main page, here                     


Ryszard Kapuscinski



A sense of wonder

In his final book before he died earlier this year, Ryszard Kapuscinski hails his inspiration and travelling companion Herodotus as a 'vivacious, fascinated, unflagging nomad'. There is no more fitting description for Poland's celebrated foreign correspondent himself, says Margaret Atwood

Saturday June 9, 2007
The Guardian


When I heard that Ryszard Kapuscinski had died, I felt I'd lost a friend. No, more than that: an essential person in my life. A person - one of the few, surely - who could be trusted to tell the truth about complex and difficult events, not in abstract terms, but in their concrete details - their colour, smell, feel, touch; their weather. Yet I didn't know Ryszard Kapuscinski very well at all. It was a rare quality of his, this befriending of people at a distance.

 I first met Kapuscinski in 1984. I was living with my husband Graeme Gibson and our seven-year-old daughter in West Berlin, which was at that time still surrounded by the famous wall. It was there that I began The Handmaid's Tale. The tone for a novel about a modern totalitarianism was readily available: East German fighter planes broke the sound barrier every Sunday, reminding us by their sonic booms that they could swoop down at any moment. The Soviet bloc stretched out to the east, and seemed as solid as a rock. We travelled to East Germany, with its surly border guards and its nail-polish ice cream and its Smiley's People-era chocolate, and to Czechoslovakia, where to say anything real we had to go out into the middles of parks, so afraid were our Czech friends of being bugged.

Finally we went to Poland, which was another story altogether. Poland had always been viewed by its neighbours as recklessly brave, or as bravely reckless. The well-known anecdote about the Polish cavalry charging the German tanks on horseback may or may not have been true, but it was emblematic; and that recklessness or defiance was still there in Warsaw in 1984. Taxi drivers wouldn't drive you anywhere unless you had hard currency; writers offered you armfuls of samizdat - unofficial publications - which they kept stored right on the premises of the supposedly communist writers' organisation. While we were there a priest had been found murdered, presumably by the secret police; There was a Catholic parade and as we watched the flinty-eyed nuns and the angry, determined priests and their crowds of followers, we thought: This regime is in trouble.

And then we met the man who helped to bring it down.

Kapuscinski wrote The Emperor: Downfall of an Autocrat in 1978. On the surface it's about Haile Selassie of Ethiopia and the collapse of his corrupt and absolutist regime, and, read simply as that, it's a terrific book. Kapuscinski, the journalist with the Polish recklessness that took him through 27 coups and revolutions - streams of refugees heading one way, away from trouble, Kapuscinski heading the other way, into the middle of it - gets himself to Addis Ababa and sneaks around at night, interviewing former courtiers who are now in hiding, and setting down anecdotes about the emperor that range from the unintentionally comic - his cushion provider had to slide exactly the right size of cushion under his feet for every chair he sat on, at the risk of leaving his short legs dangling - to the horrifying: beggars gobble scraps from palace feasts, eyeballs squirt from sockets.

But The Emperor had another level of meaning for the Poles, who, throughout the Nazi occupation and then under the Soviets, had become used to speaking in coded language. As Kapuscinski himself says of those times in Travels with Herodotus, "Nothing was ever plain, literal, unambiguous - from behind every gesture and word peered some referential sign, gazed a meaningfully winking eye." Thus, because one corrupt, autocratic regime is likely to have many things in common with another, The Emperor could be read as a critique of the moribund Polish communist government. The book quickly made it on to the stage, in one dramatisation after another, and contributed greatly to the popular unrest that finally toppled those in power. The brilliance of The Emperor as a tactic was that the communists could hardly object to it, for wasn't it about the badness of monarchy - a form of government to which they were devotedly opposed?

The Emperor was translated into English in 1983, just in time for us to read it and then to meet Kapuscinski in Warsaw in 1984, and to shake his hand. He was a member of the same extraordinary generation that included Tadeusz Kantor, the outstanding director and playwright, and the novelist Tadeusz Konwicki - men who had lived through the second world war as children only to reach adulthood within a one-party communist system, but who had nevertheless managed to produce astonishing works of art. Although Kapuscinski's settings were many and his material varied, his underlying themes remained constant - fear and oppression and how people cope with or transcend it, meagre circumstances and how they can both warp and ennoble, the stifling drawn-out torture of political monocultures, and the abiding desire of human beings to possess their own souls. Such themes are entirely understandable in view of Kapuscinski's own constrained youth.

Kapuscinski seemed to me shy and charming and diffident; my husband said that might be so, but underneath all of that he was hard as nails. I suppose he would have to have been both: the shyness and charm and diffidence kept him from being shot at roadblocks in the midst of chaotic civil wars, and the nail-like hardness propelled him towards those roadblocks in the first place.

There was always something surreal about encounters with genuine writers inside the Soviet bloc in those days, and maybe Kapuscinski's diffidence was caused in part by that surrealism. At polite official occasions there was what was said, and then there was what was not said, but was supposed to be understood. "Why do you have so many beautifully illustrated children's picture books in Poland?" I asked another writer, at a book fair. "Think about it," she replied.

In January 1986, Kapuscinski was in Toronto for the English publication of his 1982 book Shah of Shahs, about the spectacular overthrow of the shah of Iran and his brutal regime, which featured Savak, his hideous, torturing secret police. This book bears rereading now, so prescient is it about the patterns that continue to unfold in the Muslim world. Kapuscinski was going to appear at the Harbourfront international writers' series, and he was nervous: he didn't think his English was good enough for a public reading. Would I be his English voice, and do the readings from his books for him? I said I would be honoured, but at the same time I was thinking - Wait a minute! Ryszard Kapuscinski is nervous? About reading in English? In safe, unthreatening Toronto, where everyone will love him even if he manages to blurt out only one word? What about the murderous turmoil in the Congo, the bombs falling in Honduras, and the life-risking riots in revolutionary Tehran?

Kapuscinski's nervousness on that Toronto occasion was endearing. It was also a little like Mary, Queen of Scots, worrying about whether her cap was on straight while on her way to the scaffold. But then, there is no predicting other people's spheres of nervousness.

Because he was a foreign correspondent - for many years, Poland's only foreign correspondent - Kapuscinski seemed ubiquitous, at least when it came to rotten political structures in their moments of crumbling or catastrophe or dire bloodshed. Where there was chaos, there he would be. In Imperium, which describes his journeys through the Soviet Union in 1989-91, just as it was coming unglued, there is a characteristic passage:

... the news exploded that a large city of a million inhabitants had been poisoned ... severely, dangerously, mortally.

"A new Chernobyl," commented a friend who relayed the news to me.

"I'm going there," I replied. "If I can get a seat, I'm flying tomorrow."

All his life, Kapuscinski longed to travel, and he longed to travel to precisely those places that the ordinary pleasure-seeking tourist would take pains to avoid. It's therefore more than appropriate that in his last book, Travels with Herodotus, he invoked the first famous travel-writer of this kind: Herodotus, "the father of history". What Kapuscinski wanted more than anything as a young man was "to cross the border" - at first the border of Poland, but then, increasingly, every possible border. What drove him on was his endless curiosity about humanity, in all its forms. Like Herodotus, he listened and recorded, but did not blame. All his life he was on a quest - a quest, rather than a mission. What was it he wanted to find? Exotic detail, certainly; cultural differences; the rich patchwork that had been so absent in postwar Poland. But beyond that - even in the midst of the most extreme bloodshed and sadistic revenge and degradation - our common human goodness. In what lies our hope? Perhaps it was dignity - that simple dignity that is everywhere the target of oppressors, but that can never be entirely eradicated. The dignity that says no.

Surely no other writer has had greater grounds for pessimism, considering all he saw, but this is not an emotion Kapuscinski expresses often. More frequent is the note of wonder: wonder that such things - both splendid and squalid - can exist on earth. Near the end of Travels with Herodotus, there's a single line. It describes merely a scene inside a Turkish museum, but it has the ring of an epitaph for this modest man who was a superlative witness to our times, and so I will place it as one:

"We stand in darkness, surrounded by light."



The Foreign Correspondent
A posthumous work by a legendary Polish journalist recalls his first forays abroad.

Reviewed by Tahir Shah

Sunday, June 24, 2007; BW08


By Ryszard Kapuscinski

Translated from the Polish by Klara Glowczewska

Knopf. 275 pp. $25

A year ago, while on an official visit to Ethiopia, I was given a tour of the Imperial Palace in Addis Ababa by the president. He showed me the treasure vaults in the basement where ancient Ethiopian crowns sit alongside other national treasures, including a vial of moon dust presented by NASA and a signed portrait of JFK, furnished by Jackie O. And I was taken into the bedroom of Emperor Haile Selassie, which has been left untouched in the decades since he was smothered with a pillow during a coup d'etat. On the nightstand were the emperor's medications, and in his closet a line of starched white uniforms, all in extra small. As I stood there, amazed that the palace's interior could have escaped the anarchy that had swept the surrounding capital, I found myself wishing that a certain unassuming Polish journalist could be there with me to share the experience.

His name was Ryszard Kapuscinski, and he was a character right out of a Graham Greene novel.

As World War II slipped into the Cold War, developing nations were lured fervently by Washington and Moscow. The front line was often a despotic African state such as Angola or Zaire, or a tumultuous Central Asian republic such as Afghanistan. "Third World" guerrilla conflicts were covered by a hardcore group of Western reporters, most of them backed by legendary expense accounts. But Kapuscinski lived in a world apart.

A correspondent for the Polish News Agency, he could hardly afford to file his stories by Telex, let alone hire helicopters or personal security. But unlike his suave competitors at the international networks, he became known for treating the stories he was sent to cover with a gentle sensitivity that was almost unknown in the business. Africa was the cornerstone of his writing life. He considered it his second home. During his long career he observed 27 coups and revolutions and reported from a roll call of hotspots -- among them Uganda, Zanzibar and Ethiopia.

Kapuscinski famously kept two notebooks -- one for journalism and another for his own form of reportage-based literature. His unique style won him many awards, translations and an enormous international following. He died in January of this year, and his last book, published posthumously in English, is called Travels with Herodotus. The Greek's 5th-century B.C. Histories, presented to Kapuscinski by his editor as he stepped out on his first foreign assignment, was his traveling companion on almost all his journeys.

Travels with Herodotus is a work of art: so eloquent, so simple, that you find yourself marveling at its prose, its gentle observation and the rhythm of the words. And you find yourself applauding such good translation as well. Kapuscinski reminisces on his first view of the Nile, back in 1960; on his great love, India; and on the time he watched Louis Armstrong play to a bemused audience in the Sudan. "He greeted everyone," Kapuscinski writes, "raising into the air the hand holding his golden trumpet, and said into the cheap, crackling microphone that he was pleased to be playing in Khartoum, and not only pleased, but downright delighted, after which he broke into his full, loose, infectious laugh. It was laughter that invited others to laugh along, but the audience remained aloofly silent, not quite certain how to behave."

All through the book, Herodotus is by Kapuscinski's side, a traveling companion, mentor and trusted friend throughout a long career. He reflects on the Greek historian's vision of the world he knew, and of the lands through which he himself traveled. My only criticism is that such fine writing doesn't need a gimmick, if the use of Herodotus's great work could be construed as that. And of course some may consider this yet another work by an author sometimes regarded as being loose with his facts. Even if Kapuscinski did meddle with the truth from time to time, I would say he understood the subjects of his reportage and their environment in a way that's rare. For me, this is a travel book that all students of writing and of literature ought to read, not so much to learn what to put into their writing, as to glean what to leave out.

The deeper, tacit message in Travels with Herodotus is surely that journalism now, with its celebrity roving correspondents who jet in and out of conflicts, misses the point. This new brand of reporting never connects with the subtleties and with the people on whose land trials and tribulations fall. Kapuscinski will be remembered for a kind of writing and a standard seldom present in the reportage we read today; just as he will be remembered for a humility, a selflessness, that touched every word he wrote. ·

Tahir Shah is the author, most recently, of "The Caliph's House: A Year in Casablanca."



Travels with Herodotus, by Ryszard Kapuscinski, trans. Klara Glowczewska

On the road with two ace reporters

Reviewed by Paul Cartledge

Published: 22 June 2007

Ryszard Kapuscinski died in January, aged 74. We trust that his end was a good one, since his beloved Herodotus teaches that how a person dies reflects back upon the whole life, either bequeathing to posterity a reputation for goodness or possibly - as opulent Lydian King Croesus was shocked to learn from his wise adviser, Solon of Athens - the reverse. Travels With Herodotus was originally published in Krakow in 2004, a distinguished addition to a highly distinguished oeuvre, and it has been rendered into very good English by Klara Glowczewska. Such linguistic details matter. It is still not clear to me whether the Herodotus text with which Kapuscinski travelled the world was in ancient Greek or modern Polish. Even if the latter, for an amateur (in all senses) Kapuscinski displays a sophisticated appreciation of his source. This is both a rattling good read, and a superior work of reflective instruction.

Of course, Kapuscinski was not just a traveller, any more than Herodotus in the fifth century BCE had been. He was, in the word favoured in this translation, a reporter, and his Herodotus was not only the Father of History (and, truth to tell, some Lies too) but also of Reportage. Travels With Herodotus is riding a pretty tall and powerful wave of both Herodotean scholarship. and of non-academic interest in the man and his work.

This is as it should be. Herodotus, as Edward Gibbon sagely observed, writes sometimes for children and sometimes for philosophers. He tells rich tales (what he called logoi) beautifully. But disagreement abounds as to just what sort of philosophy Herodotus espoused. My own take on it accords quite closely with Kapuscinski's; Herodotus is the attractive face of globalism or, as I prefer, cosmopolitanism.

Herodotus's cosmos, though, was very much more circumscribed than Kapuscinski's, veteran observer of allegedly no fewer than 27 revolutions and coups. (Herodotus would have liked the symbolism of thrice times nine). China, sub-Saharan Africa, Latin America - none was even dreamed of in Herodotus's philosophy; not to mention the ex-Soviet empire of which Kapuscinski's Imperium (1994) stands as a towering witness. Born in Pinsk, now in Belarus, in 1932, Kapuscinski, who placed immense weight on human remembrance, could recollect graphically in that memoir his experiences as a young boy in Poland in 1939.

Here, memory begins to speak in 1951, as the author listens to a lecture by a distinguished Polish historian of ancient slavery, and yet more insistently in 1956, when as an officially accredited journalist on The Banner of Youth he was briefed to undertake an assignment in unimaginably alien and distant India. To accompany him, his editrix presented him with his golden book, his ever-faithful companion to be: a text of Herodotus. It was to mean at least as much to the Polish reporter as his 19th-century edition did to Ondaatje's fictional "English Patient".

Around his reading and exposition of the ancient Greek writer, Kapuscinski weaves in deft past-present counterpoint a series of brilliantly edited accounts of his own journalistic experiences, some almost as trying as those terrifying tales of individual mutilation and mass slaughter that crop up all too readily in the Histories of Herodotus. The closest generic parallel to Travels With Herodotus that I can think of is Neal Ascherson's post-Soviet Black Sea. Among the many points of contact is their faithful retailing of the emblematically tall story of the Amazons.

"Histories", as Kapuscinski acutely points out, is not really the right translation of the Greek historiai, which means something much more like "investigations" or even "researches". Not that Herodotus was a dry-as-dust academic pedant. Instead his first thought was "to go on the road. The road is our source, our vault of treasures, our wealth. Only on the road does the reporter feel like himself, at home." And in his fertile imagination, Kapuscinski conjures up for himself, and for us, a vivid vignette of Herodotus the reporter on the road, asking questions, questions, questions. More than this, he has the knack of making us go behind Herodotus's text, asking of it questions without end. Not surprisingly, Kapuscinski does occasionally nod; for example, he gets the ancient institution of the proxenos (roughly "consul") arsy-versy. But these are minor blemishes when judged against the massive achievement of the whole.

Sadly, even Kapuscinski's capaciously generous citation of Herodotus cannot find space for the tale to end all his wonderful tales. Once upon a time... (dramatic date about 500 BCE) the Persian Great King Darius summoned representatives of two of the many peoples thronging his multinational capital of Susa in western Iran: Greeks and Indians. He wanted, as an enlightened as well as omnipotent ruler, to carry out a comparative ethnographic experiment involving one of the most deeply identity-laden areas of all human conventions: funerary customs. How much money, Darius first asked the Greeks, must I bribe you with to abandon the custom of your ancestors, that is cremation, and adopt the custom of these Indians here, that is cannibalism of their relatives' corpses? Don't even think about it, the Greeks replied indignantly. Asking the same question in reverse of the Indians, Darius received an even more indignant, even more horrified, response.

What is significant is what Herodotus does not say. He does not cast aspersions, as the average Greek in his audience would have done, on the ghastly barbarity of these Indian savages. Instead, with cosmopolitanist evenhandedness, he remarks that this story illustrates how every people always prefers its own traditional customs to those of every other, believing them moreover to be not just relatively superior but absolutely the best.

Kapuscinski, with his animating spirit of cultural humility, would surely endorse that lesson. Other not-so-gentle Herodotean lessons, about revenge, retribution, crime and punishment, might profitably be applied today to any number of global hotspots. His optimistic observation that "We stand in darkness surrounded by light" might well serve as his epitaph. Look to the end, indeed.

Paul Cartledge is professor of Greek history at Cambridge University; his latest book is 'Thermopylae' (Pan)








A 20th-century Herodotus


June 23, 2007


By Ryszard Kapuscinski

Translated by Klara Glowczewska

Knopf, 275 pages, $32

Ryszard Kapuscinski is the unsung hero of gonzo journalism. The late Polish journalist is a must-read. Hunter S. Thompson got all the credit for getting blitzed while writing about American politics, but Kapuscinski's legacy puts Thompson to shame. He frequently risked his life collecting stories about civil wars and revolutions in the Third World, not by flirting with drug overdoses.

He made complicated political situations in the Third World understandable, engaging and exciting. Why? He put a human face on them. Wars are not mere chess exercises. People plot them. People fight them. People die in them. Kapuscinski makes the reader see these faces.

Though he was among the great journalists of our time, Kapuscinski's work was not without controversy. Academics have questioned the accuracy of the facts in his memoirs. Recently, Poland's right-wing government unveiled government files stating Kapuscinski cut a deal with the Polish secret police to leave the Iron Curtain and do his job.

This makes his final testament all the more intriguing. It has few of his own accounts of death-defying story-gathering and bizarre political intrigue. In previous books, he wrote about wrestling cobras and narrowly escaping execution by mercenaries. But what does he choose to recount in his final testament? Reading a book. He goes to Asia, where he reads a book. Years later he goes to Africa and reads the same book.

The book? The Histories, by fifth-century B.C. Greek writer Herodotus (often called the "father of history"), documents his travels far beyond Greece. It was an enigmatic gift from Kapuscinski's editor on his first assignment overseas. It became his favourite book. End of story. Sort of.

On first impression, it seems as if Kapuscinski cops out by submitting his own longhand entry to a CBC "My Favourite Book" segment. He lets a dead Greek do a lot of the work for him. Kapuscinski extensively quotes lengthy passages from the original and summarizes the storylines.

To be sure, there are some of his own stories, told in his usual lean but beautifully descriptive language, but he mostly sticks to personal anecdotes about experiencing culture shock in Italy, India, China and Egypt. Instead, Herodotus gets to recount the weird imagery and inexplicable behaviours that Kapuscinski normally documents. We get details on a dictator who marries his sister and goes grave robbing, a military commander who devises a plan to defeat his enemy by self-mutilation, a eunuch who extracts a vicious revenge on the man who sold him into slavery, a defeated emperor who wants nothing more than to sleep with his son's wife. And there's plenty of killing on the battlefield.

This isn't so much Kapuscinski writing about the Third World as it is writing about himself. Kapuscinski died of cancer this past January, at 74. He probably knew this was the last book he would write. He is answering his critics, informing us how he developed his world view, and telling people how to read his work.

In this sense, Travels with Herodotus may be an important read for his fans, not for the politics, but for the themes that run through it. In bouncing back and forth between tales of getting his legs as a foreign correspondent and the stories of Herodotus, Kapuscinski tells us he finds kinship with a Greek who lived more than two millennia ago. Why?

First, Kapuscinski - who was born in Pinsk, then part of Poland and now in Belarus - grew up in a country torn apart by one brutal dictator, Hitler, then oppressed by another, Stalin. Herodotus writes about mad dictators and brutal wars 2,500 years in the past. Why do different cultures go to war in the 20th century? Why did the Greeks and Persians go to war against each other two millennia ago? Really, not much has changed over time - except for the technology.

Second, Kapuscinski wanted to see beyond his own country, despite the difficulties in being allowed to travel outside Iron Curtain Europe. Herodotus was also curious about the world at a time when long-distance travel was extremely difficult.

Last, Kapuscinski was less interested in recitation of the facts than in telling an engaging story and making readers see the beauty in foreign lands and cultures. Herodotus put a personal, human touch on his history. Kapuscinski did the same. History is, after all, storytelling.

Finally, somebody bothered to translate. Had not someone decoded Herodotus from ancient Greek and translated him into Polish, and had not Stalin died before Kapuscinski got his first newspaper job, the latter might not have learned how to put a human face on politics and war. Read into the text what you will, but without those who translate languages and cultural phenomenon - call them the globalists - people are at the hands of the same vainglorious kooks who've gotten the bulk of the press for the last 2,500 years.

While Travels with Herodotus is certainly not inaccessible to Kapuscinski novices, it isn't as captivating as his other books. Start with The Shadow of the Sun, The Soccer War or Shah of Shahs. Those already initiated ought to read this, mull it over, then reread his other books.

Bob Keelaghan is a musician and freelance journalist from Calgary with an interest in international politics. He has followed Kapuscinski's career and read his books for years.



'Travels With Herodotus' by Ryszard Kapuscinski

A wide-ranging journalist's bond with the 'father of history.'

By Ben Ehrenreich, Ben Ehrenreich is the author of the novel "The Suitors."
June 10, 2007


"THERE is nothing worse than finding yourself alone in somebody else's country during somebody else's war," commented Ryszard Kapuscinski in his 1991 book "The Soccer War" while describing a terrifying crawl through the jungle front line of a now largely forgotten 1969 conflict between El Salvador and Honduras.

Yet Kapuscinski, the Polish journalist who died earlier this year at 74, found himself in similar straits again and again over four decades and on as many continents. Excuse the passive construction — he did not find himself anywhere. As Third World correspondent for the Polish Press Agency, he sought such places out and in the course of his efforts was sentenced to death four times and witnessed 27 coups and revolutions.

He also wrote more than a dozen extraordinary books (seven have been translated into English) chronicling, among many other things, the falls of Haile Selassie, the shah of Iran and the Soviet Union. The best of these read as fluidly as novels — wise, sad, absurd and formally inventive — as if Kafka and García Márquez had teamed up and pinched Isaac Babel's press pass.

Kapuscinski's last book, "Travels With Herodotus," is more meditative than his earlier volumes and, in its odd, allusive (and elusive) way, more introspective. It leaps from place to place — Louis Armstrong singing "Moon River" in the Sudanese desert, an eerily silent Algiers after the overthrow of Ahmed Ben Bella — using Herodotus' "The Histories" as a connecting thread.

It makes an apt concluding chapter to his corpus, an attempt by a consummate observer to account for the route traced by his own life via the great Greek traveler and proto-historian. The two men, separated by 2 1/2 millenniums, shared a compulsive, openhearted curiosity and one overarching concern — the consequences of imperial hubris or, as often as not in Kapuscinski's case, post-colonial hubris. They also suffered the same disease, the "contagion of travel." Who better to write about a man who could not sit still than a man who could not sit still?

Traveling the Polish countryside as a young reporter in the 1950s, Kapuscinski writes, "I wondered what one experiences when one crosses the border…. What is it like, on the other side?" Foreign travel was an unimaginable privilege, yet "I wanted one thing only — the moment, the act, the simple fact of crossing the border. To cross it and come right back — that I thought, would be entirely sufficient." Kapuscinski summoned the courage to tell his editor he wished to go abroad. She asked him where. "I was thinking about Czechoslovakia," he answered. She sent him to India instead, but not before giving him the clothbound Herodotus that would be his traveling companion for years to come.

After Delhi and Calcutta came China, then Cairo and Khartoum en route to Kisangani (at the time still Stanleyville, but not for long). Herodotus became Kapuscinski's refuge. Stranded in a provincial hospital, unable to wire home, in constant danger, he found that the "events described by Herodotus so absorbed me while I was in the Congo that at times I experienced the dread of the approaching war between the Greeks and the Persians more vividly than I did the events of the current Congolese conflict."

He managed to get some writing done, chronicling the chaos that followed Patrice Lumumba's assassination, while at the same time interrogating his Greek friend with a journalist's ear for facts and a novelist's eye for detail. When Darius had 3,000 Babylonians impaled, Kapuscinski asks, "How was this done? Was one stake set, as the men of Babylon stood in a line, awaiting their turn?"

Kapuscinski hails Herodotus as the planet's first reporter and "the first globalist," for whom, he writes, "the world's multiculturalism was a living, pulsating tissue in which nothing was permanently set or defined." But he approaches the Greek primarily as fellow traveler, ever-twitching in "the cocoon of the familiar," at home only when on the move. It quickly becomes apparent that when Kapuscinski wrote about Herodotus he was writing about himself, that the Greek became an alter ego he could question without fear of self-indulgence. "What set him into motion?" Kapuscinski asks. "Compelled him to undertake the hardships of travel, to subject himself to the hazards of one expedition after another?"

He comes up with several answers: a struggle "to prevent the traces of human events from being erased by time"; a faith "in the possibility and value of truly describing the world"; simple curiosity born of a child's wondering at the line between the sun and sky — "could it be that there is another world beyond that line? And then another one beyond that?"

As someone who often spends little time beneath his own roof, I could add to Kapuscinski's list: a restless fear of stagnation, a hunger for solitude wedded paradoxically to claustrophobia in the very confines of the self. That'll get you out the door. But Kapuscinski was perhaps wise not to psychologize, admitting in the end his ignorance of the forces driving his compulsions. "We do not really know what draws a human being out into the world," he confesses. And you can almost see him winking, unsatisfied with his conclusions but eager to move on: "The one certainty is that they would like to be back on the road, going somewhere. To be on their way again, that is the dream." Against the odds, Kapuscinski died in Warsaw, in a hospital bed.
May he not rest, but wander, and in peace.



The Father of Mythic Journalism

May 30, 2007


When Ryszard Kapuscinski died in January, at the age of 74, he was praised in dozens of languages as one of the best writers of the 20th century. He never received the Nobel Prize, despite the annual rumors, yet he attained a level of international fame that many Nobelists could envy. As a reporter for the Polish Press Agency, Kapuscinski traveled to the most dangerous and remote corners of the Third World — he claimed to have witnessed 27 revolutions, and to have been sentenced to death four times. After filing his formal dispatches to Warsaw, Kapuscinski filled his notebooks with the more private and elusive insights that he turned into his books. "The Emperor," published in 1978, which documented the fall of the Haile Selassie regime in Ethiopia, was the first of his works to be translated into English. It was followed by other literary treatments of catastrophe, from "The Shah of Shahs," about the fall of Iran's ruler, to "Imperium," a tour through the fragments of the Soviet Union.

What made Kapuscinski unique among travel writers, however, was not just his intrepidity and his literary gifts. It was his paradoxical status as a truth-teller in a communist dictatorship. His portraits of Third World tyranny and corruption were also, inevitably, portraits of the tyranny and corruption at home. "The Emperor," in which Kapuscinski used interviews with Selassie's court functionaries to tell the story of Ethiopia's paranoid, doomed regime, deliberately nudged the story in the direction of parable, and it was instantly recognized as a warning back home. Like so many Eastern European writers under communism, Kapuscinski was an allegorist. Yet he would never have become so popular if he were not also a swashbuckling realist, always ready to board the rickety airplane, cross the burning desert, or confront the nervous guard at the checkpoint.

It seems like a kind of nemesis, then, that just months after his death, both pillars of his reputation — his political independence and his devoted realism — should come under attack. Last week, the cover story of Newsweek's Polish edition was the disclosure that Kapuscinski had cooperated with the communist secret police. Between 1967 and 1972, he filed reports under the code names "Poet" and "Vera Cruz," on impersonal subjects such as the political situation in Latin America and Cuban foreign policy.

While this story — the latest in a series of ugly discoveries to emerge from Poland's communist-era archives — naturally caused a sensation in Poland, it would be unfair if it caused any lasting damage to Kapuscinski 's reputation. Kapuscinski, it appears so far, was not an informer or a collaborator — he never reported on any individual or gave the state any secrets. Instead, he seems to have written the kind of regional analysis that you could find in any newspaper. According to a 1981 document in his file, he "did not pass on any essential material the secret police was interested in." In short, Kapuscinski, like everyone else under the communist dictatorship, was forced to pay symbolic homage to the regime, to make obeisance in exchange for his unusual privileges. The moral of the story is not that Kapuscinski sinned, but that a tyranny leaves its dirty handprint on even the best of its subjects.

The more troubling criticism of Kapuscinski has to do with his literary methods. In 2001, in a review of his book "The Shadows of the Sun" in the Times Literary Supplement, John Ryle summarized the long-growing complaints about Kapuscinski reportorial techniques. "The force of his writing," Mr. Ryle pointed out, "depends to a considerable extent on an air of certainty, on the voice of experience." Precisely because Kapuscinski went places nobody else could go, his accounts could not be fact-checked in the ordinary sense. You had to take his word for it, and because he wrote so beautifully and authoritatively, you were happy to do so.

But according to Mr. Ryle, this trust was not always earned. To native Ethiopians, for instance, the portrait of Haile Selassie's court in "The Emperor" was unrecognizable. Kapuscinski wrote that Selassie never read books, since "for him, neither the written nor the printed word existed"; in fact, he was an avid reader who spent hours in his personal library. Kapuscinski shows courtiers referring to their king as "His Most Virtuous Highness," "His Benevolent Majesty," "His Sublime Majesty," "His Charitable Majesty"; but these Ruritanian titles correspond to nothing in the Amharic language. It begins to seem that Kapuscinski was writing a fable, rather than a work of nonfiction.

Mr. Ryle went on to point out numerous other errors of fact and interpretation in Kapuscinski's African books. His criticisms gained new attention in the weeks after Kapuscinski's death, when Slate published a slashing article by Jack Shafer under the headline "The Lies of Ryszard Kapuscinski." According to Mr. Shafer, Kapuscinski belongs in the same category as con artists such as Stephen Glass and James Frey, who also passed off inventions as fact: "Exactly how is Kapuscinski different from James Frey in practice if not in execution?"

For a good answer to that question, turn to "Travels With Herodotus" (Knopf, 275 pages, $25), the first of Kapuscinski's works to appear posthumously in English. Published in Polish in 2004, "Travels With Herodotus" is clearly a work of Kapuscinski's retirement — a hybrid of memoir and literary criticism, in which he remembers his earliest journeys and his developing sense of vocation. It can also be read as a defense — perhaps even a deliberate rebuttal — against the kind of criticisms made by Mr. Ryle in 2001. For if Thucydides is the founder of scientific history — the hardheaded analyst of power politics — Herodotus is the first great mythic historian, making room in his book for every kind of good story, whether it's true or false. To write like Herodotus, Kapuscinski suggests, is not to expunge fiction from your work, but to find the higher truth that even fiction conceals.

Certainly Kapuscinski feels something more than mere literary admiration for Herodotus. "As time went by," he writes, "I began to feel something akin to warmth, even friendship, toward Herodotus. ... It was an affinity with a human being whom I did not know personally, yet who charmed me by the manner of his relationships with others, by his way of being, by how, wherever he appeared, he instantly became the nucleus, or the mortar, of human community, putting it together, bringing it into being." As he braids his own stories with the famous stories of Herodotus, Kapuscinski fashions an elegant homage to his literary ancestor, whom he helps us to see as the original foreign correspondent.

Their bond began with Kapuscinski's very first foreign assignment, in the mid-1950s. The junior reporter had begged his editor for the chance to travel, hoping for nothing better than a trip to Czechoslovakia. To his delight and dismay, he ended up being sent to India, a country about which he knew absolutely nothing. When his editor gave him the news, she also presented him with "a thick book with a stiff cover of yellow cloth. On the front, stamped in gold letters, was Herodotus, THE HISTORIES." This volume became his companion in India, where he was dazed by the immensity of the world beyond his homeland; in China, where he chafed under rigid censorship and the endless invocations of Chairman Mao; and in the Congo, where he risked his life to cover the brutal war of independence. The pages of Herodotus offered the kind of dramatic stories and human meanings that were so hard to find in the real world: the Scythians defying Darius's army, Xerxes lashing the disobedient sea, Themistocles urging the Athenians to fight for their freedom.

Kapuscinski does an excellent job of bringing these ancient stories to life. Educated by the atrocities of his own time, he refuses to let Herodotus's ancient atrocities become distant and abstract. When he reads about Darius's destruction of Babylon, he wonders: "But impaling three thousand men on the stake? How was this done? Was one stake set, as the men of Babylon stood in line, waiting their turn? Did each look on as the man in front of him as impaled? Were they bound to prevent their escape? Or were they simply paralyzed by fear?" Substitute machine guns for wooden stakes, and you could be in the occupied Poland of Kapuscinski's childhood.

Yet "Travels With Herodotus" is hampered by the fact that it is, in the end, a book about reading a book — not a very dramatic activity. There is something deliberately anticlimactic about the way Kapuscinski will turn from, say, a glorious description of Ethiopian landscape — "One feels like the king of the world here" — back to his copy of "The Histories," picking up the narrative where he left off in the previous chapter. In "Travels with Herodotus," the great story-teller is not telling his own stories but retelling someone else's. And the morals he finds in them can be disappointingly platitudinous: "His most important discovery? That there are many worlds. And that each is different. Each is important."

If Kapuscinski 's last book is not a major work, however, it does shed light on his whole achievement as a writer. For in explaining Herodotus's methods, one feels, Kapuscinski is also defending his own. Like the Greek, he is less a researcher than a voyager, who gets at the truth by talking to people and retelling their stories:

He was probably one of those chatterboxes who prey upon helpless listeners, who must have them, who indeed wither and cannot live without them; one of those unwearying and perpetually excited intermediaries, who see something, hear something, and must immediately pass it on to others, constitutionally incapable of keeping things even briefly to themselves. To be a conduit is their passion: therein lies their life's mission.

Like Herodotus, Kapuscinski was not always an accurate reporter, but he was always one of those vital "conduits," and that is why his books continue to live.


The son of the Father of History


Last Updated: 12:01am BST 21/06/2007

Justin Marozzi reviews Travels with Herodotus by Ryszard Kapuscinski

Ryszard Kapuscinski was one of the 20th century's finest foreign correspondents, a first-hand witness of 27 coups and revolutions in Asia, Africa and Latin America and author of half a dozen books on faraway places. His fans, of whom there are many, cherish his artful blend of reportage and prose. Among his books which did much to shape the genre are The Emperor, which chronicled the demise of Haile Selassie's regime in Ethiopia, Shah of Shahs on Iran and Imperium, a memoir on his long relationship with the Soviet Union. Of the many epithets he was given after his death earlier this year, one was especially flattering: the Herodotus of our times.

The comparison with the free-spirited Greek historian is not entirely absurd. Both men sought to understand other peoples and cultures by travelling great distances to meet them, talk to them and attempt to discover what made them tick. Both were attempting, in their different ways, to ensure, in Herodotus' famous phrase, that 'human achievements may not become forgotten in time, and great and marvellous deeds ... may not be without their glory'. By the standards of his time, Herodotus was the world's first multiculturalism.

It is natural for a foreign correspondent like Kapuscinski to identify most closely with Herodotus the roving reporter. In Herodotus he sees himself and his own trade reflected. So The Histories is 'world literature's first great work of reportage'. And there is nothing wrong with this association. It is true the Greek went out into the world, travelled relentlessly across deserts and seas, islands and cities, collected his information methodically and reported it with tireless zest and elegance.

But one can equally value Herodotus as anthropologist, geographer, travel writer, storyteller, dramatist, philosopher and, above all, in Cicero's celebrated moniker, as the Father of History (Plutarch christened Herodotus the Father of Lies, but he was a mean-spirited old buffer).

It is also worth stating an important difference between journalism and Herodotus. A day or two after they're published, newspapers are reduced to wrapping for fish and chips. The Histories is still in print 2,500 years after its author's death. Aside from being the world's first great piece of reportage, it is the world's first great piece of prose.

Travels with Herodotus tells the story of Kapuscinski's peregrinations across the planet with the ancient Greek by his side. Thirsting for the chance merely to travel outside Poland as a cub reporter in the 1950s, he gets his chance when his then editor summons him into her office, sends him off to India and hands him a farewell gift.

' "Here, a present for the road." It was a thick book with a stiff cover of yellow cloth. On the front, stamped in gold letters, was Herodotus' The Histories.' Little did he know he was embarking on such a wildly globetrotting career.

We dip in and out of The Histories repeatedly with Kapuscinski, enjoying the more popular stories - Xerxes lashing the Hellespont in fury after storms destroy the bridge he has built to launch his invasion of Greece - as well as the more obscure - a Spartan called Hegesistratus sawing off half of his foot to escape from his death-row shackles.

Herodotus is a masterful storyteller on his own; one of his translators, Aubrey de Sélincourt, wrote that his prose 'has the flexibility, ease and grace of a man superbly talking'. With Kapuscinski adding an engaging running commentary with kernels of wisdom, insights, shared sympathies and eminently human observations on the people and places he encounters, it is an attractive and tuneful duet.

Far too much, indeed almost everything written about Herodotus these days, is academic, a good deal of it unreadable. Try The Aspectual Usage of the Dynamic Infinitive in Herodotus, whose author shall remain anonymous, for starters. It is an awkward irony that the man whose prose is so beautifully crafted, so breezily conversational, should have his reputation governed, often traduced, by academics who struggle to write a single sensible sentence.

Kapuscinski, of course, does not fall into this category. He writes spare, characterful prose that is a pleasure to read. In fact, given the many digressions here, the discrete chapters on his travels to India, China, Congo, Egypt, Sudan, Ethiopia, Algeria, Senegal and Iran, the reader can happily dip in and out of Kapuscinski just as he flicks through Herodotus.

Academics won't like it very much - I found it fascinating - but Kapuscinski can't help himself asking flurries of questions in the wake of a Herodotean story or remark. He wants to know how Herodotus travelled, what he was like, how he treated his slaves. Like Herodotus, he always wants to know more.

Thus, after the blood-soaked tale of Xerxes' wife Amestris mutilating her sister-in-law in misplaced jealousy, he wonders: 'Did she hurl insults at her while slowly, piece by piece (because the sharpness of steel was still unknown), hacking off her breasts? Did she shake a fist at her, the same fist in which she gripped the bloody knife? Or did she just pant and hiss with hatred? How did the guards behave ... Did they ogle the breasts?'

Which certainly brings Herodotus and his stories alive. And kicking.




An adventurer and his guardian spirit


Last Updated: 12:01am BST 12/07/2007


Geoff Dyer reviews Travels with Herodotus s by Ryszard Kapuscinski tr by Klara Glowczewska

This is the second time in recent years that a great writer has exhumed Herodotus from the past, holding up his Histories to the glare of modern times. First time around it was Michael Ondaatje, whose English Patient managed to hang on to an edition of The Histories "that he has added to, cutting and glueing in pages from other books or writing in his own observations".

That, essentially, is what Ryszard Kapuscinski has done in this long-awaited book ("The Polish Patient"?): play off his own experiences against the huge narratives of the ancient world. Unfortunately, the wait was just a little too long: published in Poland in 2004, the English translation comes five months after its author's death.

Travels with Herodotus fills some of the gaps in - and covers some of the same ground as - the haphazard dispatches of The Soccer War, Imperium and The Shadow of the Sun. Having completed his studies, Kapuscinski, in the mid-1950s, was a cub reporter on a newspaper in Poland, tormented by a desire to "cross the border". As the Polish foreign correspondent, Kapuscinski spent much of his life doing just that - and witnessing 27 revolutions and coups in the process.

In his way, he was a kind of gonzo journalist, putting himself in absurdly perilous situations and then reporting back on the results. "I was driving along a road where they say no white man can come back alive," he wrote in The Soccer War. "I was driving to see if a white man could, because I had to experience everything for myself." This is how we think of Kapuscinski: "bathed in sweat", at the mercy of history, trusting, in spite of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, that he will encounter kindness and decency.

The portrait of the adventurer as a young man at the beginning of his Travels is a little different. His first stop is Rome, where this consummate citizen of the world feels so conspicuously provincial in his cheap Polish clothes that he hardly dares sit at a café. True, we only have to wait until page 16 to find him "dripping with sweat", but this is not because he's lying next to a cobra and delirious with malaria (see The Shadow of the Sun); no, he's just got off the plane in humid Delhi.

After India, Kapuscinski is sent to China, where "everything was illegible, obscure, inscrutable". In both places he is adrift, confused, "intimidated" by Asia. It is only after going to Africa that he develops the distinctive approach to experience and reportage that will result in the books that made his name: The Emperor (ostensibly about the last days of Haile Selassie but also a readily decrypted bulletin about the Polish state), Shah of Shahs (the Iranian revolution) and Another Day of Life (Angola).

The desire expressed at the outset was to move physically across borders, but the importance of Kapuscinski's work is that it does away with all kind of formal borders and literary distinctions (even, critics have alleged, between fact and fiction, reporting and inventing). Often classified as "reportage", his books bear witness to things that might have been dreamed up by Borges, in the manner of Calvino. In this book, a lengthy meditation on the Great Wall of China implicitly alludes to Kafka.

By travelling with Herodotus, Kapuscinski does not mean "in the footsteps of ". Sometimes he reads him in the relevant places, mostly not; Herodotus functions as a kindred and informing spirit wherever he is. The lack of a precise geographical fit matters less than the intensity of personal identification. Inevitably, the picture Kapuscinski paints of the author of The Histories is a projected self-portrait: "Judging by how he wrote, he seemed a man kindly disposed towards others and curious about the world. Someone who always had many questions and was ready to wander thousands of kilometres to find an answer to any one of them."

This aspect of the Travels is a little too overt. But then, the unsentimental truth is that this is by some margin Kapus'cin'ski's least accomplished book. There is a lot of the stuff one expects - the action, the pan-cultural empathy - but the signature digressions which, in the earlier books, could take one anywhere no longer have the same capacity to transport.

A similar tiredness is evident at the level of individual sentences. "For me, of course, raised as I was in the manner foregoingly described…" That kind of locution would be ungainly even in the memoirs of a retired general, let alone from a world-class writer. I don't know whether the fault for this lies with the author or the translator, but on one count the blame lies with the publisher. The book is afflicted throughout with a printer's error whereby words suddenly divide in two. It's a minor irritation, but it adds to the sense that this book is not Kapuscinski's hoped-for epitaph.



Andanças com Heródoto - Ryszard Kapuscinski Ed. Campo das Letras

7 de Junho de 2007 - 01h50

Ryszard Kapuscinski, o jornalista que espiava a favor da humanidade

Paulo Moura

Poucos terão comunicado tanto e tão bem como Ryszard Kapuscinski, que no entanto era um homem solitário e misterioso. Como sabia ele tanto? Como conseguiu contar tantas coisas, sem que o calassem?
Mark Kramer, professor de Jornalismo Literário na Universidade de Harvard, dizia, há duas semanas: "Nunca percebi como Kapu, vivendo na Polónia comunista, conseguiu viajar por todo o lado, enviando despachos e escrevendo livros." Dias depois, a revista "Newsweek" polaca parecia trazer a resposta: Kapuscinski era espião. Terá assinado com os serviços secretos comunistas um acordo comprometendo-se a enviar informações dos países por onde passava.
Para os admiradores, todos os que acreditam no jornalismo literário, foi a decepção. Kapu, como é tratado com cumplicidade, é uma lenda, um paradigma de honestidade e inteligência. Para muitos, é o futuro do jornalismo, se houver algum. Num mundo controlado por interesses obscuros, pela ignorância e pela alienação, ele representa a última esperança. É uma espécie de Messias, de bandeira.
Mas no melhor pano cai a nódoa. E na recente "caça às bruxas" do ultraconservador Governo de Varsóvia, o nome do mais ilustre jornalista do país foi encontrado nos ficheiros da antiga polícia secreta. Kapuscinski foi espião, isso explicava tudo.
"Isso não explica nada", foi como reagiu Kramer. "É mais complicado do que isso."
De facto, o nome do repórter consta dos ficheiros da polícia, como tendo assinado o acordo, procedimento burocrático obrigatório para quem queria viajar. Mas logo a seguir no mesmo ficheiro se diz que ele, em décadas de viagens, "não contribuiu com nenhuma informação interessante".
E talvez esteja aí a verdadeira explicação: a informação de Kapu não era "interessante" para os serviços secretos, que a não compreendiam.
"Se Kapu assinou o tal papel em troca da possibilidade de viajar", conclui o professor de Harvard, "é porque foi o negócio que teve de fazer. A longo prazo foi um bom negócio, para ele e para todos nós."
Como repórter, quase sempre ao serviço da agência de notícias da Polónia, Kapuscinski viajou pela Europa de Leste, pela Ásia, África, Médio Oriente, América Latina. Viveu em muitos países diferentes, cobriu 27 revoluções e muitas guerras. Flutuou entre os seres humanos, como num oceano, ao sabor das suas ondas. Em África, acompanhou os movimentos de libertação e as independências. No Irão, assistiu ao nascimento do fundamentalismo islâmico. Na URSS presenciou a queda do comunismo. No oceano da aventura humana, tudo viu e tudo descreveu. Mas com linhas tão finas, que passavam nas malhas da rede da censura.
A sua lógica atravessava os muros da guerra fria. Era uma lógica de ultrapassar fronteiras, de fazer perguntas estranhas e de percorrer milhares de quilómetros em busca das respostas. Os seus temas, a sua técnica, a sua forma de escrever não os aprendeu com jornalistas russos nem americanos, mas com um autor que viveu na Grécia há 2500 anos.

Fronteiras, o fascínio
Heródoto escreveu apenas um livro, em nove volumes. Título: "Histórias". Não parece muito original, mas era. Porque ninguém tinha ainda escrito um livro com aquele título. Kapuscinski leu este livro e partiu, com ele na mala. Era novo e trabalhava num pequeno jornal polaco, o "Sztandar Mlodych" ("Estandarte dos Jovens"). Mandavam-no investigar as situações descritas nas cartas à redacção. Coisas como o Estado ter confiscado a última vaca a uma família. Ele vagueava de aldeia em aldeia, de camioneta ou carroça, a fazer reportagens. Por vezes, chegava a povoações perto da fronteira. Habitava pouca gente nesses lugares. Reinava o silêncio e o vazio, o que para Ryszard significa mistério, fascínio. Começou a imaginar como seria atravessar uma fronteira. O que haveria do outro lado? Seria muito diferente? Tão diferente que não o poderíamos compreender? E no momento de passar a fronteira, qual seria a sensação?
Começou primeiro a sonhar com esse momento. Imaginava-se a atravessar a linha fronteiriça e a voltar para trás. Só para experimentar aquela emoção.
Um dia a chefe de redacção perguntou-lhe, de passagem, pelos seus planos futuros e ele teve a coragem de dizer: "Gostava de ir ao estrangeiro." Um ano depois, a chefe, uma mulher muito bonita chamada Irena, disse-lhe: "Vamos mandar-te à Índia." E ofereceu-lhe um livro: "Histórias", de Heródoto.
Kapuscinski não sabia nada sobre a Índia. Pior: não sabia o que fazer numa terra estrangeira. Pior ainda: não falava inglês. Decidiu regressar à Polónia. Chegou ao porto e disseram-lhe que o barco da carreira Bombaim-Gdansk não podia sair, porque o Presidente do Egipto, Nasser, nacionalizara o Canal do Suez, provocando a reacção militar da Inglaterra e da França.
Condenado a ficar na Índia, Kapuscinski começou a ler Heródoto. A surpresa e a emoção foram enormes, ainda maiores do que as de atravessar fronteiras: Heródoto, nas suas viagens, tinha tido os mesmos problemas, e ensinava a resolvê-los. Mais de 450 anos antes de Cristo, Heródoto teve o problema da língua, e procurou guias e intérpretes. Encontrou estalagens ou tendas, ou a casa de alguém, para passar as noites. Entrevistou pessoas para saber as histórias dos lugares e as tradições dos povos. Confirmou informações, formulou perguntas a partir das respostas que ia obtendo, viajou milhares de quilómetros para alcançar mais respostas. Caminhou, comprou cavalos para os percursos mais longos. Tomou notas, organizou narrativas.
Kapuscinski ia lendo as "Histórias" de Heródoto e ia aprendendo. Era o livro que tinha à mão, e não precisou de mais. Estava lá tudo: os métodos, mas também os grandes temas, as grandes questões. O primeiro parágrafo, que se tornou numa litania para a vida, as viagens, o trabalho de Kapuscinski, era um programa imenso. Um programa para milhares de anos: "Esta é a exposição das investigações de Heródoto de Halicarnasso, para que os feitos dos homens se não desvaneçam com o tempo, nem fiquem sem renome as grandes e maravilhosas empresas, realizadas quer pelos helenos quer pelos bárbaros; e sobretudo a razão por que entraram em guerra uns com os outros."
Estas investigações, que Heródoto começou e Kapuscinski continuou, definem o Homem. Pelo menos assim as interpretou Kapu. Ao referir-se aos "feitos dos homens", Heródoto identifica o protagonista das suas Histórias, constituindo-se como o primeiro globalista. "... para que não se desvaneçam com o tempo" é a expressão que consagra a importância da memória e da cultura. "... Realizadas quer pelos helenos, quer pelos bárbaros" significa o olhar para o outro, a sua natureza e a sua razão. Por fim, "por que entraram em guerra uns com os outros" é a enunciação do enigma da humanidade. A única matéria que vale a pena estudar, o único problema que vale a pena resolver.
No livro "Andanças com Heródoto", o seu último, Kapu explica, no meio de viagenspor vários continentes, quais são os seus temas. Os dele e os de Heródoto, que são os mesmos.
Para explicar a natureza da memória refere-se a Heráclito, que, antes de Heródoto, considerava o fogo a origem da matéria. Tudo, segundo Heráclito, é igual ao fogo: vive de movimento contínuo, apaga-se para se reacender depois, passa e, ao circular, transforma-se. Para Kapuscinski, esta é a definição da memória: "Algumas imagens apagam-se e são imediatamente substituídas por outras. Só que as novas não são iguais às precedentes, são diferentes. Da mesma forma que não nos podemos banhar duas vezes na mesma água de um rio, também é impossível a uma imagem nova ser igual à anterior."
Tal como Heródoto, Kapu viajou toda a vida, para manter acesa a chama da memória. Para procurar as respostas às grandes perguntas. Mas acima de tudo porque se fascinava com as fronteiras e porque esse fascínio nascia de um mal-estar.

Andanças com Kapuscinski
Heródoto viveu em Atenas, a cidade mais importante do mundo de então. Mas o seu pai não era grego. Heródoto era filho de imigrante, era mestiço, por isso não podia ser cidadão ateniense, e teve de partir. "As pessoas, nessa situação, crescem entre várias culturas e têm nas veias uma mistura de sangues. Dentro do seu imaginário funcionam conceitos como zona fronteiriça, distância, diferença, diversidade", escreve Kapuscinski. E é a visão destas pessoas que lhe interessa. Porque é a visão verdadeira da História.
Também ele, Kapu, se sentia estrangeiro na sua terra e quis partir. Depois da Índia, enviaram-no para a China. O choque foi ainda maior. Para se proteger, transformava-o em revelação. A Grande Muralha, por exemplo, serviu-lhe para contar histórias da China e do resto do mundo. Algumas da sua própria terra, como tão bem aprenderia a fazer mais tarde. "Uma das maravilhas do mundo é, em simultâneo, exemplo da fraqueza e aberração humana, prova de um erro terrível da História, uma impotência do entendimento humano", escreveu. Representa "a impossibilidade de convocar uma mesa redonda para debater como utilizar com proveito os recursos materiais e intelectuais. Tudo falhou porque a primeira reacção perante eventuais problemas foi construir uma muralha". Através do monumento chinês, Kapuscinski investigou a natureza humana, desmontou os mecanismos da agressividade, do medo e da ignorância, explicou como cada homem tem a capacidade de interiorizar os rudimentos da sua própria escravidão. "Nem é preciso que o defensor do muro esteja fisicamente perto. Pode estar distante da muralha, basta que guarde consigo a sua imagem e venere as normas impostas pela sua lógica."
Como seu correspondente internacional da agência de notícias polaca, Kapuscinski instalou-se depois em África, onde fez a cobertura dos movimentos independentistas, deste o Zaire até Angola. Se a Ásia o intimidara desde o início, a África foi-lhe mais próxima, mais dócil. "As civilizações da Índia, da China e da Grande Estepe pareciam-me gigantes que exigiam, cada uma, uma vida inteira para as estudar, sem pensar em as conhecer profundamente. África, por seu lado, parecia-me mais fragmentada, mais diferenciada, miniaturizada na sua grandeza, e por isso mesmo mais acessível e compreensível."
Naquele momento, a grande aventura dos homens estava em África. Como sempre, eram "os feitos dos homens" que interessavam Kapu, que partiu, com Heródoto na mochila, antes de, mais tarde, ter regressado à Europa de Leste e à URSS, quando, com a queda do comunismo, a aventura se transferiu para ali. "O papel de África foi enorme; ela mudou a hierarquia do mundo e possibilitou ao Novo Mundo ultrapassar o velho, por lhe ter fornecido a sua mão-de-obra e durante três séculos lhe ter dado força e riqueza. Depois, o continente, despovoado, tornou-se alvo fácil para os colonizadores europeus. Mas agora estava a despertar da letargia, consolidando forças para conquistar a independência."
Um dos capítulos de Heródoto é sobre o Egipto. Escandalizando as autoridades religiosas e políticas atenienses, disse sem problemas que todos os deuses da Grécia eram egípcios. Nas suas viagens por África, Kapuscinski continuou a escandalizar autoridades políticas e religiosas com o mesmo facto facilmente observável. "Podemos defender a tese das raízes não europeias da cultura europeia, e esse assunto provoca discussões desde há 2500 anos, envolvendo muitas ideologias e emoções."
Em África, nos despachos que enviava para a agência, mas sobretudo nos livros que publicava anos depois, como "Ébano", Kapu descreve as especificidades dos movimentos independentistas. Mas sem perder o fio condutor com o resto do mundo e a História. Nem com Heródoto. "Naquela altura, no Congo, as histórias descritas por Heródoto absorviam-me tanto que, por vezes, sentia mais o terror da guerra que ia crescendo entre gregos e persas que a guerra civil do Congo, onde era correspondente."
Ali, no Congo belga, em 1960, reflecte sobre a crueldade gratuita e a arbitrariedade. "Esses são os únicos momentos em que sinto uma solidão mais profunda: quando estou sozinho perante uma violência impune. O mundo esvazia-se, despovoa-se, desaparece."
Em África, Kapuscinski investiga e discorre sobre outro dos seus temas predilectos: as migrações. No meio da guerra do Congo, põe esta questão científica simultaneamente simples e complexa, circunstancial e radical: no pânico do ataque a uma aldeia, para onde fogem os refugiados? Que direcção tomam, o que levam? "Os civis, principalmente mulheres e crianças, fogem. Os itinerários destas andanças são geralmente muito difíceis de reconstruir. Geralmente, trata-se de fugir para o mais longe possível do campo de batalha, mas não tão longe que se percam e não possam encontrar o caminho de volta. O mais importante é encontrar algo comestível pelo caminho. São pessoas pobres e costumam levar consigo poucas coisas: as mulheres, um vestido de percal, os homens, calças e uma camisa. Levam também algum pano para se cobrir de noite, um tacho, uma caneca e um prato de plástico. E ainda um balde onde cabe tudo isto."
Que repórter, numa situação de guerra, pensaria em descrever o conteúdo do saco de um refugiado? Que repórter veria nisso algum sentido, para além do "fait-divers"?
Que jornalista poderia compreender na pobreza das tribos africanas a riqueza da humanidade? "São 30 a 50 pessoas. Este é o núcleo de uma tribo. Mas porque é que este núcleo tem também de ter a sua língua? Como pôde o cérebro humano ter inventado uma diversidade linguística tão grande? E cada língua com o seu léxico, gramática, flexão, etc.? Pode-se compreender facilmente que uma nação milionária, graças ao esforço colectivo, invente uma língua. Mas aqui, na selva africana, e tratando-se de tribos pequenas, que vivem no limiar da miséria! Andam descalças e eternamente esfomeadas, mas, apesar de tudo, guardam ambição, criatividade, imaginação, sensibilidade e memória musicais, suficientes para conceber uma língua diferente, só para seu uso. E não é só a língua, porque, desde o início, inventam também os deuses. Cada tribo tem os seus, únicos e insubstituíveis."
Nas suas lições a jovens jornalistas, Kapuscinski falava de cinco sentidos: ver, ouvir, sentir, compartilhar, pensar. Que repórter usa os cinco sentidos?
Heródoto começou as suas investigações e Kapuscinski continuou-as, 2500 anos depois. Estão muito longe de acabadas. E agora Kapuscinski morreu.

THE TLS n.º 5451, September 21, 2007


September 19, 2007


Persians in Polish

Edith Hall


Ryszard Kapuscinski


275pp. Allen Lane The Penguin Press. £20.

978 0 713 99848 1


Ryszard Kapuscinski, widely regarded as the greatest journalist of the twentieth century, died in January this year. Virtually the last sentence he wrote was the one that concludes this volume of memoirs. It is a description of the receptionist at a hotel in Bodrum, Turkey, the modern name for the ancient town of Halicarnassus, where the ancient Greek historian Herodotus was born. As she greeted the ageing Pole, the “black-eyed” young Turk’s smile was professionally polite, but “tempered by tradition's injunction always to maintain a serious and indifferent mien toward a strange man”.

In this brief encounter there is crystallized the effect of this book – a solitary European’s account of Asiatic and African cultures, in all their beauty but also in their impenetrability, and always in the company of Herodotus. In 1956, as a young newspaper reporter, Kapuscinski was given a copy of Seweryn Hammer’s translation of Herodotus – the first to appear in Polish – by his shrewd editor-in-chief as she despatched him to India. He began reading it on the flight to New Delhi and continued for the rest of his life. Travels with Herodotus narrates how Kapuscinski came to identify Herodotus as his role model and inspiration, both in his approach to ethnic difference and in his methods as a writer. He regards Herodotus as the first true “globalist”, who espoused “multiculturalism” and who in his lively, observant Histories composed the first great example of “reportage” in world literature.

Kapuscinski fails to say, of course, that Herodotus has since antiquity also been widely regarded as the “father of lies”. Perhaps this is a wise omission, since it is now known that under Communism, as foreign correspondent for the Polish news agency PAP, Kapuscinski also engaged in espionage. Yet none of the retrospective dirt that became attached to his name after 1989 can alter the candour and delicacy with which he explores the effect of Polish political culture on the way he conducted ethnography. A desperately impoverished childhood in wartime Warsaw made him incapable of tolerating or describing objectively the vast gulf between rich and poor that he witnessed in India, and the secular ethos of his education rendered him insensitive, he admits, to the importance in other cultures of religion, whether Hindu polytheism or Islam.

Kapuscinski witnessed many revolutions and survived several life-threatening situations, even death sentences. But he is fully aware of his own recklessness and restlessness, claiming that both he and Herodotus belonged to a tiny minority of humans destined from birth to become travel writers, fanatical cultural missionaries who devote their lives (at whatever personal cost) to the discouragement of the one thing he really hated – small-minded xenophobia. Kapuscinski made huge efforts to study the alien cultures to which he found himself posted (he was defeated by Chinese ideograms only after a considerable struggle). He declares himself an enemy of what T. S. Eliot called the “temporal provincialism” that makes people blind to the “other country” of the past. It is only in permanent dialogue with our ancestors, Kapuscinski was convinced, that the human race can become fully alive to its history as “an uninterrupted progression of events”. He therefore imagines that he is actually an eyewitness to the epoch-making events that make up Herodotus’ account of the rise of the Persian Empire, such as the emotional trauma during the siege of Babylon, or the chaotic Battle of Salamis.

The reconstructions slide into riveting comparisons: Cyrus’ attempt to subdue the Massagetae of the Russian steppes reminds him of Napoleon’s ill-fated campaign on Moscow; Tomyris, the proud queen of that Pontic tribe, becomes a prototypical anti-colonial hero; Cambyses, the deranged King of Persia, provides a model for Stalin’s last years of paranoid bloodletting in the 1950s. Many of Kapuscinski’s comments on the Persian Empire are informed by his direct personal experience of both Nazism and Soviet Communism in Poland. In the post-war world he is aware of the receding global influence of Britain (especially in India and Hong Kong) and of France (in North Africa). His fascination with Herodotus’ theory that the motor of history is revenge has unsettling implications for postcolonial European states, above all in his account of the savagery in Congo as the Belgian administrators fled in 1960.

It is not clear whether Travels with Herodotus was finished to its author’s satisfaction. Sometimes it reads like a series of unfinished essays on Herodotus inserted between recycled newspaper articles. This could be a deliberate attempt to imitate Herodotus’ discursive style, with its myriad digressions and embedded anecdotes, but there are classic symptoms of the unrevised manuscript, especially undisciplined repetitions. Yet there are also passages of the breathtaking descriptive brilliance to be expected from the author of Shah of Shahs (1982): mass cremations on the banks of the Ganges; the view from his plane of a sunset over Kabul; the drive from Peking to the Great Wall of China; Louis Armstrong sweating profusely, in his suit and bow tie, as he sang Deep South ballads before a nonplussed crowd in a Sudanese stadium. Epigrammatic phrases sparkle through the sometimes stilted translation from Polish: Herodotus’ Mediterranean world was “a bright Arcadia that every few years overflows with blood”.

Aspects of Kapuscinski’s admiration of Herodotus will inevitably annoy classicists. The one real defect is his conviction that Herodotus was non-partisan in his construction of “the Greeks” as freedom-loving democrats standing up to the tyrannical Persian Empire. In fact, it was the Greeks themselves who invented this profoundly ethnocentric view of the cultural gulf between East and West, precisely at the time of the Persian Wars that Herodotus recounts. Kapuscinski also blatantly appropriates Herodotus to the cause of his own self-marketing. Herodotus, we are told, must have been charming, patient, genial, convivial and intolerant of the distinction between slave and free.

Notwithstanding such irritations, this is a fascinating book. Besides one episode in Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient (1992), Herodotus is not one of the charmed circle of ancient Greek authors – Homer, Sappho, Sophocles – who surface often in the modern canon. There can be no better introduction to Herodotus’ Histories for the general reader than this vivid memoir, nor any better case made against provincialism of any kind.


Letters to the Editor


The TLS n.º 5452 September 28, 2007


Kapuscinski and the secret police


Sir, – Edith Hall’s review of Ryszard Kapuscinski’s posthumous Travels with Herodotus (September 21) is radiant with admiration and critical appreciation of Kapuscinski’s achievements. However, in her third paragraph, Professor Hall, surely inadvertently, does Kapuscinski’s reputation and memory a gross disservice. Having noted that Herodotus has long been considered “the father of lies”, she then allies this to (her) comments on the spying charges which have recently been raised against Kapuscinski by the pseudo-historical state-run Polish Institute of National Remembrance, a front organization for the witch-hunt currently being inflamed across Poland by the Prime Minister, Jaroslaw Kacynski, aided and abetted by his Presidential twin, Lech, and by their Law and Justice party. Hall states without qualification that “it is now known that under Communism, as foreign correspondent for the Polish state news agency PAP, Kapuscinski also engaged in espionage. Yet none of the retrospective dirt that became attached to his name after 1989 can alter the candour and delicacy with which he explores the effect of Polish political culture on the way he conducted ethnography”.

Whatever the “can alter . . .” sequence of that sentence may or may not mean, Professor Hall will know, or should know, that the spying case against Kapuscinski, with its obvious construction that he thereby betrayed the principles for which his work and life are justly acclaimed, is entirely innocent of substance, utterly devoid of proof.

The facts: on May 21 this year, the Polish edition of Newsweek reported that it had found in Communist-era secret police archives, now held by the Institute of National Remembrance, assorted documents which showed that from 1967 to 1972, as a PAP foreign correspondent, Ryszard Kapuscinski, using the code names “Poet” and, later, “Vera Cruz”, had provided material for Polish intelligence, his “mission” to collect and collate information on American companies and citizens as well as to supply data on the US, Israeli and West German intelligence agencies.

What, though, were the fruits of this mission? The secret police documents reveal that in 1970, as products of his “spying”, Kapuscinski dispatched descriptive reports on the general political situation in Latin America, with emphasis on Cuban foreign policy and a report on the political situation in Mexico; the “reporter-spy” also penned a number of straightforward profiles of various people he had met during his journalistic assignments. On his return to Poland in 1972, Kapuscinski’s file was closed, and a 1981 secret police document, quoted by Newsweek, concluded that he “did not pass on any essential material the secret police was interested in”. It was common practice during the Communist era for any Polish citizen who travelled abroad on a regular basis to sign an agreement with the secret police, which for Kapuscinski allowed him to work abroad while at the same time maintaining vital links with his Polish homeland and with his family. Spying? Hardly! Kapuscinski might just as well have provided Warsaw with blank pages.


6 Bowness Avenue, Headington, Oxford



The Passenger


This article, here