Travels with Herodotus (review: 3.5/5)

travels with herodotus
“If reason ruled the world, would history even exist?”

On his first trip outside of Poland, an editor gave Ryszard Kapuściński a copy of HerodotusThe Histories (which I’ve never read or read much about, besides this recent New Yorker article). The book became his off-and-on companion for the rest of his career in journalism. Kapuściński re-narrates Herodotus journeys talking all the while about what it is to travel, to know the world, to try to learn and understand it all.

The book makes for a scattered memoir, but the sections about Herodotus’ work are pretty good. I really liked his way of humanizing all these long-dead people:

What sort of child is Herodotus?… Is he obedient and polite, or does he torture everyone with questions: Where does the sun come from? Why is it so high up that no one can reach it? Why does it hide beneath the sea? Isn’t it afraid of drowning?

And in school? With whom does he share a bench? Did they seat him as punishment, next to some unruly boy? Or, the gods forbid, a girl? Did he learn quickly to write on the clay tablet? Is he often late? Does he squirm during lessons? Does he slip others the answers? Is he a tattletale?

and later:

I imagined him approaching me as I stood at the edge of the sea, putting down his cane, shaking the sand out of his sandals, and falling at once into conversation. He was probably one of those chatterboxes who prey upon helpless listeners, who must have them, who indeed wither and cannot live without them; one of those unwearying and perpetually excited intermediaries, who see something, hear something, and must immediately pass it on to others, constitutionally incapable of keeping things even briefly to themselves.

And again, in writing about Xerxes after he flees the battle of Thermopylae:

And flee he does, abandoning the theater of war before the war’s end. He returns to Susa. He is thirty-something years old. He will be king of the Persians for another fifteen years, during which time he will occupy himself with expanding his palace in Persepolis. Perhaps he felt internally spent? Perhaps he suffered from depression? In any event, insofar as the world was concerned, he disappeared. The dreams of might, of ruling over everything and everyone, faded away.

Kapuściński went to some rough places (e.g. Maoist China, the heart of Africa at mid-century, etc.). Parallel to Herodotus, he has the occasional wondering digression into modern political absurdities. Here’s a bit about dictators and mobs and ruling over a populace without focus:

It is an interesting subject: superfluous people in the service of brute power… Their neighborhoods are populated in large part by an unformed, fluid element, lacking precise classification, without position, place or purpose. At any moment and for whatever reason, these people, to whom no one past attention, whom no one needs, can form into a crowd, a throng, a mob, which has an opinion about everything, has time for everything, and would like to participate in something, mean something.

All dictatorships take advantage of this idle magma. They don’t even need to maintain an expensive army of full-time policemen. It suffices to reach out to these people searching for some significance in life. Give them the sense that they can be of use, that someone is counting on them for something, that they have been noticed, that they have a purpose.

Yes we can? Then again, power makes for paranoia (interesting parallels here with “Tales of the Tyrant“):

What animated Xerxes: he wanted to have everything. No one opposed him, because one would have had to pay with one’s head for doing so. But in such an atmosphere of acquiescence, it takes only one dissenting voice for the ruler to feel anxiety, to hesitate.

There’s a lot to like here. I ended up skimming most of Kapuściński’s reminiscing, but it all moves pretty quickly and the Herodotus sections are worth it.