Reporter found human beings among the wreckage

Polish foreign correspondent Ryszard Kapuscinski was, for a print journalist and poet, nearly a celebrity when he died, at 74, earlier this year.

Polish foreign correspondent Ryszard Kapuscinski was, for a print journalist and poet, nearly a celebrity when he died, at 74, earlier this year. Colleagues and readers around the world celebrated his accomplishments and lamented his passing.

Though propelled by thrilling narratives, his masterpieces of reportage — including The Soccer War, Imperium, Shah of Shahs, and The Shadow of the Sun — are also compassionate, open-minded explorations of the individual, quotidian anxieties of the world.

He wrote about the human pain and folly behind the gunshots and bomb blasts in Central America, the Middle East, the heart of Africa and the collapsing Soviet Union, and made at least as much sense as can be made of the planet’s daily “shock and awe.”

His posthumous memoir, Travels With Herodotus, covers much the same ground as his previous books, but with a fascinating twist. Everywhere he travelled, Kapuscinski carried a copy of Herodotus’ The Histories, “world literature’s first great work of reportage.”

His memoir is a gloss on, an homage to and a dialogue with, a Greek ‘foreign correspondent’ who wandered over what was the known world more than two-and-a-half millennia earlier.

“The events described by Herodotus so absorbed me while I was in the Congo that at times I experienced the dread of the approaching war between the Greeks and Persians more vividly than I did the events of the current Congolese conflict,” declares the contemporary author.

Kapuscinski spent so much time alone with the great, ancient Greek that he came to think of him as a colleague and friend. He came to know him. “He must have been a cheerful, relaxed, kind man, because it is only to such people that strangers reveal their secrets.” How fortunate the 20th-century Pole felt to have such a relaxed and cheerful companion when under fire!

I have long suspected that the primary reason Kapuscinski was such an empathetic and deep-thinking reporter, was that he began his career working for relatively impoverished news organizations in Poland when the country was struggling to free itself from the misery of Stalinism. As well, the journalist had known what it was like to go barefoot and hungry as a child, back when Poland was beset by Hitler.

As a rookie reporter Kapuscinski was presented by his first editor with a copy of The Histories. The classic would be been considered a treasure behind the Iron Curtain then. With it, the young writer was able to feed his mind when the straightened circumstances of his employers made it difficult to feed his body or pay for safe transportation through blood-spattered jungles and deserts.

“My colleagues from the wealthy news agencies — Reuters, AP, or AFP — hire translators, but I lack the funds for this. Furthermore, their offices are equipped with a powerful radio: an American Zenith, a TransOceanic, from which one can tune in the entire world. But it costs a fortune, and I can only fantasize about it.

“So I walk, ask, listen, cajole, scrape, and string together facts, opinions, stories. I don’t complain because this method enables me to meet many people and find out about things not covered in the press or on the radio.”

As shared poverty brought Kapuscinski closer to the people he wandered among, Herodotus reminded him of the importance of these “little” people, and of the all-too-human fallibility of the movers and shakers.

Kapuscinski recounts the moment when both became clear to him: the nature of his task, and the technique by which he would undertake it.

The Pole was in relatively peaceful Dar es-Salaam, when he received a summons from the Algerian ambassador, a man introduced to us as Judi. “I think that it would be worth your while to go to Algiers. It might be interesting there now. If you want, I’ll give you a visa,” Judi said.

The ambassador told him little else. Kapuscinski hadn’t a clue what this “interesting” story was or how big it was.

To travel “halfway across Africa for no good reason would be a grave insubordination — not to mention a financial risk, especially given that my employer was a press agency so short of funds one had to justify at length the smallest expenditure.”

Kapuscinski flew to Algiers. A quiet coup had been staged the night before he arrived. But business carried on as usual. No tanks were visible. No mass marches. No mayhem. No visible carnage. “I walked around crushed — and furious at Judi. Why did he encourage me to make this trip? … How would I justify the expenditure?”

But in the midst of his self-pity and frustration, the reporter suddenly began to notice the life being lived on the streets around him — a small traffic accident, a post office queue…

A light went on. “Until that awakening I had been searching for spectacular imagery, laboring under the illusion that it was compelling, observable tableaux that somehow justified my presence, absolving me of responsibility to understand the events at hand…

“I went in search of the background and the wellspring of the Algerian coup, to try and determine what lay behind it and what it signified; to talk, to observe people and places, and to read — in short, to try to understand.”

Herodotus provided the precedent; Judi and Algeria provided the catalyst. Kapuscinski went on to become one of the most profound reporters of our time.

What he says of Herodotus could be said for Ryszard Kapuscinski: “His book is not a simple recording of the histories of dynasties, kings, and palace intrigues — though he does write a great deal about rulers and power, he tells us also about the life of simple people, about their religious beliefs and agricultural practices, about illnesses and natural disasters, about mountains and rivers, plants and animals.”

There is a hair-raising episode in this memoir that presents us with the young Polish reporter stranded in the middle of the Congo, facing two local gendarmes, heavily armed men with little law behind them and a long history of resentment toward Europeans — to whom a pale Polish reporter and an overbearing Belgian boss would look much alike.

Kapuscinski’s nascent career appeared over. The gendarmes reached him. We’re desperate for a smoke, said the polite young men. Kapuscinski joyfully handed over some cigarettes and everyone parted amicably.

We should all be grateful that the encounter went smoothly, that the reporter found his way out of that war, that jungle, that tortured country and into so many more conflicts. He went on to become our own Herodotus.

Once again what Kapuscinski said of his dead Greek travelling companion serves perfectly well for his own memoirs. The Histories “is yet another expression of man’s struggle against time, against the fragility of memory, its ephemerality, its perpetual tendency to erase itself and disappear.”

Travels with Herodotus, by Ryszard Kapuscinski, Alfred A. Knopf,

278 pages, $32, hard cover