Book Review

Tale of two storytellers: a review of Travels With Herodotus (Ryszard Kapuscinski)

by Chris Newens  |  Published February 3, 2015

Once upon a time, there were no travel websites. Go far enough back and there weren’t even any travel books. Stories of foreign lands and cultures were told orally. They were spoken across tables after dinner, around campfires late into the night, often told by guests looking to earn their keep.

It’s an image that has worked its way into the global consciousness: a circle of listeners, shadows beyond the orange glow of a fire, all with their eyes fixed on the storyteller; in whose own eyes — gimlet black and webbed by crows feet — there are galaxies of experience he is readying himself to share.

Ryszard Kapuściński spent his whole life being that storyteller, telling the tribe of his travels and the struggles of other lands. To see a photo of the Polish journalist is to look into a face we all implicitly know. It is a kind face, but more than that, it is a face marked by a rare empathy; it is the face of a man who has seen much — too much? — and has had the courage to let all of it in.

In Travels With Herodotus, his final major work, Kapuściński tells the story of his own life and travels intertwined with references to another great storyteller: the very first to take stories beyond the fireside and to write them down: Herodotus of Halicarnassus.

Kapuściński’s relationship with the Herodotus, we learn, began right at the beginning of his career. A fledgling reporter in Warsaw, Kapuściński was forever pestering his superiors to be sent on foreign assignment. His will to travel comes across as near innate: in his childhood, he says, even neighbouring villages seemed an exotic land. He requested posting to the strangest place he could imagine: Czechoslovakia. He was sent to India.

Guided by History

Before leaving on this first journey, Kapuściński was invited into his editor-in-chief’s office and presented with a book, ostensively because it had a section on the land he was travelling to. The book was The Histories by Herodotus: a masterful collection of historical incident, anthropology, and enough stories to give the Thousand and One Nights a run for its money. Despite what Herodotus had to say about India being over two thousand years out of date — and not always that accurate even in the time it was written: Herodotus’s India is a land where ants dig for gold — Kapuściński found in the Greek a perfect guide, at least in the art of how to travel, and the book remained a constant companion for the rest of his life.

How much we are supposed to believe in the details of this relationship is open to debate. The way Travels With Herodotus is framed, battles between Persians and Greeks are set up to resonate perfectly with the events of Kapuściński’s life. He is always reading the right bit at the right time and the juxtaposition between the two worlds adds breadth and depth to both. Like Herodotus, Kapuściński was seldom hesitant in bending facts to tell a better story, something he has been criticized for in the past: what should a journalist stand for if not the truth?

Travel Literature

Such critics miss the point. Likewise many of those who talk of Kapuściński’s ‘literary’ quality as though it were a surprise. A common feature of any Ryszard Kapuściński book is the way their covers are plastered in quotes from various big-name writers that here is journalism that can truly lay claim to being literature. Well, yes; but isn’t even just mentioning that fact a little condescending? James Joyce doesn’t get such treatment, there are no reassuring “This is literature” quotations beneath the blurb of Ulysses, it is accepted as fact. So should it be here.

Perhaps why so many critics do scrabble to brand Kapuściński a ‘literary’ writer is because he is so literary. The world as Kapuściński describes it pulses with interconnectedness and beauty. When he descends for the first time arriving in a plane over the bright lights of a Western city, flying from the darkness of communist Poland, his captivation and shock stand for the attitude of a whole culture. He is a master at building sentences and telling stories that make the reader’s mind take flight. Kapuściński is not merely a literary writer, he is almost incontinently so.

This is also a largely joyous book — unusual compared to the rest of Kapuściński’s oeuvre, which tends to deal in the darker shades of human nature. Here we are shown scenes of wonder from a travelling life, and given an appreciation of the kind of personality that it requires to make that kind of life possible.

For when Kapuściński writes of Herodotus he is writing about an idealised version of himself. The Greek who invented history is almost invisible within his own discipline, making him a cypher who can be almost anything we want. Kapuściński choses to see Herodotus as kind, wise, and intently curious man, someone who never passed judgement on the multitude of different cultures he met. Kapuściński’s Herodotus is the perfect traveller, to whom all of us should aspire.

And yet, more than their link as travellers, as journalists, as ‘students of the human condition’, it is their similarity as storytellers that resonates most powerfully across the book. And if Travels With Herodotus has a flaw it is directly linked the very thing that makes it most compelling. For this is, in theory, the story Kapuściński’s life — and what a life! — but by going toe-to-toe with Herodotus, the Polish writer’s own stories were never not going to be overshadowed.

And Kapuściński is a good enough journalist, a savvy enough writer, and sufficiently egoless to regonise this, however. He knows what will most hold the readers attention, and that is Herodotus. Passages from The Histories make up near half of the book, they are seamlessly weaved into the text and beautifully retold.

The rise and fall and rise again of King Croesus; the agony of the Queen of the Massagetae  soaked in blood, searching the field of victory for the body of her son; the tears of Xerxes watching his vast army on maneuver, struck by the thought that not one man of all those millions would be alive in a hundred years time: Kapuściński makes all of them seem just as fresh and compelling as the African coups, the crazed dictators, the foreign horizons he witnessed in his own lifetime.

It’s a common refrain that all of Western Philosophy is just a footnote to Plato and Aristotle, in some respects the same may be said of travel writing and Herodotus. In Travels With Herodotus Kapuściński seems to recognise this: he tells the Greek’s stories as though they belong to him, and in so doing he becomes an avatar of Herodotus: his stories belong to the Greek.

For indeed, just everyone who goes out into the world and gathers stories and facts about cultures and writes about them is really just writing their own continuation to The Histories. They become that timeless fireside visitor, they become Herodotus, telling their stories about our fickle and infinitely beguiling world.