Book Review: Readings

The phenomenal Polish journalist Ryszard Kapuscinski left behind a sticky legacy when he died earlier this year at the age of 74


Travels With Herodotus

by Ryszard Kapuscinski
Knopf, 275 pp., $25

The phenomenal Polish journalist Ryszard Kapuscinski left behind a sticky legacy when he died earlier this year at the age of 74. For more than half a century, the prodigiously talented Kapuscinski filed dispatches from dozens of civil wars, coups, and revolutions, paying special attention to the woes of postcolonial Africa. His accounts were infused by thrilling firsthand attention to details, yet with his passing, several critics have criticized Kapuscinski for tweaking the truth.

With his seventh book, Travels With Herodotus -- first published in 2004 and now finally translated into English -- the celebrated author finds himself arriving at the rank of Poland's answer to John Steinbeck while subtly rebuking the suggestion that he played fast and loose with journalistic facts.

A stirring, bemused account of Kapuscinski's early career-making assignments to India, China, Iran, and the Congo, Travels With Herodotus likewise sets up the ancient Greek historian as not merely the first Western war correspondent but the father of "globalism." The Pole offers the following assessment of Herodotus' investigations: "Nothing was ever plain, literal, unambiguous -- from behind every gesture and word peered some referential sign, gazed a meaningfully winking eye." Fresh from university and having survived the Stalinist era behind the Iron Curtain, Kapuscinski had his own reasons for wanting to show fealty not only to the world of objects but also any embedded allusions.

"Herodotus learns about his worlds with the rapturous enthusiasm of a child," he writes. "His most important discovery? That there are many worlds. And that each is different."

Not content to simply offer a history lesson, Kapuscinski ends up arguing nonetheless that the brutal war fought between Greeks and Persians some 2,500 years ago should be considered the first recorded clash between Eastern and Western cultures. As a fresh-faced European on the prowl in Asia and Africa in the mid-20th century, Kapuscinski also shows how many cross-cultural conflicts remain intractable to this day. As with his ancient forebear, Kapuscinski uses deft shading and depth to make his subjects timeless, offering a real reason to pick up his books once again.

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Travels With Herodotus, Ryzard Kapucinski, Knopf

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