The history boys
“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 Garcia Marquez 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.