Sunday, January 06, 2008

Travels with Herodotus by Ryszard Kapuściński

In 1955, when young Polish journalist Ryszard Kapuściński mentioned to his editor that he would enjoy going abroad, he was thinking about Czechoslovakia. He was stunned when she called him to her office and announced that he was going to India, a country that was pursuing better relations with Soviet-era Poland. He knew little about the country. He knew nothing about its languages. As a sort of odd parting gift, she handed him a copy of the new Polish translation of The Histories by Herodotus.

The trip to India was only the first of many trips described in Travels with Herodotus. He soon was stationed in China and later spent many years in Africa as the only Polish correspondent for a continent. Wherever he went, he took his book. As he read, he began to wonder more about the ancient Greek, whose situation must have been much like his own in some ways. How did Herodotus get his stories? Did he have troubles with translators? Was he suspected of being a spy? Was he a spy? Why did the Greek write up his travels when there was no publishing as we know it now?

Travels with Herodotus has two story lines, one set in fifth century B.C.E. and the other in the 1950s to 1990s. The ancient story gets the greater emphasis, as Kapuściński tells us much about the lands Herodotus visited. There is an especially long section about the wars between Greece and Persia. As a reader, I wish the author had told us more about his own experiences instead. The first few chapters about when he went to India and China led me to expect more of his own story. Perhaps I was reading the wrong book. It appears from the author bio that Kapuściński, who died in 2007, wrote many other books about his experiences.

I do now better understand Herodotus and ancient Greek perception of the known world. I also found the stories of ancient wars relevant to today. In one, the Greeks and Persians have been lined up against each other for weeks, but lacking favorable omens, both have delayed their attacks. In the meantime, a banquet is held to which warriors from both armies are invited. Over dinner one Persian tells one Athenian how sad he is that so many of his men will die in the coming days. The Athenian agrees but says that a soldier is bound to do as he is commanded even when no good will come of it.

Some history readers will enjoy the book, which I recommend to larger public libraries.

Kapuściński, Ryszard. Travels with Herodotus. Knopf, 2007. ISBN 9781400043385

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