In 1955, just out of university, the Polish writer Ryszard Kapuscinski made his first disoriented forays into the world outside the Iron Curtain. He had only dreamed of the simple act of “crossing the border”. Instead, he found himself sent to India, then China, and then Africa as a foreign correspondent. Untrained for the job and unsure of himself, he takes along a copy of Herodotus’s Histories, a gift from his first boss. As that multilayered work gradually opens to yield its secrets, the methods and means of Herodotus teach Kapuscinski his trade, and the world gradually opens to him as well.
Kapuscinski does us a great service by reminding us of what a joy it is to read Herodotus. But in writing about the author of The Histories, Kapuscinski is actually writing about himself. “I was quite consciously trying to learn the art of reportage,” he writes, “and Herodotus struck me as a valuable teacher.” For Kapuscinski, Herodotus was “the first globalist” and “the first to argue that each culture requires acceptance and understanding“, and he always strove to embrace those qualities himself. In the end, the greatest lesson he drew from the book and from his own work was that “the cultures of others are a mirror in which we can examine ourselves.”
Kapuscinski died in 2007, and this poignant book, which returns to the first travels of his youth, brings his work full circle. We celebrate that life as we turn the pages, but we also mourn the fact that we have lost one of our most gifted writers of travel literature.