Here is the psychology of all those who worked for the Stasi in East Germany or for Polish intelligence under the communists. Kapuciski is at his most Aesopian in this passage, since we now know that he himself worked as an intelligence agent for the Polish communists during the travels that he describes in this book. That is probably why he supposed that a man in Cairo who offered to show him a mosque had to have been an undercover agent. Since he thought that a visit to a mosque was preferable to a visit to the police station, he accepted the man's offer, only to be robbed after climbing a winding staircase to the top of the minaret. This episode, oddly reminiscent of Hitchcock's Vertigo, suggests that Kapuciski was more likely to imagine that a solicitous man in the street was a spy than a thief. That is highly revealing. It is also very unlike Herodotus.

What Kapuciski shares with Herodotus is his insatiable curiosity about other peoples and other cultures. If some readers of Herodotus have found him naïve in his uncritical registering of strange customs and tales, Kapuciski is naïve in the same way. He dares to pose questions that a more sophisticated writer would avoid. "What sort of a child is Herodotus?" he asks. "Does he smile at everyone and willingly extend his hand, or does he sulk and hide in the folds of his mother's garments?...What did a little Greek living two and a half thousand years ago play with? A scooter carved out of wood? Did he build sand castles at the edge of the sea?" This last question, which Kapuciski raises early in his book, proves to be portentous at the end, when he tries to explain Herodotus's (and doubtless his own) passion for travel and foreign peoples. "Where did this passion of Herodotus come from? Perhaps from the question that arose in a child's mind, the one about where ships come from. Children playing in the sand at the edge of a bay can see a ship suddenly appear far away on the horizon line and grow larger and larger as it sails toward them. Where did it originate? Most children do not ask themselves this question. But one, making castles out of sand, suddenly might."

The childlike wonder of Herodotus clearly appealed to Kapuciski, who cultivated it in himself as an antidote to all the Aesopian deviousness with which he grew up. Sometimes it rings hollow, as in the vacuous passages on olive trees and conversation under the Mediterranean sun. Sometimes it is worse than hollow, as when Kapuciski writes sympathetically about the recent theory of the Afro-Egyptian origins of Greek civilization. But at other times it has a startling clarity and power. Amid the collapse of colonial government in the Congo, when Belgian administrators were replaced by "a dark, deranged power, which most frequently assumed the guise of drunken Congolese military police," Kapuciski dares to say "how dangerous freedom is in the absence of hierarchy and order." As a Pole who grew up under communism, he must have thought often about the relation of hierarchy to freedom. When he comments on the dangers of freedom in the Congo, his words inevitably, and probably consciously, carry an Aesopian burden. But he says nothing about how the hierarchy and order that he wants should be imposed in order to allow freedom to flourish.

So ultimately this enchanting autobiography, in which a courageous and innovative journalist positions himself as a twentieth-century Herodotus, seems sadly superficial. It has the evanescence of a child's fantasy or a conjuring trick. Underneath its shimmering prose, in which Kapuciski interweaves tales from ancient Greece with the horrors of the modern world, beats the unquiet heart of a fundamentally decent man and an uncommonly gifted observer. In the end the reader fails to learn very much about him, and that was doubtless his intention. But he is an unforgettable companion, even if he shows himself to be no Herodotus. The old Greek, after all, had a tremendous story to tell: the first global conflict between East and West, and the Greeks' ultimate triumph over the Persian invader. History did not furnish Kapuciski with so satisfying a conclusion, or indeed with any conclusion at all.

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