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5.0 out of 5 stars A fascinating weave, 28 July 2009
This review is from: Travels with Herodotus (Paperback)
Kapuscinski was a great journalist and travel writer, and in part of this, his last, book he presents a few fragments, a minuscule part, of his wide experiences. These fragments become shorter and shorter while his reflections about Herodotus become longer and longer, so much so that the greater part of the work is about the Greek historian. The book is beautifully translated from the Polish by Klara Glowczewska.

Born in 1932, Kapuscinski grew up in a Poland which had become Communist after the war. He became a journalist, and round about 1955 he was sent abroad, in the first place to Italy. The first set piece comes early in the book: his first time out of Poland, his first travel by air, and the stunning impression, as his aircraft descended at night to Rome airport, of a city sparkling with lights and such a contrast with the very low-wattage country from which he had come.

Then he is sent to India: another memorable description of dense crowds sleeping on the platforms of Calcutta railway station.

To China next, and the highlight of that section for me is him spelling out the contrast between the teachings of Confucius and those of Lao-Tse.

He has sinister experiences in Cairo. He was in the Sudan and then in the anarchically violent Congo, then in the Abyssinia of Haile Selassi, where travel was scarcely less dangerous. After this, the accounts of his travels become ever briefer. In Dar-es-Salaam he is struck by the multi-ethnicity of that meeting point between Africa and Asia. Then to Algiers, arriving the day after Ben Bella had been overthrown by the military (1965), and a city where the mix of populations and religions was more flammable. Next Senegal and Goree, with their terrible history of the slave trade. He was in Iran during the final days of the Shah's rule; but says little about the political situation, much more about his visit to Persepolis, to which he was drawn by Herodotus' stories of the Persian Empire.

For, from the beginning, he has always taken on his travels a copy of the Histories of Herodotus, a writer whose attraction to him is such that not only does he become very fond of him, but also finds that he came to identify more and more with the world and events that he portrayed than with the world which Kapuscinski was himself experiencing, aware though he is of the gap between the facilities (transport, reliable maps, sources of information like libraries or archives, methods of communication) available to the two of them. Herodotus helps him to escape from what T.S.Eliot called `the provincialism of time'.

Kapuscinski often interrupts the stories of his own experiences by recounting episodes he has come across in the works of the great historian. These sometimes deal with the regions in which Kapuscinski is himself travelling at the time; but at other times I can see no direct connection between their narratives. However, there is a strong connection between their interests. Like Kapuscinski, Herodotus has the urge to record, so that history should not be forgotten. Like Kapuscinski, Herodotus is intrigued by the sheer difference between his own civilization and the customs and mind-sets of other people; and both are insatiably curious and restless, always on the move. Both writers are seized of the vastness of the spaces in their own time, and even more by the vastness of the spaces of which they know nothing. Herodotus' accounts were based on his own travels in search of oral information about the past history of these regions, though he frequently tells us that he cannot vouch for the truth of what he has been told. Sometimes Kapuscinski recreates Herodotus' scenes in his mind, bringing his own imagination to bear. At other times he is frustrated by questions to which he himself would want answers; and he is struck also by the absence of any moralizing or commentary in Herodotus' accounts of the most appalling cruelty, massacres and unspeakable barbarities, though at other times Herodotus will make philosophical judgments about history - judgments which have profoundly influenced Kapuscinski. All this emerges while we are led through Herodotus' accounts, first of the expansion of the Persian Empire and then of that epic conflict between that Empire and the Greeks which has captured the imagination of generation after generation: Xerxes versus Themistocles; freedom versus servitude; sea-power versus land-power; Thermopylae, Salamis.

A fascinating weave.
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