July 4, 2007

Pocket Book Review # 4

Travels With Herodotus, by Ryszard Kapuscinski

When he was a young correspondent, Ryszard Kapuscinski left Poland for his first foreign assignment in with a dog-eared copy of Herodotus’ “The Histories” as his only field guide. Kapuscinski’s idea for this memoir -- the last of his collections of essay and reportage -- was to describe those early travels with the father of literary travel writing, to place his early experiences in the shadow of Herodotus’ stories.

It was a lovely idea, and reading Kapuscinski is always a delight. But I have to say that this one didn’t quite seem to work as well as Kapuscinski might have intended. The early chapters, when Kapuscinski first sets off, are delightful, and of course Kapuscinski quotes the best parts of “The Histories.” He also finds some connections between Herodotus’ classic and his own adventures. But if you’ve read Herodotus before, and “The English Patient,” and seen the movie, the idea and the material will seem a bit familiar.

In the end, though, Kapuscinski turns the story toward something more personal, and more meaningful. As if he were Homer, conjuring his muse to sing, Kapuscinski writes a kind of love song to what it means to be a foreign correspondent, that is, a journalist charged with traveling to and reporting from a foreign place. The last chapter of the book is wonderful, and Kapuscinski’s final descriptions of Herodotus are the closest he comes to autobiography. When he describes Herodotus as “a vivacious, fascinated, unflagging nomad, full of plans, ideas, theories,” he is, of course, talking about himself.

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