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.

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Available through your local bookstore or online: Travels with Herodotus

Review: Lighten Up…& Not Just Your Suitcase (Here & There by A. A. Gill)

Many travel writing collections are “precious,” but not Here & There by A. A. Gill.  He writes with acerbic wit and irreverence. At the same time, he manages to share his fascination with people and places.

Gill, writing in “Spice of life” for example, acknowledges the poverty of Calcutta (he doesn’t use the city’s newer name, Mumbai) but raves about India’s post-Mogul culture and “an embarrassment of world-class universities.” Then, he goes on to note that “Calcutta was invented by the English on the banks of the Hooghly, the last stretch of the Ganges. It was a stupid place to build a city, but that never stopped the English.” After a number of suggestions to experience during your visit, he turns the tables: “I loved Calcutta because it’s a city on the way down…Cities that have been something and seen stuff have stories to tell. Places can be trippers or tourists or, like Calcutta, they can be travellers.” What a recommendation!

In an article called “Dawn of a new era,” Gill twigged memories from my Kenya-Tanzania trip, and he made me want to visit South Africa. He puzzles out how and why South Africa managed truth and reconciliation and elections, while avoiding civil war. Quirky, as always, Gill begins with a tokoloshe, which is a “Zulu demon, a nightstalker, a sprite goblin…a real five-star terror. He describes Jo’burg before and after apartheid. Gill also highlights a few things not to be missed: “Not just the apartheid museum,” (which he claims to be “the most thoughtful and emotional couple of hours I’ve spent in a museum for years”) but “the townships and the markets and cafés, the music and jacarandas, and the high, dry veldt, but you should go because this is the luckiest place in the unluckiest continent.” After musing about the cause of such luck, Gill concludes:

Personally, I think it was the tokoloshe that made South Africa hold back, divert the consequences of the past. South Africans lay awake in the hot night and heard the panting and the muffled sharpening of little goblin pangas and knew what the fears made flesh would bring. The tokoloshe still lurks under the bed, but the longer this normalcy goes on, the smaller the fears that feed him.

From Iceland to Vietnam, from the U.S. to Europe (East and West), Gill covers the map offering surprise discoveries and often wonky bits of information gleaned from the streets.

Here & There is a collection of 58 brief articles from all over the map, plus two introductory pieces. Without exception, the travel writing is sharp and insightful, written with empathy and humour, and it is thought-provoking. Gill also raises questions about traveling and travellers, and about travel writing. He also affirms something I believe (don’t we love when that happens?):

One of the things that fascinates me about travelling is how places make people. The received travel writing wisdom is always the other way round: it’s people who make places….But over and over I’m aware that the characteristics and beliefs of nations seem to flow from the land, seep up from the earth.

 Gill explains a bit about the norms of the travel industry, suggesting how and why the PR people are able to pique our interest and loosen the savings nested away during our work-a-day lives. About “Why go?” he shares a few ideas while debunking the notion that travels “broadens the mind” and emphatically that “the dumbest reasons for travel, the most thoughtless expectation of a holiday is to relax.”  He claims, “Travelling to do nothing is the great holiday oxymoron….” He’s less clear about the positive outcome, except it isn’t to know thyself (to borrow the cliché). It is about the people you meet and experiencing the places out of which they’ve grown. I think he’s urging us to travel curiously. About travel writing, Gill says, “The pleasure of the craft of journalism is that you start to work for money, but end up working with friends, and collaborating….” It is about the people and about experience (again).

My bookshelf should be drooping, given the weight of the travel books stacked on it. Here & There differs from all of them.

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Available through your local bookstore or online: Here & There