Ryszard Kapuściński “Travels with Herodotus” (Podróże z Herodotem) – a short book essay

I wouldn’t have it in my heart to say that I could write any semblance of an impartial review of Kapuściński’s Travels with Herodotus. Here’s why: the book is wired into my very nervous system. If you’re seeking a somewhat less biased introduction to the book, by all means, have a look at the reviews : here are links to The Guardian and The New York Times. 

I think (from hazy memory), that my mum bought it for my grandmother many years ago. My grandmother (whom I will refer to in Polish as Babcia, roughly pronounced babcha) then read it on holiday with us, and then I think my mum borrowed it or it was pressed on to me: or in fact, perhaps another copy was bought, whether for me or someone else in the family. In any case, I am not even sure if there were one or two or three copies of Travels in the family. They were read and they were cherished.

Travels with Herodotus were also set in a travel destination for Babcia, Mum and me as we were on holiday in Turkey in Halikarnassus (Bodrum), Herodotus’s birthplace. They were also my gateway drug to Kapuściński’s writing, which I subsequently received and devoured as birthday presents from Mum and Babcia: Imperium, Heban, Szachinszach, Wojna Futbolowa, and Cesarz. Did I understand these books as I read them? Not really. Do I remember them? Perhaps: a historical scene (Stalin’s cross-U.S.S. R road), a lyrical description (a gecko seen in delirium), and certain phrases occasionally recur in my head.

But what I cherished most of all in Kapuściński’s was his attitude toward the rest of the world. The urge for endless, ceaseless Travel and Understanding. It is from him that I gleaned the habit of trying to match the books to my travel destination. It is from him that I formed my rather idiosyncratic idea of what a journalists’ work should look like.

And Kapuściński claims that his view of what a journalists’ work should look like comes straight from Herodotus. Travels with Herodotus is a close-reading of Herodotus combined with a narrative of Kapuściński’s travels throughout his long and busy life. I couldn’t resist coming back to this book after doing my first read of Herodotus, though I was slightly scared that I wouldn’t like what I would find.

But I did like it. Here’s some quotes to justify why:

Herodotus reveals himself to us as anything but a provincial scribe, a narrow-minded lover of his own little polis, mere patriot of one of the dozens of city-states of which Greece was then composed. No! From the very outset, the author of The Histories enters the stage as a visionary on a world scale, an imagination capable of compassing planetary dimensions – in short, as the first globalist.

(Herodot objawia nam się nie jako jakiś zaściankowy skryba, miłośnik małego polis, patriota jednego z dziesiątków miasteczek-państewek, z których składa się ówczesna Grecja. Nie! Autor Dziejów występuje od razu jako wizjoner świata, twórca zdolny mysleć w skali planetarnej, słowem, jako pierwszy globalista.)


(…) Herodotus is never shocked at difference, never condemns it; rather, he tries to learn about it to understand and describe it. (…) All the while he returns to his great passion, obsession almost: reproaching his kinsmen for their pride, their conceitedness, their belief in their own superiority (it is from the Greek that the word “barbarian” comes, from the word “barbaros” signifying someone who does not speak Greek but rather something garbled, incomprehensible, and who by the same token is a lower, inferior being). It was the Greeks who later instilled in other Europeans this tendency to turn up one’s nose, and Herodotus fights the impulse every step of the way.


(…) Herodot nigdy nie oburza się i nie potępia inności, lecz stara się poznać ją, zrozumieć I opisać. (…) Cały czas wraca do swojej wielkiej obsesji. Jest nią wytykanie swoim pobratymcom pychy, zarozumialstaw, przekonania o własnej wyższości (to właśnie z greckiego pochodzi słowo barabaros – oznaczające mówiącego nie-po-grecku, bełkotliwie, niezrozumiale, a tym samym kogoś niższego, gorszego). Tę skłonność do zadzierania nosa Grecy zaszczepili później innym Europejczykom i ją właśnie zwalcza Herodot na każym kroku.




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