Sunday, September 23, 2007

Son Of The Father Of History

This appeared in today's Hindustan Times.


It was during an interview with Bill Buford in 1987 that Ryszard Kapuściński defined his style of writing: “I feel sometimes that I am working in a completely new field of literature, in an area that is both unoccupied and unexplored….I sometimes call it literature by foot.”

This urge to create his own brand of literature took Kapuściński to Russia, Africa, Latin America and South Africa, among other places, resulting in not just reports for the Polish Press Agency – for whom he once was the only foreign correspondent – but books that enlighten with felicity. The most well-known, of course, being The Emperor, on the decline of Ethiopia’s Haile Selassie and Shah of Shahs, on the fall of Iran’s Mohammad Reza Pahlavi.

Now, in his last book, the posthumous Travels with Herodotus, Kapuściński takes us back to his first fumbling forays from his native Poland to India, China and Africa in the 1950s. Unlike the debonair overseas reporter of Hitchcock’s Foreign Correspondent, Kapuściński had to contend with unfamiliar languages, scarce resources and the need to be sure he had a way to dispatch his reports.

Throughout most of his travels, Kapuściński tells us, he had a faithful companion: a copy of Herodotus’ The Histories, the reading of which became an obsession, a distraction and a consolation. Travels with Herodotus, then, isn’t merely a nostalgic excursion: it also acknowledges the influence of and pays homage to the 5th century Greek historian known as “the father of history”.

Herodotus’ The Histories was a key text in furthering knowledge of the ancient Persians and Greeks and the conflicts between them. Kapuściński writes that one of Herodotus’ motivations in travelling and writing was that he was distrustful of memory, wanting to place on record the exploits of kings and countries before they were forgotten. (Which brings to mind Milan Kundera’s famous comment: “The struggle of man against tyranny is the struggle of memory against forgetting”.)

However detailed his imaginative recreation of Herodotus’ scenes – and it must be said that some of the exegeses do come across as overdone -- what remains in mind are the vignettes from Kapuściński’s early career: his untutored impressions of Delhi and Benaras, his attempts to pierce the inscrutability of his Chinese hosts and, notably, his account of watching Louis Armstrong in concert in Khartoum in 1960. Other such episodes include his trip to the ruined yet majestic city of Persepolis and smoking hashish on an escarpment overlooking the Nile.

Herotodus has, for years now, been accused of exaggeration and rumour. His fan, in this book, doesn’t directly address or rebut these charges, but does take pains to point out that, given the age in which he wrote The Histories, there was absolute reliance on the spoken word, its interpretation and on people’s memories.

Kapuściński’s efforts to create connections between his times and those of his mentor are sometimes laboured, but his enthusiasm for Herotodus is infectious, matched only by his hunger to explore and explain. It is this spirit that pervades this public chronicle of a private passion.

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