The Histories Boy


Few bodies of work have provoked as heated an epistemological ruckus as that of Ryszard Kapuscinski, the Polish journalist who made his name reporting on the convulsions of the developing world in such books as The Soccer War (1978) and The Shadow of the Sun (2001). When he died earlier this year, a number of voices took the opportunity to castigate what they saw to be his irresponsible and obfuscating approach to reportage. In a representative piece titled “The Lies of Ryszard Kapuscinski,” Slate’s Jack Shafer rejected the view that the Pole’s attempts to transcend the limitations of traditional journalism entitled him to certain licenses: “The measure of a journalist, especially a foreign correspondent, is to achieve the effect of Kapuscinski without scattering the pixie dust of magical realism.”

Yet what might seem like Kapuscin-ski’s atavistic disregard for the conventions of modern historiography—the impressionistic style, the lack of methodological consistency, the abundance of perspectives—is actually a calculated attempt to get beyond a mere chronology of events, which anyone can go and look up, to an understanding of what these events mean. Shah of Shahs, for example, an account of the 1979 Iranian Revolution, consists for the most part of a series of loosely braided vignettes in which the coup’s dramatis personae are drawn with a novelistic intensity. While sometimes disorienting, such an approach allows us to see the paucity of a narrative that seeks to explain the Shah’s rise and fall as simply a matter of military might and economic vicissitudes: It is in the realm of the imagination that people are most definitively enslaved or enfranchised. Once the Iranian population comes to see through the myth the Shah has been foisting on them—that he’s the benevolent redeemer of his nation—they are emboldened to tear down the actual mechanisms of repression and transform their society. Indeed, Kapuscinski writes that the Shah was finally undone “because he took himself too literally.”

Having grown up on the wrong side of the Iron Curtain, Kapuscinski fully understood the subversive nature of the metaphorical imagination, of being able to see through the official version of things. He spells this out at the start of his new book, Travels With Herodotus, published in Poland in 2004 and now translated into English by Klara Glowczewska: “All our thinking, our looking and reading, was governed during those years by an obsession with allusion. Each word brought another one to mind; each had a double meaning, a false bottom, a hidden significance.”

Like all his books, Travels With Herodotus is about the possibility of imagining other worlds: both foreign lands and other ways of organizing the political life of these lands. It is also a portrait of the journalist as a young man. Fresh out of college, Kapuscinski begins working for a Warsaw newspaper. After expressing an interest in going abroad, he is bundled off to India by his editor, who gives him a copy of Herodotus for good measure. The Histories, a rollicking account of the wars that raged between “Greeks and non-Greeks” in the centuries before its author’s birth at the start of the fifth century B.C., quickly becomes the intellectual compass without which our fledgling correspondent is unable to navigate (although he still spends plenty of time getting waylaid, mugged, and arrested). Kapuscinski sees Herodotus as “the first globalist,” a man who recognized that “the world is sundered, split into East and West, and that these halves are in a state of dissension, conflict, war.” Throughout Travels—and, indeed, throughout his entire oeuvre—Kapuscinski attempts to emulate the humility, curiosity, and intelligence that he sees as the chief virtues of his beloved historian.

I was prepared to adore this book; it took me 150 pages or so to admit to myself that it wasn’t very good, at least not by the high standards Kapuscinski has set for himself. It is not simply that the author revisits much of the material he has already shaped so unsurpassably (the Iranian Revolution, the African struggle for independence), repetitions that give the work the feel of a posthumously released album pieced together from outtakes and B-sides. More fatally, Kapuscinski’s once brisk and vigorous style has curdled into something effete and ponderous.

When he takes some students up on their offer to get high in the desert outside Khartoum, for example, we are subjected to a page of turgid phantasmagoria, including the flaccid circumlocution of: “I [. . .] remember floating through the skies, which were dark but of a darkness made bright, even luminous, soaring amidst multi-colored circles which parted, revolved, filled the space all around, and which resembled the light twirling of hula hoops.” A whole arsenal is deployed where a single, well-placed sniper would have done the job.

This stylistic slackening is indicative of a broader intellectual senescence. Although Kapuscinski’s books have always closed in obliquely on their destinations, so that the reader is never quite sure where he is going, but feels himself to be in safe hands nevertheless, the maunder-ing twists and turns of Travels seem those of an author who has genuinely lost his way. And after following him halfway across the globe, we are rewarded with nothing but the blandest multicultural piety: “Herodotus learns about his worlds with the rapturous enthusiasm of a child. His most important discovery? That there are many worlds. And that each is different.” This is all well and good, but one doesn’t need to leave home (or read this desultory book) to find it out.