Saturday, December 12, 2009

“Travels with Herodotus” by Ryszard Kapuscinsky


It is said that when the German Cineaste Werner Herzog was looking for inspiration for the rambling monologue, which manic conquistador Aguirre, played by the manic actor Klaus Kinsky, had to spit out in one of the last scenes of his “Wrath of god”, he found it unedited in the pages written by Ryszard Kapuscinski.

Kapucinski, the famous Polish journalist, had indeed during his travels in war-torn third world countries encountered several genuine Aguirre – like warlords and their miserable victims. Working as a foreign correspondent for the Polish Press Agency (PAP) from 1965, he traveled around the developing world and reported on wars in different countries around the globe. When he finally returned to Poland, he had lived through twenty-seven revolutions and coups, been jailed 40 times and survived four death sentences. In the English speaking world, Kapuściński is best known for his reporting from Africa in the 1960s and 1970s, when he witnessed first-hand the end of the European colonial empires on that continent.
He wrote some great journalistic accounts like “ The Soccer War”, “ Shah of Shahs” and especially “The shadow of the Sun”, his account of the post colonial meltdown in Africa. Kapuściński’s voice is quiet unique in the sense that he travelled both as white man in Africa, but on a very low budget and unburdened by any colonialist past. Not only did that give him a realistic perspective on his African hosts but also a singularly objective one. Kapuściński died two years ago, missing the Nobel price for which he was shortlisted in the Polish Press.

“Travels with Herodotus” which is basically a praize of one reporter to another, albeit distant from each other by 2500 years is Kapuściński final book and can be considered as his testament.

The “Histories”, a rare book in a Warsaw limping back to sanity in the first years after the war, was given to Kapucinski by his boss as a present on the onset of his first assignment as a foreign correspondent. It would fill in the lonely hours of the young Pole on his trip to the exotic destination “par excellence”: India.

This 25-century-old travel account turns out to be an ideal travel companion for Ryszard, filling his lonely hours with wonderful tales and given him consolation in moments of despair. Replacing the Bible in the trunk of this communist -educated non-believer, it has accompanied him on many travels.

This first trip to the subcontinent must have been as full of wonders for young Ryszard, as they were for Herodotus on his trip to Egypt. And so, Kapuściński starts to weave a fascinating tapestry, with strands delivered both by his own experiences in Iran, Congo and Uganda with the histories Herodotus has written down on Persia, Greece and the dark territories of the Scythes. Kapuściński cleverly mixes biographical anecdotes of his own voyages with passages of Herodotus and by this he makes Stalin, Hitler, the Khmer rouges, Bokassa, Idi Amin and Charles Taylor contemporises of Croesus, Thrasybulus, Periander, Mad Cambyses and cruel Xerxes.

Grand, horrific and mad scenes follow each other. The siege of Babylon, the war of Darius against the Scythes, follows encounters with Kapuściński’s with drunken Congoleze “ Gendarmes” ravaging the villages in the Congo. The Mad grandeur of Bokassa echoes the Lunacy of Xerxes. Stavogrin, the Politburo and Mao’s communist plans are paralles for the courts of Sardis and the excesses of Darius.

Gripping accounts make this book a page – turner and automatically the reader tends to go back to reading that first hypnotizing account from the dawn of civilization : “ The Histories” by Herodotus.

The book is not without faults. There are some repetitions and overlappings, annoying enough to be noticed. Either it was very badly edited and rushed to the bookstalls to capitalize on the deceasing of the writer or the book was published unfinished, a mere draft of a greater introspective work. But that doesn’t really matter.

As we can easily imagine that Kapuscinski would have been an ideal travel mate for Herodotus, so is his book an ideal companion for Herodotus Histories. The violent excesses of barbarous cruelty depicted in that ancient book, become distressingly actual when paralleled with the humanitarian dramas of the 20th century. Reading Kapucinsky together with Herodotus has the uncanny effect of pulling these ancient stories out of the mist of time and bringing them, as a mirror, very close indeed to our face. The world is still a wonderful and terrifying place…

A great Book by a truly great man! As essential in your backpack as a Swiss-army knife!