Register
BookReview: Travels with Herodotus
by Ryszard Kapuscinski, Knopf, June 5, 2007, 1400043387

Ryszard Kapuscinski was a Polish journalist. He travelled the world on the low budget, reporting to Poland and the Soviet Bloc on the happenings in third world. Unlike his Western peers, he sometimes did not have enough money to file his reports via Telex let alone fly from country to country. Yet he was a brilliant observer of the modern world, and wrote many books. This was the first book I read of his, and no doubt will read more.

Travels with Herodotus is written in two times: Kapuscinski's and Herodotus's. Herodotus was a reporter of his time, the 5th century B.C. Herodotus wrote The Histories, a chronicle of the great events of his time, including wars between the Greeks and Persians. Herodotus was also an excellent observer of human nature, and as an observer, not a judge, he simply reported what he heard, taking care to document hearsay from "true" facts.

Kapuscinski writes about his first travels outside of Poland to India and China, where he didn't speak the language, and had quite an interesting time trying to gather news. He didn't even know what that meant, at first, I think. He learned what it was to be an overseas reporter on the job with the help of Herodotus, who, too, seemed to have been on an on-the-job training program.

Kapuscinski studies The Histories, not for the history themselves -- although this is very interesting to me -- but to understand Herodotus himself. To understand extract his personality from this ancient book. I too found myself thinking about Kapuscinski. How did he survive so long in the Soviet Bloc with such an inquisitive mind? Was he deferential to authority, or was it that he was away so much of the time, that he never had to face the uncomfortable situation caused by too many questions? He cares deeply about mankind, and how did that play out on his conscience? He seems passionate and passive, inquisitive and unquestioning. An enigma, but luckily for me, one I can investigate more thoroughly by reading more of his books!

The book is simply great, and the translation is excellent. It was intimidated to approach, because the cover looks so academic. I put off reading it for several months before accepting its serious challenge, which turned out to be more of a personal challenge than an academic one. Kapuscinski writes so easily (it seems to me), and provides such profound reflections on humanity, that I was constantly pondering about what he wrote and why he wrote it, while I read.

[p18] Left alone, I sat down on the bed and started to consider my situation. On the negative side, I didn't know where I was. On the positive. I had a roof over my head; an institution (a hote]) had given me shelter. Did I feel safe? Yes. Uncomfortable? No. Strange! Yes. I could not define precisely wherein lay this strangeness, but the sensation grew stronger in the morning, when a barefoot man entered the room bearing a pot of tea and several biscuits. Nothing like this had ever happened to me before. He placed the tray on the table, bowed, and. having uttered not a word, softly withdrew. There was such a natural politeness in his manner, such profound tactfulness, something so astonishingly delicate and dignified, that I felt instant admiration and respect for him.

Something more disconcerting occurred an hour later, when I stepped out of the hotel. On the opposite side of the street, on a cramped little square. rickshaw drivers had been gathering since dawn-skinny, stooped men with bony, sinewy legs. They must have learned that a sahib had arrived in the hotel. A sahib, by definition, must have money, so they waited patiently, ready to [p19] serve. But the very idea of sprawling comfortably in a rickshaw pulled by a hungry, weak waif of a man with one foot already in the grave filled me with the utmost revulsion, outrage, horror. To be an exploiter? A bloodsucker? To oppress the human being in this way? Never! I had been brought up in precisely the opposite spirit, taught that even living skeletons such as these were my brothers, kindred souls, near ones, flesh of my flesh. So when the rickshaw drivers threw themselves upon me with pleading encouragement, clamoring and fighting amongst themselves for my business, I began to push them away, rebuke them, protest. They were astounded -- what was I saying, what was I doing? They had been counting on me after all. I was their only chance, their only hope -- if only for a bowl of rice. I walked on without turning my head, impassive, resolute, a little smugly proud of not having allowed myself to be manipulated into assuming the role of leech.

[p80] Anaximander of Miletus (a beautiful city in Asia Minor), who predated Herodotus, created the first map of the world. According to him, the earth is shaped like a cylinder. People live on its upper surface. It is surrounded by the heavens and floats suspended in the air, at an equal distance from all the heavenly bodies. Various other maps come into being in that epoch. Most frequently, the earth is represented as a flat, oval shield surrounded on all sides by the waters of the great river Oceanus. Oceanus not only bounds all the world, but also feeds all the earth's other rivers.

The center of this world was the Aegean Sea, its shores and islands. Herodotus organizes his expeditions from there. The further he moves toward the ends of the earth, the more frequently he encounters something new. He is the first to discover the world's multicultural nature. The first to argue that each culture requires acceptance and understanding, and that to understand it one must first come to know it How do cultures differ from one another! Above all in their customs. Tell me how you dress, how you act, what are your habits, which gods you honor-and I will tell you who you are. Man not only creates culture, inhabits it he carries it around within him-man is culture.

[p92] From the Persian capital of Susa to the shores of the Amu Darya the road is long-or, more accurately, there is no road. One must cross mountain passes, traverse the burning desert of Kara-Kum. and then wander the endless steppes.

One is reminded of Napoleon's mad campaign for Moscow. The Persian and the Frenchman are in the grips of an identical pas· sion: to seize, conquer, possess. Both will suffer defeat on account of having transgressed a fundamental Greek principle, the law of moderation: never to want too much, not to desire everything. But as they are launching their ventures, they are too blind to see this; the lust for conquest has dimmed their judgment. has deprived them of reason. On the other hand, if reason ruled the world. would history even exist?

[p112] It is an imeresting subject superfluous people in the service of brute power. A developed, stable, organized society is a communitt=y of clearly delineated and defined roles. something that cannot be said of the majority of Third World cities. Their neighborhood are populated in large part by an unformed. fluid element, lacking precise classification, without position, place, or purpose. At any momemt and for whatever reason. these people. to whom no one pays attention, whom no one needs, can form into a crowd, throng, a mob, which has an opinion about everything, has time for everything, and would like to participate in something, mean something.

All dictatorships take advantage of this idle magma. They do even need to maintain an expensive army of full-time policemen. [p113] It suffices to reach out to these people searching for some significance in life. Give them the sense that they can be of use, that someone is counting on them for something, that they have been noticed, that they have a purpose.

The benefits of this relationship are mutual. The man of the street, serving the dictatorship, starts to feel at one with the authorities, to feel important and meaningful, and furthermore, because he usually has some petty thefts, fights, and swindles on his conscience, he now acquires the comforting sense of immunity. The dictatorial powers, meantime, have in him an inexpensive-free, actually-yet zealous and omnipresent agent-tentacle. Sometimes it is difficult even to call this man an agent; he is merely someone who wants to be recognized, who strives to be visible, seeking to remind the authorities of his existence, who remains always eager to render a service.

[p127] For the time being, the Babylonians are preparing an anti- Persian uprising and a declaration of sovereignty. Their timing is good. They know that the Persian court has just come through a long period of anarchy, during which power had been held by the priestly caste of the Magi. They were recently overthrown in a palace coup staged by a group of Persian elites, who had only just selected from among themselves a new king- Darius. Herodotus notes that the Babylonians [Rob: I use double quotes (") in place of Kapuscinski's italics for Herodotus's words] "were very well prepared". Clearly, he writes, "they bad spent the whole troubled period of the Magus' rule ... getting ready for a siege, and somebow nobody had noticed that they were doing so."

The following passage now appears in Herodotus's text: "Once tbeir rebellion was out in the open, this is wbat they did. The Babylonian men gathered together all the women of the city -- with the exception of their mothers and of a single woman chosen by each man from his own housebold -- and strangled them. The single woman was kept on as a cook, while all the others were strangled to conserve supplies".

[p128] I do not know if Herodotus realized what he was writing. Did he think about those words? Because at that time. in the sixth century, Babylon had at least two to three hundred thousand inhabitants. It follows, then, that tens of thousands of women were condemned to strangulation -- wives, daughters, sisters. grandmothers, cousins, lovers.

Our Greek says nothing more about this mass execution. Whose decision was it? That of the Popular Assembly? Of the Municipal Government? Of the Committee for the Defense of Babylon? Was there some discussion of the matter? Did anyone protest? Who decided on the method of execution -- that these women would be strangled? Were there other suggestions? That they be pierced by spears, for example? Or cut down with swords? Or burned on pyres? Or thrown into the Euphrates. which coursed through the city?

There are more questions still. Could the women, who had been waiting in their homes for the men to return from the meeting during which sentence was pronounced upon them, discern something in their men's faces? Indecision? Shame? Pain? Madness? The little girls of course suspected nothing. But the older ones! Wouldn't instinct tell them something? Did all the men observe the agreed silence? Didn't conscience strike any of them? Did none of them experience an attack of hysteria? Run screaming through the streets?

[p177] But during this period, I abandoned momentarily the fortunes of the people and wars he wrote about and concentrated instead on his 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.

[p178] The stuff of community was made up of two essential elements: first, individuals, and second, that which they transmitted to one another through immediate, personal contact. Man, in order to exist had to communicate, and in order to communicate, had to [p179] feel beside him the presence of another, had to see him and hear him -- there was no other form of communication, and so no other way of life. The culture of oral transmission drew them closer: one knew one's fellow not only as one who would help them gather food and defend against the enemy, but also as someone unique and irreplaceable, one who could interpret the world and guide his fellows through it.

And how much richer is this primeval. antique language of direct contact and Socratic give-and-take! Because it is not only words that matter in it. What is important, and frequently paramount is what is communicated wordlessly, by facial expression, hand gesture, body movement. Herodotus understands this, and like every reporter or ethnologist he tries to be in the most direct contact with his interlocutors, not only listening to what they say, but also watching how they say it, how they act as they speak.

His task is complex: on the one hand, he knows that the most precious and almost the only source of knowledge is the memory of those he meets: on the other hand, he is aware that this memory is a fragile thing, volatile and evanescent-that memory has a vanishing point. That is why he is in a hurry -- people forget, or else move away somewhere and one cannot find them again, and eventually they die. And Herodotus is out to collect as many reasonably credible facts as possible.

[p184] The driver with whom I traveled about most frequently in Ethiopia-which I had reached by a somewhat circuitous route, through Uganda. Tanzania. and Kenya -- was called Negusi. He was a slight, thin man, on whose skinny neck swollen with veins rested a disproportionately large yet shapely head. His eyes were remarkable -- enormous. dark, obscured by a shiny film, like the eyes of a dreamy girl. Negusi was compulsively neat at each stop he carefully removed the dust from his clothes with a little brush, which he always carried with him. This was not wholly unjustified in this country, where in the dry season, there was no place free of dust and sand.

My travels with Negusi -- and we drove thousands of kilometers together under difficult and hazardous conditions -- were yet another lesson in what an abundance of signs and signals any human being is. All one has to do is make an effort to notice and interpret them. Predisposed to thinking that another person communicates with us solely by means of the spoken or written word, we do not stop to consider that there are many other methods of conversation. Everything speaks: the expression of the face and eyes, the gestures of the hand and the movements of the body, the vibrations which the latter sends out, his clothing and the way it is [p185] worn; dozens of other transmitters, amplifiers, and mufflers, which together make up the individual being and -- to use the conceit of the Anglophone world -- his personal chemistry.

Technology, which reduces human exchange to an electronic signal, impoverishes and mutes this multifarious nonverbal language with which, when we are together, in close proximity, we continually and unconsciously communicate. This unspoken language, moreover, the language of facial expression and minute gesture, is infinitely more sincere and genuine than the spoken or written one; it is far more difficult to tell lies without words, to conceal falsehood and hypocrisy. So that a man could truly camouflage his thoughts, the disclosure of which could prove dangerous, Chinese culture perfected the art of the frozen face, of the inscrutable mask and the vacant gaze: only behind such a screen could someone truly hide.

Negusi knew only two expressions in English: "problem" and "no problem."

But using this gibberish we communicated ably in the most fraught circumstances. In conjunction with the wordless signals particular to each human being and which can speak volumes if only we would observe him carefully -- drink him in, as it were!wo words sufficed for us to feel no chasm between us and made traveling together possible.

[p187] Every expedition into the depths of Ethiopia is a luxury. Ordinarily, my days are spent gathering information, writing telegrams, and going to the post office, so the telegrapher on duty can forward my dispatches to the Polish Press Agency offices in London (this turns out to be less costly than sending them directly to Warsaw). The collecting of information is a time-eonsuming, difficult and dodgy business-a hunting expedition that rarely results in capturing one's quarry. Only one newspaper is published here: four pages called the Ethiopian Herald. (I witnessed several times in the countryside a bus arriving from Addis Ababa, bringing not only passengers but a single copy of this publication as well. People gathered in the marketplace and the mayor or a local teacher read aloud the articles in Amharic and summarized those written in English. Everyone listened raptly and the atmosphere was almost festive: a newspaper had arrived from the capital!)

An emperor rules Ethiopia at this time: there are no political parties, trade unions, or parliamentary opposition. There are Eritrean guerrillas, but far away in the north, in mostly impenetrable mountains. A Somali opposition movement operates out in a region of equally difficult access, the desert of the Ogaden. Yes. I tould somehow make my way to both places, but it would take months, and I am Poland's only correspondent in all of Africa. I cannot just suddenly go silent disappear into the continent's uninhabited wastelands.

[p188] So how am I to gather my material? My colleagues from the wealthy news agencies-Reuters, AP, or AFP -- hire translators, but I lack the funds for this. Furthermore, their offices art equipped with a powerful radio: an American Zenith, a Trans-Oceanic, from which one can tune in the entire world. But it costs a fortune, and I can only fantasize about it. 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.

When there's a lull, I make arrangements with Negusi to go out into the field. One cannot venture too far, because out there in the vastness it is easy to get stuck for days on end, weeks even. I have in mind a distance of one hundred or two hundred kilometers. before the great mountains begin. Furthermore, Christmas is approaching, and all of Africa, even the Muslim part is growing noticeably quieter, to say nothing of Ethiopia, which has been Christian for sixteen centuries. "Go to Arba Minch'" advise those in the know, and they say it with such conviction that the name begins to acquire a magical resonance for me.

[p206] The Persians face no dilemmas-their single goal is to please their king. They are like Russian soldiers from the poem "Ordon's Redoubt" by Adam Mickiewicz.

How the soldiers fall, whose God and faith

is the Czar.

The Czar is angry: let us die, and make the

Czar happy.

The Greeks by contrast are by nature divided. On the one hand, they are attached to their small homelands, their city-states, each with its distinct interests and separate ambitions; on the other hand, they are united by a common language and common gods, as well as by a vague feeling -- which nevertheless resonates forcefully at times -- of a greater Greek patriotism.

[p217] I have the impression that Herodotus's problem was altogether different: He decides, probably towards the end of his life, to write a book because he realizes that he has amassed such an enormous [p218] trove of stories and facts that unless he preserves them. they will simply vanish. His book is yet another expression of man's struggle against time. against the fragility of memory. its ephemerality. its perpetual tendency to erase itself and disappear. The concept of the book, any book, arose from just this battle. The written word has a durability, one would even like to say "eternality". Man knows, and in the course of years he comes to know it increasingly well, feeling it ever more acutely, that memory is weak and fleeting, and if he doesn't write down what he has learned and experienced. that which he carries within him will perish when he does. This is why it seems everyone wants to write a book. Singers and football players, politicians and millionaires. And if they themselves do not know how, or else lack the time, they commission someone else to do it for them. That is how it is and always will be. Engendering this reality is the impression of writing as an easy and simple pursuit, though those who subscribe to that view might do well to ponder Thomas Mann's observation that "a writer is a man for whom writing is more difficult than it is for others."

Herodotus is abundantly aware of this complication, yet he perseveres -- he keeps conducting his investigations, citing various opinions about an incident or else rejecting them all outright as being absurd and contrary to common sense. He won't be a passive listener and chronicler, but wants to participate actively in the creation of this marvelous drama that is history -- of today, yesterday, and times more distant still.

[p262] In any event it was not only the accounts of witnesses to what once was that influenced and helped create the image of the world that he bequeathed to us. His contemporaries also had a hand in it. In those days before the advent of publishing and the solitary author, a writer lived in close, immediate contact with his audience. There were no books, after all, so he simply presented to the public what he had written and they would listen, reacting and [p263] commenting on the spot. Their responses would have likely been an important indicator for him of whether he was going in an apt direction, whether his manner of telling was favorable.

Via Rob 2/17/2008