Saturday, 28 August 2010

Review: Travels with Herodotus, Ryszard Kapuscinski (2007)

What would this strange beast resemble? Consider, first, that it's a memoir by a retired foreign correspondent reflecting over his life's travels. In addition, the journalist talks about a particular book he has always enjoyed reading. The book is by a Greek traveller who, says Kapuscinski, invented reportage during the 4th century BCE. The Polish author has a high opinion of the Greek's work. If the ancient writer was not a good one why, then, would he, Kapuscinski, spend so much time reading - and reflecting upon - the product of the man's life of wandering around Asia Minor, north Africa, and the Mediterranean?

Kapuscinski goes farther afield than this, of course. He starts as a cub reporter by getting himself despatched to India following the post-WWII rapprochement between that country and Poland, an Eastern Bloc state that was trying to find itself following the exhausting conflict just over, but which still finds itself under the sway of Russia, its gigantic Eastern neighbour. With no knowledge of English, the young Kapuscinski buys a Hemingway novel in order to improve his chances of gleaning information from the locals. Needless to say, he doesn't get very far in his earnest quest. But, as they say, from little things big things grow.

China is the young man's next destination. It wasn't that he wanted, he says, to visit any particular country. That was never his plan. His initial desire, he says, was to "cross the border". Picking up a copy of Herodotus' The Histories (the title is a misnomer, he avers) results in the writer crossing yet another border, this time the one that separates us from the past. It also seems to stand, for Kapuscinski, as a citadel inside which a man's dreams may be discovered if he has the tenacity required to cross the threshhold and venture inside.

Kapuscinski quotes liberally from The Histories, a book which reports in especially rich detail on the various wars fought between the Greeks and the Persians. Here he stands in a position something akin to the ever-present narrator in a TV documentary about the Middle Ages, say, or the Baroque period in European art and culture. He is a witness first, then a guide. We trust him to provide a truthful account of Herodotus as well as interpret the meaning of this unusual - unique, even, if we are to believe him - ancient text.

As in a TV doco which only runs for a few hours, there is no clear pathway to understanding Herodotus. We rely completely on Kapuscinski to carry our attention along through the thickets of meaning that are buried in the book. Herodotus touches on the relationship between the despotic East and the democratic, argumentative, messy West. And his particular attention to ancient wars seems to carry with it a judgement of another kind, especially when it is married with other narrations - the ones where the Pole enters a country like the Democratic Republic of Congo which was, in the 1980s when he was there, riven by civil conflict.

Kapuscinski spent a lot of his time reporting from Africa, which is a place most of us have never visited and probably never will. So Herodotus' book may be considered a sort of proxy ledger of pains and judgements. And so the rapid de-colonisation of African states in the 1960s resembles in its trajectory a domino effect, with one state's independence, internal conflict, struggle for governance, and military coup leading to those of the next. Throughout this process of self-realisation, Kapuscinski can be seen scampering here and there - on foot, on donkeys and horses, in cars and on the back of trucks - searching, always, for a reliable wire service that will allow him to transmit his reports back to Poland via London, and so justify the expense of his upkeep in one foreign country after another.

The style and structure of the book are loose, resembling an elderly individual's rambling conversation. It's as though he were so confident of his command of his material that he gives himself considerable latitude, and forgives himself sections that appear to be very inexactly anchored to the rest of the narrative. At times, I felt that the book might be a masterpiece. At other times, I sensed that he just didn't care enough to make it truly good, as though, in his seniority, he could afford not to care any more whether his final, extended, report was worth reading at all.

It is, of course. For fans of his writing, like me, the book has the trademark Kapuscinski "feel" about it, in its unhurried digressions, its pinpoint-accurate accounts of events and places and people, its studied casualness of tone. It's most basically an account of a friendly relationship - a soul-mate relationship, even - between one writer and another, long dead. And there's also a link of familiarity between the dead Polish author and the living blogger, who writes this post knowing that he will, one day soon, take up an already-read Kapuscinski so as to find out something about the world that he didn't already know.

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