Kapuscinski - Travels with HerodotusTravels with Herodotus by Ryszard Kapuscinski

Penguin Books

“A journey, after all, neither begins in the instant we set out, nor ends when we have reached our doorstep once again.”

Ryszard Kapuscinski is one of the most celebrated and controversial journalists and authors of the second half of the last century.   Famous for his books on Ethiopia, Iran and Russia, it seems impossible to give an account of his long career without repeating that he had witnessed 27 coups and revolutions. 

Kapuscinski died in 2007 and Travels with Herodotus was his final book.  In Travels, we encounter Kapuscinski in Cold War Poland as a young journalist for whom the outside world was a fairy-tale.  Before his first foreign assignment to India, the young Kapuscinski is given a copy of The Histories by his editor.    

So begins a journey following Kapuscinski’s own travels as he reports from around the globe intertwined with his own pursuit of Herodotus through the pages of The Histories.  For KapuscinskiHerodotus becomes part companion and part patron saint of foreign correspondents through whom Kapuscinski articulates/formulates his own theory of reportage by celebrating Herodotus’ spirit of inquiry.

Giving the keynote speech at the Lettre Ulysses Award for the Art of Reportage in 2003, Kapuscinski hailed Herodotus as “my first reporter, our father and master, the forerunner of a genre” and The Histories as an “exemplary specimen of reportage” in which the three sources of reportage could be found: travel, people and the reporter’s homework (“reading what has been written and endures in texts, inscriptions, or graphic symbols”).

This last source is important for Kapuscinski as it “shows us how to be investigative and precise”.  Kapuscinski notes that Herodotus was well-read and that “he also deciphered inscriptions and symbols on temples and town walls.  Everything was important, potentially able to reveal a message or a new meaning”

Returning from his first foreign assignment to India, Kapuscinski recalls that he “returned from this journey, embarrassed at how ill-read [he] was” and through this “failure” set about reading voraciously about the places he was to visit realising that he needed to prepare “thoroughly and at length for such an encounter”:

With each new title I read, I felt as if I were undertaking a new journey to India, recalling places I had visited and discovering new depths and aspects, fresh meanings, of things which earlier I had assumed I knew.  These journeys were much more multidimensional than my original one.  I discovered also that these expeditions could be further prolonged, repeated, augmented by reading more books, studying maps, looking at paintings and photographs.  What is more, they had a certain advantage over the actual trip – in an iconographic journey such as this, one could stop at any point, calmly observe, rewind to the previous image etc, something for which on a real journey there is neither the time nor the chance.”

In his preparation and reading Kapuscinski was able to experience a more layered and multidimensional journey and so reveals an attraction of reading travel literature – to supplement the physical journey and to provide the mental tools to unlock meanings and messages where mere observation may not succeed.

This thorough preparation may also have fuelled Kapuscinski’s “literary reportage” for which his books have fuelled controversy.  

Kapuscisnki made no secret of the fact that he found the language of conventional journalism  to be inadequate “when confronting the rich, varied, colourful, ineffable reality of [third world] cultures, customs and beliefs.”  

In an interview with Bill Buford for Granta in 1987, Kapuscinski explained that “It’s not that the story 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 thousands and thousands of elements that are part of the events you read about in 600 words of your morning paper.”

To avoid areas of reality being rendered “beyond the sphere of description”, Kapuscinski unapologetically “blurred genres”, taking as his cue Capote, Mailer and  Garcia Marquez, whose work he noted “straddles the border of fiction and press chronicle”.   The result, “is the creative result of a combination of two different manners and techniques of communicating and describing”.  

Kapuscinski has been criticised for his lack of accuracy.  For some, his writing was “tinged with magical realism”, while for others he was just making things up.  

This was not just carelessness.  Kapuscinski kept two note books (whether metaphorically or literally); one for his journalism and the other for his literary reportage and he was amused by critical complaints of his work: 

Kapuscinski never mentions dates, Kapuscinski never gives us the name of the minister, he has forgotten the order of events.  All that, of course, is exactly what I avoid.  If those are the questions that you want answered, you can visit your local library, where you will find everything you need:  the newspapers of the time, the reference books, a dictionary.”

Although writing where “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; with the techniques and manners of fiction” may not be regarded as “straight journalism”, it can make great travel writing.  

Paradoxically, however, despite praising Herodutus’ inquiring style and precision in Travels, the book’s central conceit may just be a literary device rather than biographical fact.  It has been noted that one will search in vain for references to Herodotus elsewhere in Kapuscinski’s work, which could be considered odd if Herodotus had been Kapuscinski’s life long companion and mentor (Bissell).   

Sara Wheeler’s review of Travels with Herodotus for the Guardian is here.  Tom Bissell’s New York Times review is here, while Tahir Shah’s review for the Washington Post is here, and Jason Burke’s for the Literary Review is here.

For an in-depth discussion of Kapuscinski’s work and where reportage ends and literature begins featuring Kapuscinski’s biographer, Artur Domoslawski, at a Frontline Club event, see here:

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