Travels with Herodotus

by Ryszard Kapuscinski

Translated from the Polish by Klara Glowczewska
First Vintage International Edition, 2008

Reviewed by Jane M. McCabe

What a pleasure it is to review a book by one of my favorite writers, Ryszard Kapuscinski. Travels with Herodotus is the last book Kapuscinski wrote. After a long career as Poland’s most celebrated foreign correspondent, when he died in 2007, he had spent four decades reporting from Asia, Latin America and Africa and had written other six books, all worth reading: The Shadow of the Sun on his travels in Africa; Imperium, an account of the Soviet occupation of Pińsk in eastern Poland in 1939, culminating fifty years later with a trek across the Soviet Union; The Soccer War; The Emperor; Shah of Shahs on the overthrow of the Shah of Iran; and Another Day of Life.

I would highly recommend any book written by Ryszard Kapuscinski. Each is embedded, page by page, with golden nuggets of information and insight, but then I would read a grocery list if he wrote it. Tom Bissell in his New York Times Book Review of Travels with Herodotus wrote, “When the last page of this book is turned note how much smaller and colder the world now seems with Kapuscinski gone.”

What makes Kapuscinski such a great writer? It’s because he’s one who can be relied upon for intellectual companionship, a man who has compassion for the common man, and one who writes of diverse cultures with an unassuming honesty and insightfulness. He was born in 1932. After he completed his studies he began working at a Polish newspaper. Poland then was dominated by the Soviet Union. His job was to follow letters to the editor back to their points of origin. When Stalin was alive, he comments, “One couldn’t write that a store was empty—all of them, no matter how empty their shelves, had to be excellently stocked, bursting with wares.”

The closer one got to a border, the emptier grew the land and fewer people one encountered. His greatest desire then was the modest act of crossing the border. Tormented by this desire, one day he said to his editor, “One day I would very much like to go abroad.” A year later he was sent to India. He spent the rest of his life traveling the world and writing poignant descriptions of what he encountered.

From India comes this description, for example, of the Sealdah Train Station in Caluctta: On every square inch of the enormous terminal, on its long platforms, its dead-end tracks, the swampy fields nearby, sat or lay ten of thousands of emaciated people—under streams of rain, in the water and the mud; it was the rainy season and the heavy tropical downpour did not abate for a moment, I was struck at once by the poverty of these soaked skeletons, their untold numbers, and perhaps most of all, their immobility. They seemed a lifeless component of this dismal landscape, whose sole kinetic element was the sheets of water pouring from the sky. There was of course a certain, albeit desperate, logic and rationality in the utter passivity of these unfortunates: they sought no shelter from the downpour because they had nowhere to go—this was the end of their road—and they made no exertion to cover themselves because they had nothing to cover themselves with.

Such descriptions by Ryszard Kapuscinski have a way of searing themselves into my memory. I remember reading, for example, of when he lived in Laos, Nigeria, but not in comfortable lodgings for foreigners, rather in a hovel of an apartment he had taken in a poor section of the city where he was constantly robbed. I remember his telling of a woman whose sole support was the beans she cooked and sold from her single worldly possession, her pot. One day he saw her wailing in the street because her pot had been stolen.

Since Travels with Herodotus tells of traveling with one Herodotus, who was this person?

Herodotus was a 5th Century BCE Greek historian, sometimes called “the father of history.” A contemporary of Socrates, Sophocles and Pericles, he traveled along the coast of Asia Minor to the shores of the Black Sea and visited Mesopotamia, Babylon, and Egypt. The “histories” were the first comprehensive attempt at secular narration, written in a richly anecdotal style, the starting point of Western history writing. They mostly concern the Persian Wars, particularly the Greco-Persians Wars.

A Polish translation of Herodotus’ travels appeared in a bookstore in Warsaw two years after the death of Stalin in 1955, and Ryszard Kapuscinski was able to buy it. He carried this book written 2500 years ago with him on his travels and this is how an ancient historian became his traveling companion.

When I think of people who lived 2500 years ago I almost expect them to be primitives and their thought processes not nearly as sophisticated as ours, so it is a pleasant surprise to find that is impression is false, that the people who lived so long ago were quite sophisticated.

Herodotus is the prototype for a modern journalist, double-checking his facts and often cautioning his readers that reporting is often the result of hearsay and therefore may not be completely accurate.

If a writer approaches a topic with certain questions to which he is seeking answers, these questions provide a framework to which he can relate the information he gains, making his work all the more relevant, especially if his questions are the important ones that have troubled us since we have been inhabiting the planet. A reader likewise does better if as he reads he conducts a dialogue with the writer and is not just the passive recipient of what he reads.

The questions most important to Herodotus were where did the conflict between East and West originate, and why does hostility exist? Since he sought understanding he let others do the talking. Those with whom he talked were the learned Persians, and they said neither the Greeks nor the Persians were the instigators of the conflict but a third people, the Phoenicians, the sailor-merchants who when they kidnapped women triggered a global storm. The most famous story of such abduction is that of Helen of Troy. Homer’s Odyssey recounts the wanderings of Odysseus after the fall of Troy. He went there to reclaim Helen, his brother’s wife, who had been kidnapped not by the Phoenicians but by the Trojans.

From the material he gathered Herodotus tried to formulate his first law of history, the eternal law of revenge, reprisal, an eye for an eye, revenge not only as a right but as a scared obligation: whoever does not fulfill this charge will be cursed by his family, his clan, society.

Were revenge a simple matter of even the score, of setting right some grievance, then a balance might struck and people could live, once a crime is avenged, in peace, but such is not the case. More often it sets in motion an endless cycle vengeance that stretch for generations, even centuries. As Kapuscinski says, “Misfortune suddenly falls on you and you cannot fathom why. What happened? Simply this: that you have been revenged upon for crimes perpetuated ten generations ago by a forefather whose existence you weren’t even aware of.”

The second law of Herodotus is that human happiness never remains long in the same place. He uses King Croesus as his example, a man who accumulated great riches but then was plunged into despair over the murder of his favorite son and following that was humiliated in defeat. Herodotus quotes Solon here: Anyone who lives for a long time is bound to see and endure many things he would rather avoid.

The third law Herodotus articulates is that not even a god can escape his ordained fate.

Here’s a technique that Herodotus reports back to us from the 5th Century BCE that might be employed in a modern espionage movie:

When Darius was at war with the Scythians one Histiaseus shaved the head of a messenger, tattooed a message on the man’s scalp, waited for his hair to grow back and then sent the man to Miletus, who could read the message by shaving the messenger’s scalp.

Kapuscinski writes this about the kinship he grew to feel for Herodotus:

As time went by and I kept returning to The Histories, I began to feel something akin to warmth, even friendship, toward Herodotus. I actually became attached not so much to the book, as to its voice, the persona of its author. A complicated feeling, which I couldn’t describe fully. 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, petting it together, bringing it into being.

…He must have had a phenomenal memory. We modern folks, spoiled by the power of technology, are cripples when it comes to recollection, panicking whenever we do not have a book or computer at hand.

An example of this “phenomenal memory” Herodotus reports that in 485 BCE Darius died, and Xerxes assumed the throne. He wanted to avenge his father by capturing Athens. He was counseled by his uncle Artabanus, “Unless apposing views are heard it is impossible to pick and choose between various plans and decide which one is best.”

After the council met Xerxes thought about the views expressed and decided that it was not in his best interests for him to march on Greece. But that night he dreamt that a handsome man stood over him and counseled him to stay the course.

Come daylight Xerxes reconvened the council and announced that he had changed his mind, there would be no war. But that night the same apparition appeared before him, saying more forcefully than before that he must press his war against Greece. So, he went to Artabanus, who calmed him by persuading him that dreams don’t come from the gods. But then Artabanus too was visited by this messenger, threatening to burn out his eyes, unless he persuaded Xerxes to go to war against Greece. It was his fate to do so.

Xerxes spent four years creating his army. When he arrived at the Hellespont and saw that the bridges he had built to allow his army passage to Macedonia and Greece had been destroyed by a storm he punished the sea by having his soldier strike it with their whips.

Ultimately Xerxes was not successful in his war against Greece. This war, that was his fate to conduct, between the David, Greece, and the Goliath, Persia, determined the fate the world—the hegemony that the West established over the East that persists to this day. Another law Herodotus might have formulated might be that nations like people grow old and when they do they are easily supplanted by younger nations. We have seen this phenomenon again and again, as when in the 7th Century AD Muslim armies overran the Middle East, Persia, North Africa, and Spain, or when in the 13th Century the Mongols supplanted much of area the Muslims had conquered.

In closing please let me mention one more thing for how happy it made me when I read it.

The sight of the Hellespont completely covered by his ships and the coast and plains of Abydus totally overrun by his men first gave Xerxes a feeling of deep self-satisfaction, but later he began to weep.

The king is crying?

His uncle, Artabanus, seeing Xerxes’ tears, spoke to him thus: “My Lord, a short while ago you were feeling happy with your situation and now you are weeping. What a total change of mood!”

“Yes,” Xerxes answered. “I was reflecting on things and it occurred to me how short the sum of life is, which made me feel compassion. Look at all these people—but no one of them will still be alive in a hundred years’ time.”

Why would knowing of a conversation between the great Persian emperor Xerxes and his uncle Artabanus that took place 2500 years ago make me happy? It’s because it proves that that the people who lived then aren’t all that different from us today. For that I’m grateful to Herodotus and Ryszard Kapuscinski for making Herodotus accessible to me.

Jane McCabe is the Neworld Review's Book Editor specializing in History.

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