Travels with Herodotus

Travels with Herodotus coverTravels with Herodotus
Ryszard Kapuscinski
translated by Klara Glowczewska
Vintage (November 11, 2009), 290 pages
originally published in Polish in 2004
Kindle edition $12.99

My acquaintance with Herodotus goes back a long way. His book The Histories was assigned reading for my Ancient Greece and the Near East class during the first semester of my freshman year at Pitzer College in the fall of 1971. I have revisited Herodotus periodically since then, so it intrigued me when I came across a mention of this book.

Herodotus, you likely know, was from the Greek city state of Halicarnassus in Asia Minor. Born around 484 BCE, he traveled much of the known world and collected stories about the people and cultures of his time. Although his primary interest, he asserts, is the cause of the wars between the Persians and the Greeks, he wanders off into many diversions. Apparently he made a living and financed his travels by giving public readings, but we are fortunate that a written version of his work has survived. (The word “history,” by the way, as Herodotus uses it is closer to the sense of “inquiry” than how we commonly use the word.)

Ryszard Kapuscinski was a college student in Poland as World War II was ending and was fortunate to have a professor who taught Herodotus. He got a job at a newspaper in Warsaw and was sent to India as a correspondent. His boss gave him a copy of a Polish translation of The Histories before his departure. Never mind that Herodotus never went to India or wrote about it. Both Herodotus and Kapuscinski were travelers.

Kapuscinski’s employer had an interesting approach to his work as a correspondent. It was essentially, “Send us dispatches about whatever you find that is worth reporting.” He was pretty much left on his own. After India the newspaper sent him to China as part of a planned exchange between the two Communist countries. They recalled him after a shakeup at the newspaper for apparently improper political views. He thought it best to move on and went to work for the Polish Press Agency where he spent several decades. Kapuscinski spent a lot of time in Africa and was in Iran when the revolution overthrew shah.

Throughout his travels Kapuscinski kept his copy of The Histories with him and interweaves tales of his own activities with reflections of Herodotus and how he viewed the world. Kapuscinski points out that Herodotus repeated unlikely stories he had heard, though often expressing doubt about their veracity.

Rather than having quotes from Herodotus translated from Greek to Polish to English, the publisher received permission from Oxford University Press to quote their translation of The Histories by Robin Waterfield. The words of Herodotus are in italic, and so are easily distinguished from those of Kapuscinski.

The writing in Travels with Herodotus is lucid, clear, and flows smoothly. I know nothing of Polish or of how Kapuscinski’s writing might flow in that language, but Klara Glowczewska’s translation is nicely polished, and it’s a pleasure to read her sentences.

Travels with Herodotus, though not a new book, will engage the interest of both those interested in ancient Greek history and the person who enjoys the Paul Theroux-style travel narrative.

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