You don’t need to have read Herodotus to enjoy Travels with Herodotus by Ryszard Kapuscinski, but it helps. It doesn’t help in the sense that you need to know Herodotus to understand Kapuscinski’s book, it helps in that it makes the book more interesting and engaging. If you didn’t know much about Herodotus then all the time Kapuscinski spends meditating on who Herodotus was and how he went about getting his information will probably seem a little dull. Or maybe it would get a person interested in reading Herodotus. Hard to say. But then given the title of the book, the readers will very likely do some self-selecting.
Kapuscinski knows Herodotus well. He was given The Histories as a gift on attaining his first foreign assignment and the book pretty much traveled with him ever since. Kapuscinski makes Herodotus out to be an excellent traveling companion, especially for a reporter. In order to write his book, Herodotus did a lot of traveling and talked to people wherever he went, very reporterly:
Herodotus’ book arose from travel; it is world literature’s first great work of reportage. Its author has reportorial instincts, a journalistic eye and ear. He is indefatigable; he sails over the sea, traverses the steppe, ventures deep into desert–we have his accounts of all this. He astonishes us with his relentlessness, never complains of exhaustion. Nothing discourages him, and not once does he say that he is afraid.
What propelled him, fearless and tireless as he was, to throw himself into this great adventure? I think that it was an optimistic faith, one that we men lost long ago: faith in the possibility and value of truly describing the world.
Kapuscinski interweaves meditations on Herodotus through his own personal journeys. His first time leaving Poland was to go to India. The culture shock, the shock of a radically different climate, the confusion of an inexperienced traveller, and fear make him wonder why he ever wanted to leave Poland in the first place. But as soon as he is back at home, he wants to go somewhere else. He gets sent to China. He also gets to spend quite a lot of time traveling around Africa. He has some fascinating stories to tell.
Overall what the book ends up being is not a memoir or a book about Herodotus, but a book about crossing borders, language, walls (for keeping out and keeping in), memory and history. Kapuscinski claims Herodotus’ greatest “discovery” is understanding that
we are never in the presence of unmediated history, but of history recounted, presented, history as it appeared to someone, as he or she believes it to have been. This has been the nature of the enterprise always, and the folly may be to believe one can resist it.
I liked this book a lot and am finding it hard to describe it. If I say it has a How Proust Can Change Your Life feel to it that might give you an idea of what to expect. Kapuscinski died in January 2007. He wrote a good many books that I now want to read. But I am also a bit melancholy about it, having found this wonderful author after he is gone means I know exactly how many books there are before there are no more.