Travels with Herodotus

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A Final Journey: A Review of Ryszard Kapuscinski’s Travels with Herodotus

Published posthumously, Ryszard Kapuscinski’s Travels with Herodotus is very self consciously a final book. In it Kapuscinski reflects on his life as a writer, rarely delving much into the details of his travels with which his readers have become familiar, but instead dwelling more upon writing itself. But more so, his focus is on Herodotus, the historian from ancient Greece, who Kapuscinski counts as a great historian and whose books were a near constant companion of Kapuscinski’s on his travels.Indeed Travels more than anything else reads like a companion text to Herodotus’ book The Histories – a footnote early on refers readers to the Oxford University Press edition for those who want to follow along at home.And that may be a good idea because, for the most part, Travels is Herodotus seen through Kapuscinski’s lens. He tells us that the book was given to him by an editor before his first journey abroad and he took it with him on nearly all of his assignments during his long career. In looking at Herodotus, Kapuscinski suggests to the reader the origins of journalism as well as its purpose while also marveling at the fantastical stories and bizarre cultures described by the Greek. Kapuscinski is a true fan.But this book is also a memoir of sorts, and Kapuscinski parcels out little nuggets of the Kapuscinski philosophy, a way of looking at the world that will be familiar to his readers.Describing his very first trip, to India, Kapuscinski describes devouring books about the country and about the power of the written word to transport and teach:With each new title I read, I felt as if I were taking 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, 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.And of course, I’m sure there are many readers, like myself, for whom Kapuscinski’s books have had “a certain advantage over the actual trip.” With Kapuscinski as a guide, his books offer more of an escape and more excitement than most of us can hope for from our planned excursions to non-threatening locales.In Herodotus, Kapuscinski undoubtedly sees his foundation, without whom Kapuscinski and many other journalists, historians, and travel writers wouldn’t be possible. As Kapuscinski shows us, the world of the Greek nearly 2,500 years ago isn’t all that far removed from what Kapuscinski has spent his career doing. At the same time, we wouldn’t consider Herodotus a journalist in the modern sense, one who is beholden to proper sourcing, fact checking, and objectivity. Herodotus gathered up tales of mysterious faraway lands, relating even the ones that sound far-fetched, crafted narratives to suit his efforts, and passed judgment when it struck him to do so. Following his death, Kapuscinski was accused of just such things by Jack Shafer at Slate. Defending Kapuscinski, I wrote “To define [Kapuscinski’s] books as journalism (or memoir, or “truth”) exclusively does a disservice to journalism – offering a context within which this work fits, or even a disclaimer, is more appropriate – but to suggest that there isn’t a place for writing and books like these does a disservice to readers.” In speculating about Herodotus’ way of life, Kapuscinski defends the writer’s right to embellish in the service of both making a living and entertaining readers (two goals that often go hand in hand)It is possible… that the rhythm of Herodotus’s life and work was as follows: he made a long journey, and upon his return traveled to various Greek cities and organized something akin to literary evenings, in the course of which he recounted the experiences, impressions, and observations he had gathered during his peregrinations. It is entirely likely that he made his living from such gatherings, and that he also financed his subsequent trips in this way, and so it was important to him to have the largest auditorium possible, to draw a crowd. It would be to his advantage, therefore, to begin with something that would rivet attention, arouse curiosity – something a tad sensational. Story plots meant to move, amaze, astonish, pop up throughout his entire opus; without such stimuli, his audience would have dispersed early, bored, leaving him with an empty purse.Perhaps it was a similar motivation that pushed Kapuscinski to not just send back terse wire service missives on the conflicts and battles he observed but also to keep a separate notebook of observations that he would craft into his books. But to suggest that Kapsucinski’s motives were craven and profit-driven alone would be to ignore the profound empathy with which he treats his subjects and the care with which he observes the foreign lands he visits.In Travels, Kapuscinski describes being lured to Algiers in 1965 by a vague tip from a source. Upon his arrival he discovers that indeed a coup has occurred, but he is dismayed to find that it has been bloodless and so there are no scenes of battle and mayhem to describe to hungry readers back home. Then Kapuscinski realizes how misguided this attitude is:It was here in Algiers, several years after I had begun working as a reporter, that it slowly began to dawn on me that I had set myself on an erroneous path back then. Until that awakening, I had been searching for spectacular imagery, laboring under the illusion that it was compelling, observable tableaux that somehow justified my presence, absolving me of responsibility to understand the events at hand. It was the fallacy that one can interpret the world only by means of what it chooses to show us in the hours of its convulsions, when it is rocked by shots and explosions, engulfed in flames and smoke, choked in dust and the stench of burning, when everything collapses into rubble on which people sit despairing over the remains of their loved ones.If there is a philosophy that encapsulates Kapuscinski, that is it. Body counts and “colorful” descriptions of chaos and violence offer us no insight into our world. Only with time and effort come empathy and understanding. This holds true of all of our best journalism (cf. George Packer).But Kapuscinski does not romanticize this noble cause. He instead sees it as a symptom of his loneliness. He is not the swashbuckling hero journalist that some portray him as but a wandering lost soul imprisoned by his travels. Near the end of this odd little memoir, travelogue, and homage to Herodotus, Kapuscinski, as if knowing that this is his goodbye, lays himself bare to his readers:Such people, while useful, even agreeable, to others, are, if truth be told, frequently unhappy – lonely in fact. Yes, they seek out others, and it may even seem to them that in a certain country or city they have managed to find true kinship and fellowship, having come to know and learn about a people; but they wake up one day and suddenly feel that nothing actually binds them to these people, that they can leave here at once. They realize that another country, some other people, have now beguiled them, and that yesterday’s most riveting event now pales and loses all meaning and significance.For all intents and purposes, they do not grow attached to anything, do not put down deep roots. Their empathy is sincere, but superficial.Kapuscinski’s admission is stark and sad, but one must think that it was his lack of joy, of hubris, of a sense of heroism that underpinned the singular tone of his work and made it such a revelation to read.See Also: The Reporter: Ryszard Kapuscinski

New Work from Kapuscinski

The Paris Review has published some work by Polish journalist Ryszard Kapuscinski, who died last year. The essay (not available online) covers more of Kapuscinski’s travels through Africa, a familiar subject to those who have read his books. What’s notable is that this issue also includes some of Kapuscinski’s photography, which nicely augments his writing – though those who have read Kapuscinski’s work know that he is more than able to conjure up images with his writing.It’s a good time for Kapuscinski fans because in addition to The Paris Review essay, a new book by Kapuscinski is on the way. I noted Travels with Herodetus at the end of my “most anticipated books of the year” post, but there were few details available at the time. Now we have a cover (as you can see), as well as the book’s description, which tells us that Kapuscinski has written about his years as a young reporter.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.Bonus Link: Google video has Kapuscinski’s appearance in 2000 on The Charlie Rose Show. (You may need to turn the volume all the way up to hear it.)

The Most Anticipated Books of 2007

As I did in 2005 and 2006, I’ve decided to open this year looking ahead to some of the exciting or intriguing titles that we’ll be talking about over the next few months.Possibly the biggest literary arrival of this young year will be that of Norman Mailer’s The Castle in the Forest later this month. Unfortunately for some fans, the book is not the long hoped for sequel to Harlot’s Ghost, a book that Mailer abandoned for this one, according to an interview. With this effort Mailer treads into charged territory, chronicling the early life of Adolf Hitler from the point of view of the devil or something like it. The curious can read an excerpt of the book that appeared in the January issue of Esquire.Also coming right around the corner is House of Meetings by Martin Amis. The book came out in the UK in September where John Banville in The Independent named it a “Book of the Year.” The reviews have been generally good. The Observer called it a “compact tour de force.” The Guardian was slightly more skeptical saying that the book is “an attempt to compress the past 60 years of Russian history into 200 pages, delivered as the monologue of someone whose name we’re never told; an ambitious plan, held together by the sound of a voice.”Also this month, Paul Auster’s latest book Travels in the Scriptorium comes out. It sounds like another inscrutable, postmodern tale from Auster, this time starring a protagonist named Mr. Blank. In this case, Auster’s inward looking tendencies are amplified as the book references many of his previous works. At both Condalmo and Strange Horizons, this particular Auster experiment has been deemed less successful.Louis Begley, author of About Schmidt, has Matters of Honor coming out this month. It starts with three unlikely roommates at Harvard in the 1950s and goes on to trace how the diverging outcomes of their lives came to be. If that sounds like a tired old tale, PW makes the same observation but then brushes it aside: “It’s a story covered by everyone from Cheever to Roth, but Begley finds new and wonderful nuances within it.”Colum McCann’s fourth novel Zoli will hit shelves soon. The book is named for a Roma (or Gypsy) woman in Slovakia who we follow from her harrowing childhood during World War II to her becoming something of local literary celebrity. Through it all, however, she is unable to escape what her heritage signifies in her Communist bloc country. The book has been out for several months in Ireland and the UK where The Guardian hailed McCann’s “near pitch-perfect control of character and narrative.” For those who want a taste, a pdf excerpt from the book is available.Another big name with a new book out this year is Jane Smiley, whose Ten Days in the Hills arrives in February. Hills is being billed as Smiley’s “LA Novel” (note that Jonathan Lethem’s “LA Novel” arrives in March). PW sums it all up rather well: “Smiley delivers a delightful, subtly observant sendup of Tinseltown folly, yet she treats her characters, their concern with compelling surfaces and their perpetual quest to capture reality through artifice, with warmth and seriousness. In their shallowness, she finds a kind of profundity.” On the other hand, I’m not convinced that the world needs another literary look at the Hollywood-caricature side of LA.February will also see the arrival of Daniel Alarcon’s Lost City Radio. This is Alarcon’s first novel, following his collection of stories, War by Candlelight, which was a finalist for the 2006 PEN Hemingway Award. Alarcon likely came to many readers’ attention in 2003, when his story “City of Clowns” was featured in the New Yorker debut fiction issue. This new book scored a blurb from Edward P. Jones – “Mr. Alarcon, like the best storytellers, reveals to us that the world we have secreted in our hearts spins in a bigger universe with other hearts just as good and just as bad as our own.” – always a good sign.Also in February, a new book will arrive from Nuruddin Farah, quite likely the best known Somali novelist and the winner of the Neustadt International Prize for Literature in 1998. Knots is about Cambara, a Somalian woman who has emigrated to Canada, where a crisis sends her on a journey back to Somalia. Farah is known for his strong female protagonists and this book appears to be no exception. Knots gets a glowing review from PW – “Despite its heavy subject, joy suffuses the novel” – and Farah will likely continue to be discussed as a potential Nobel winner.It would be strange to read a book by Jonathan Lethem that wasn’t deeply rooted in his hometown of Brooklyn, but readers will get that chance in March when You Don’t Love Me Yet arrives. The book is set in Los Angeles, but, while Fortress of Solitude had some amusing LA moments set in the office of a Hollywood agent, this new book concerns itself with the city’s grungier east side neighborhoods, home to a star-crossed indie rock band whose members are classic LA misfits. Early accounts at PW and this bookseller’s blog have found the book to be funny and entertaining but not up to par with the author’s earlier efforts.If you’ll indulge me in allowing a little non-fiction to sneak into this post, please note that William T. Vollmann has a new book coming out in March called Poor People, a rather slim tome, weighing in it at just 464 pages. This is the book that Vollmann mentioned when Ed and Scott saw him read back in spring 2005. From Scott’s post: “Vollman is currently working on a book about the experiences of poor people in different countries. He says he asks everyone why they think they are poor, and the answers greatly vary. He says most of the Thais told him it’s because they were bad in a previous life. Most of the Mexicans he spoke to told him it was because the rich stole from them.”A book by Columbian writer Laura Restrepo will hit American shores in March. Delirium was originally written in 2004 and follows the life of a struggling literature professor who must investigate what has caused his wife to go insane. The book bears an impressive array of blurbs befitting a writer of Restrepo’s stature (if not here, then overseas), including raves from Jose Saramago, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Harold Bloom, and Vikram Seth.We’ll also see a new novel from Kurt Andersen co-founder of the influential magazine Spy and host of the public radio show Studio 360. Heyday is set in the mid-19th century and it follows an immigrant, recently arrived on bustling American shores, who falls in with a group heading west, lured by the California Gold Rush. Random House calls the book “an enthralling, old-fashioned yarn interwoven with a bracingly modern novel of ideas.” A short story about two of the book’s main characters appeared in Metropolis in 2003.Debut novelist Joshua Ferris already has a backer in Mark Sarvas of The Elegant Variation, who says Then We Came To The End is “a humane and affecting book.” Mark also included the novel in his contribution to the Year in Reading series where he said that this “hilarious and gorgeously written novel might just change [his] mind about MFAs.” Of course, Mark is fully aware that we all might not share his particular tastes, so he convinced publisher Little, Brown to let him publish the book’s first chapter at TEV, where you can now check it out for yourself.Orange Prize winner Lionel Shriver also has a new book coming in March, The Post-Birthday World. PW describes as “impressive if exhausting” this novel that explores what might have been if its children’s book illustrator protagonist had given into temptation and pursued an affair. Following the success of Shriver’s We Need to Talk About Kevin and the subsequent re-release of her back catalog, The Post-Birthday World marks her first new effort since hitting the literary big time.The Savage Detectives, originally published in 1998 by the late Roberto Bolano, will arrive in April. The book has already appeared in other languages, which is how Francois of Tabula Rasa came to read it. he shared his reactions with us as a part of the Year in Reading series: “Pure bliss! In turn coming-of-age story, roman noir, literary quest, this is a real tour de force, reminiscent of Julio Cortazar and Jack Kerouac while remaining deeply original. Bolano passed away in 2003. He was fifty years old, and I just can’t help thinking about what else might have been coming from him.” New Directions, meanwhile, will publish a translation of Bolano’s novella Amulet in January.There’s not much available yet on Dani Shapiro’s new book arriving in April. Buzz Girl notes that Black and White is “about mothers and daughters set in New York and Maine.” The book follows Shapiro’s well received 2003 book Family History.The biggest literary month of 2007 might be May which will start with the much anticipated, much delayed publication of Michael Chabon’s new novel, The Yiddish Policemen’s Union. Chabon’s first full-length adult novel since The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay is a thriller set in an imaginary world inspired by Franklin D. Roosevelt’s short-lived plan during WWII to create a Jewish homeland in Alaska, rather than the Middle East. Sounds interesting, no? We’ve been following this book for quite some time now, as it was originally set to be released nearly a year ago. But Chabon put the brakes on the project when he decided it was moving along too fast.Yet another big name author with a new book out this year is Haruki Murakami, whose book After Dark hits shelves in May. The book was originally published in Japan in 2004, and has already been translated into some other languages, including Dutch. In keeping with the title, the novel tracks a number of nocturnal characters who dwell in Tokyo and have the sorts of encounters that tend to occur in the wee hours of the morning. Murakami’s typical melding of dream and reality will be familiar to readers of this new novel as well. Still, I join Scott Esposito in hoping that Murakami breaks new ground with this new book.Also in May: the arrival of Divisadero by Michael Ondaatje. Not much available on this one yet, save a stray synopsis or two. The novel begins with a family on a farm in northern California in the 1970s and moves to the casinos of Nevada, at which point a “traumatic event” breaks the family apart. The pieces are put back together in the novel’s second part, which takes place “in the stark landscape of south-central France.” Like I said, not much to go on just yet.Susanna Moore, best known for her novel In the Cut, has a new book coming out in May. The Big Girls is based on Moore’s experience teaching writing in a federal prison in New York, and one early look at the novel found it to be, as one might expect, fairly disturbing. It’ll be interesting to see other opinions of what sounds like a very emotionally charged book.The Shadow Catcher by Marianne Wiggins will arrive in June. Wiggins’ last book, Evidence of Things Unseen, was a National Book Award finalist in 2003. This new book is a historical novel about the Old West photographer Edward Curtis.I’ll close the list with two additional non-fiction books that I’m particularly looking forward to. Pete Dexter has a collection of his old newspaper columns coming out called Paper Trails: True Stories of Confusion, Mindless Violence, and Forbidden Desires, a Surprising Number of Which Are Not About Marriage. A number of the columns are from his time in Philadelphia, which should be of particular interest for me, since the city is now my home. In addition, I’ve always felt that the old school newspaperman’s sensibility that Dexter brings to his fiction is one of his most appealing qualities as a writer, so I’m looking forward to getting the opportunity to delve into the pure stuff, as it were. Another journalist whose new collection is, for me, hotly anticipated is Ryszard Kapuscinski. Kapuscinski is a Polish writer who, to me, is unsurpassed in his chronicling of the so-called Third World and its forgotten wars and struggles. I don’t yet know what his latest, Travels with Herodotus, will cover, but I know I’ll be reading it.While long, this list is by no means exhaustive, so please use the comments to share what you’re looking forward to reading in 2007.

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