A journey, after all, neither begins in the instant we set out, nor ends when we have reached our doorstep once again. It starts much earlier and is really never over, because the film of memory continues running on inside of us long after we have come to a physical standstill. Indeed, there exists something like a contagion of travel, and the disease is essentially incurable.
A renowned traveler and award-winning writer, Kapuscinski (1932 – 2007) is one of the most translated of all Polish authors. As he travels through India, China and primarily Africa, he shares his understanding of Herodotus’ Histories, the first travelogue. Reading this book is a twofer. One, you experience his spare, rigorous, intimate essays on leaving his country for the first time (superb); the nature of good, evil and retribution (illuminating, provocative), fate (moving, sensitive) and culture (intuitive, sagely). Two, through Kapuscinski’s eyes, you gain a deep understanding of Herodotus, his travels, observations and the magnitude of his literary feats – as the first historian, skilled ethnographer, raconteur, and founder, at least in the Western tradition, of that vast genre of writing called travel literature. Considering oneself well-read in this field begins with knowledge of Herodotus.
Both writers share a profound respect for the phenomenon and power of culture:
Herodotus is the first to discover the world’s multicultural nature. The first to argue that each culture requires acceptance and understanding, and that to understand, one must first come to know it. How do cultures differ from one another? Above all in their customs. Tell me how you dress, how you act, what are your habits, which gods you honor – and I will tell you who you are. Man not only creates culture, inhabits it, he carries it around with him – man is culture… In short, for Herodotus, the world’s multiculturalism was a living, pulsating tissue in which nothing was permanently set or defined, but which continually transformed itself, mutated, gave rise to new relationships and contexts.
Kapuscinski’s writing draws on lessons he learned from the Histories – wonder and wander, look and observe, listen and talk, allow the world to teach one humility (it will) and take good notes.
Kapuscinski’s short essay on Algerian culture, their revolution and the discord between the urbane “Islam of the Mediterranean Sea” and that of “the Sahara” enlightens one’s understanding of conflicts within that faith.
Through the narrative, you travel with Kapuscinski, Herodotus and characters they write about, characters that make their journeys never end.
— Tucker Cox
The photo of Mr. Kapuscinski is from The Guardian, date unknown, downloaded from Google Images.