I have just read a book that I have no hesitation in calling a masterpiece, written by a guy, who, rather like myself, travelled widely around the world pursuing his job as a reporter, but, unlike myself, had an unmatched gift for describing and commenting on what he saw and experienced, a gift that, as a result, caused his books to be published in 26 languages, before he died at the age of 75 in 2007.
The author of this wonderful work was Ryszard Kapuscinski, who, of all things, was a foreign correspondent of the Polish Press Agency when the government of his country was still Communist, and certain hard-to-take norms were expected of reporters, artists, and indeed, of almost everyone.
The book in question, one of 14 of his that is available in English, is Travels with Herodotus. The book was originally published in Polish in 2004 --- so in the latter part of the author’s life, when he had time to reflect deeply on the meaning of the world.
In it he records how, as a youngster fresh out of university, he was working as a novice reporter for a youth newspaper in Warsaw, his job to follow up letters of complaint written to the editor, the idea being to discover what had caused the complaint, and report his findings back to the editor. He records that he had one unreasonable obsession, which was to cross the border. No one he knew, none of his friends, had ever been abroad, for although Stalin had died two years before, still it was considered unwise to advertise any foreign contacts one might have had. One day he met his editor-in-chief by chance in a corridor, who asked about his plans for the immediate future. He took his courage in both hands and said, “One day I would very much like to go abroad.” She was surprised, “Where? What for?” He replied, “I was thinking about Czechoslovakia.” His aspirations at the time were, evidently, not high.
A year passed before he had a call summoning him to the editor’s office, “We are sending you,” she said. “You’ll go to India.” Before their conversation ended she reached into a cupboard and gave him “a present for the road.” It was a copy of The Histories, by Herodotus.
At first he panicked. He knew nothing about India, did not speak English, and wondered how he could get on. First he went to Rome and was astounded to see an illuminated city: cities, in his experience had all been dark and gloomy. His arrival in India was even more remarkable. He found himself alone, with no idea where to go, in sweltering heat. Eventually, an old man beckoned him to follow. He followed the old man on foot to Old Delhi, where his guide deposited him outside a building marked Hotel, and left him to it. I was able to relate to this experience, because five years before, my wife and I had arrived in India, naked as two newly born babes, fresh out of New Zealand, equipped with all the deficiencies of experience and knowledge that Kapuscinski describes, except that we did speak English and could therefore make ourselves understood. To overcome his deficiency he describes how he bought a copy of a Hemingway novel, and began to cram-study the words he came across. He would have fled back to Poland except that he had a steamer ticket that required him to pass through the Suez canal, but Nasser had just nationalized it, and it was closed. So he was trapped. The hotel staff urged him to go to Benares, a sacred city, so he did so, and thus began his travels, fascinated, excited and appalled, around India, a land the reality of which was something totally out of all his previous experience. “In time I grew convinced of the depressing hopelessness of what I had undertaken, of the impossibility of knowing and understanding the country in which I found myself. India was so immense. How can one describe something that is --- and so it seemed me --- without boundaries or end?”
He made his way home, “embarrassed by my own ignorance, at how ill read I was. I realized then what now seems obvious: a culture would not reveal its mysteries to me at a mere wave of my hand; one has to prepare oneself thoroughly and at length for such an encounter…. I tried to forget India which signified to me my failure: its enormity and diversity, its poverty and riches, its mystery and incomprehensibility had crushed, stunned, and finally defeated me…. But of course I remembered India….”
As he pursued knowledge about India, reading Rabindranath Tagore, marvelling at how little Rabi, at aged four, who as a man won the Nobel Prize for literature, was awakened each morning by his farther to memorize Sanskrit declensions, and sing the Upanishads. He also kept looking for information about Herodotus, who was beginning to fascinate him. He realized that little is known about the life of Herodotus, apart from the fact he was born in Halicarnassus between 490 and 480 B.C. “greatly important years in the history of world culture,” for at that time Buddha “departs for the other world”, a year later Confucius dies, and Plato would be born fifty years later. He discovered that Halicarnassus lies “where the western shore of Asia meets the Mediterranean….It is a land of sun, warmth and light, of olive trees and vineyards. One instinctively feels that someone born there must naturally have a good heart, an open mind, a healthy body, a consistently cheerful disposition.”
He asks himself a thousand questions about Herodotus: about his parents, his childhood, his friends, his toys, his schooling, about which the great historian says nothing. He knows only that Halicarnassus was a Greek colony on land subject to the Persians, with a non-Greek population --- the Carians, and that his father had a Carian name. Most of the stories told in Herodotus’s great work record battles and immense wars, and while still a young man, the historian became embroiled in politics because his father and uncle took part in a revolt against the local tyrant, who succeeded in suppressing the rebellion. The mutineers took refuge on Samos, a mountainous island two days away by rowboat, where he spent the rest of his upbringing.(This Samos is still in the news, one of those Greek islands to which Syrian refugees have been scrambling in their wobbling, dangerous inflated boats.) In his thirties he appears in Athens, at that time a city of 100,000 people, and the most important city on the planet, where, as a sort of half-breed part-Greek he overcomes the instinctive superiority of the Athenians and makes important contacts with Socrates, Sophocles, Pericles. When the Athenians pass a law decreeing that only those whose both parents were born in Attica, the region surrounding Athens, could have political rights, Herodotus set off again and finally settled in southern Italy in a Greek colony called Thurii. Opinions differ as to what happened to him in the rest of his life. He died at the age of 60, but no one knows where. Typically Kapuscinski builds another raft of questions around the rest of Herodotus’s life, in very much the way that he built questions about the countries in which he himself spent the next forty years reporting and travelling.
He was still becoming engrossed in India and its mysteries a year later when he was told, “You’re going to China.” Once again I am able to relate to this latest experience, for 21 years later I myself went China; but in greatly changed circumstances. Kapuscinski arrived in 1957 as Chairman Mao was encouraging everyone to speak his or her piece about the direction of events, a period known as “the hundred flowers campaign.” Having encouraged free speech (“let a hundred flowers bloom, a hundred schools of thought contend” as he put it), the Chairman one day said enough of this, rounded up anyone who had expressed criticisms, and sentenced them to exile among the peasantry, doing manual work to which most of them were totally unaccustomed. By the time I arrived Chairman Mao had died two years before, and the so-called Gang of Four, who were continuing to plunge the country into chaos following the so-called Cultural Revolution, had been arrested imprisoned, and their theories disavowed.
Kapuscinski’s observations on the difference between India and China are fascinating, including as they do considerations of the differences between their main schools of thought, Hinduism, and Taoism and Confucionism. But one day he was informed by his Chinese contacts that the newspaper for which he worked had had an upheaval, and the whole staff had been sacked. With typical faux-humility, the Chinese asked him what he wanted to do, and greatly welcomed his decision to go home immediately. On arrival home he realized his assignment to China had been caused by two political thaws, that of Gomulka in 1956 Poland, and of the Hundred Flowers in China. His recall was caused by the collapse of both thaws.
On his return he left the newspaper, and joined the Polish Press Agency for which he worked for the rest of his life. It was about at this point in his book that he begins to study the travels of Herodotus. Perhaps because I know little about this part of human history, I was astonished by how contemporary it all felt, and was enchanted by the way that Kapuscinski wove his personal observations around the facts, placing his own experiences along with those of Herodotus in such a way as to create a superb amalgam of past and present. Like me, this reporter never believed in one of the major shibboleths of mainstream journalism in our day, that of objectivity. In fact, he once said, "There is no such thing as objectivity. Objectivity is the question of the conscience of the one who writes. And he himself should answer the question: is what he writes close to the truth or not?"
He called his method “literary reportage”, and the extraordinary accessibility of this to ordinary people was indicated by the fact that Kapuscinski, in the end, according to Wikipedia, fluent in English, Russian, Spanish, French, and Portuguese, and had become a visiting professor at Universities in eleven countries.
This is already too long: I will have to content myself by concluding with this observation: that the so-called philosophies and wisdom of the ancients of that time were offset by the insensate cruelties and barbarisms they were prepared to exact on each other. Also, their rational minds were usually overcome by the irrational belief in The Gods, whoever or whatever they might be. Soothsayers, who claimed to have access to The gods, were always prominent advisers before decisions were taken. In one particular case cited, the commander of the Persians, Mardonius, whose King Xerxes ached to defeat Athens because he wanted to be master of the entire known world, arrived in Athens to find the city already destroyed and the people sheltering to Salamis. He sends a messenger to them to propose they surrender without a fight and recognize Xerxes as their ruler. The envoy presents this to the highest Athenian authority, the Council of Five Hundred, with a crowd of Athenians listening to their deliberations. One member of the Council, Lycides argues for accepting the offer and coming to an agreement with the Persians. The crowd, enraged, surrounds the speaker and stones him to death.
“Let us pause for a moment at this scene,” comments Kapuscinski. “We are in democratic Greece, proud of its freedom of speech, and of thought….Lycides simply forgot that there was a war going on, and that in wartime all democratic freedoms, including the freedom of speech, are typically put on the shelf. War engenders its own distinct laws and the normally complex code of governing principles is reduced to a single fundamental imperative: victory at any cost!.... The throng, furious, is in a state of mad frenzy, no longer hears, no longer thinks, and is incapable of stopping itself. It will come to its senses only after the last stone has extinguished the life of Lycides, turned him to pulp, silenced him forever.”
A terrible event, indeed, but Kapuscinski warns: “that is not the end of it.”
Quoting Herodotus, he adds: “The uproar in Salamis over Lycides alerted the Athenian women to what was happening. With every woman arousing and enlisting the support of her neighbour, they spontaneously flocked to Lycides’ house, where they stoned his wife and children to death.”
There are many other things I would like to have drawn attention to, but I have already gone on long enough. Suffice to to say that this book is a wonderful read, brilliant in its presentation of story, and convincing, as it seems to draw attention, without ever saying so, to the unchanging nature of human kind.