Travels with Herodotus by Ryszard Kapuściński

There is value in “truly describing the world.” In Travels with Herodotus, Kapuśińki shows us how to capture culture, time (present and past), and place. And he shows us – through example – how to write a fascinating, informative, layered story. History and philosophy buffs will appreciate his nuanced writing. Writers who read carefully, as Kapuśińki reads Herodotus, will gain the insights (and how-to) of a master reporter and storyteller.

Having grown up behind the Iron Curtain, Kapuściński had a dream. He wanted to cross a border, not to leave Poland permanently, but just to feel what it was like to cross a border. He had Czechoslovakia in mind. By 1955, Kapuściński had finished his studies and was working at a newspaper. One day, his editor-in-chief asked him what he’d like to do. He told her,

… “I would very much like to go abroad.” …It made no difference which [border], because what was important was not the destination, the goal, the end, but the almost mystical and transcendent act. Crossing the border [Emphasis Kapuściński’s].

A year later the editor summoned him. “‘You know,’ she said, as I stood before her desk, ‘we are sending you. You’ll go to India.’” As a parting gift, she gave him a copy of the newly translated The Histories.

India was an unknown world, a mystery. “I realized then what now seems obvious: a culture would not reveal its mysteries to me at a mere wave of the hand; one has to prepare oneself thoroughly and at length for such an encounter.” Yet, his open-eyed curiosity during his immersion in India is a joy to read (as are his stories of China, the Middle East, Africa, and elsewhere). Kapuściński might be the best travel writing I have ever read. His stories lack pomp and arrogance; they are immediate, carrying readers directly into experience. And all the while, he probes Herodotus for advice. How does Herodotus do it: go where Greeks had not gone, write with knowledge and insight about what was then unknown?

Stories in Herodotus’ time were oral; they had to hold people’s attention or they would drift away (not so different from today, is it?). He begins one session with the kidnapping of a Greek princess, Io, by the Persians. Kapuściński asks, why: “Because he respects the laws of the narrative marketplace: to sell well, a story must be interesting, must contain of bit of spice, something sensational, something to send a shiver up one’s spine.” In time, as Kapuścińki read The Histories, he abandoned his focus on the people and their wars and,

…concentrated instead on [Herodotus’] technique. How did he work, i.e., what interested him, how did he approach his sources, what did he ask them, what did they say in reply? I was quite consciously trying to learn the art of reportage and Herodotus struck me as a valuable teacher. I was intrigued by his encounters, precisely because so much of what we write about derives from our relation to other people—I-he, I-they. That relation’s quality and temperature, as it were, have their direct bearing on the final text. We depend on others; reportage is perhaps the form of writing most reliant on the collective.

Later, in Ethiopia, Kapuściński notes how he lacks the resources of Western correspondents. He writes, “So I walk, ask, listen, cajole, scrape, and string together facts, opinions, stories. I don’t complain, because this method enables me to meet many people and find out about things not covered in the press or on the radio.” He goes “into the field.” Like Herodotus, Kapuściński is a traveller.

Of course, the writer is a filter and present in the writing, but Kapuściński praises Herodotus for the way he relates information by giving the voice to his informants. Quoting from the beginning of The Histories, Kapuściński notes:

According to learned Persians…Or The Phoenicians say that…, and adding: So this is what the Persians and Phoenicians say. I am not going to come down in favour of this or that account of events, but I will talk about the man who, to my certain knowledge, first undertook criminal acts of aggression against the Greeks. I will show who it was who did this, and then proceed with the rest of the account. I will cover minor and major human settlements equally, because most of those which were important in the past have diminished in significance by now, and those which were great in my own time were small in times past. I will mention both equally because I know that human happiness never remains long in the same place.

Travels with Herodotus is two stories in one. Ryszard Kapuściński weaves tales of his early forays into travel journalism (beginning mid-1950s) with his reading of The Histories by Herodotus (c. 484 – 425 BC), that had been recently translated into his native Polish.

Kapuściński is a master storyteller who weaves magic realism, historical allegory, and literary techniques into his writing. He also introduces readers into an award-winning style of journalism. (Kapuściński was a nominee for the Nobel Prize in Literature and won many other awards.) Travels with Herodotus 2004) provides readers with insights into writing acquired over a lifetime; it is his final book.

51 Travels with Herodotus

Available through your local bookstore or online: Travels with Herodotus