The Passenger

Andrew Rice – The Nation

A very brief excerpt. Copyright The Nation
A few weeks after the revelation from the secret police archives, Kapuscinski’s final book, Travels With Herodotus, was published in the United States. Unlike Grass, the Polish author did not take this late-life opportunity to explain himself directly. Instead, he wrote an odd sort of memoir, recounting his early years as a journalist and revisiting many of the events that he described in his early works, this time with a focus on quieter moments between the bursts of gunfire. Against these memories, Kapuscinski juxtaposes long passages from Herodotus’ The Histories, a classic volume he describes as a constant companion. The implication is obvious enough: that the ancient Greek writer–the first historical figure “to realize the world’s essential multiplicity,” he says–is a stand-in for Kapuscinski himself.
This rather grandiose device allows Kapuscinski to write a veiled apologia, responding to the most persistent criticisms of his journalism: that he engaged in racist stereotyping, was factually sloppy and probably made things up. Herodotus, he writes, “did not, after all, spend his time sitting in archives, and did not produce an academic text, as scholars for centuries after him did, but strove to find out, learn, and portray how history comes into being every day, how people create it, why its course often runs contrary to their efforts and expectations.” If he made generalizations, he came by them honestly, through ceaseless travel, drawing his conclusions from observation, chance encounters and oral testimony. Kapuscinski says Herodotus relied on the wisdom of “ubiquitous guardians of memory” and cites as an example the West African griot, a wandering bard who tells tales of “what happened there once upon a time, what accidents, events, and marvels occurred. And whether what he says is the truth or not, no one can say, and it’s best not to look too closely.”
Once, when asked to name his style of literature, Kapuscinski used the Latin phrase silva rerum: “the forest of things.” His life was a dense bramble of intense and fleeting experiences, and it seems they were not acquired without cost. In Kapuscinski’s telling, Herodotus is a rootless wanderer, capable of empathy that “is sincere, but superficial.” In The Soccer War, he described his existence as a reporter similarly:
Pack the suitcase. Unpack it, pack it, unpack it, pack it: typewriter (Hermes Baby), passport (SA 323273), ticket, airport, stairs, airplane, fasten seat-belt, take off, unfasten seat-belt, flight, rocking, sun, stars, space, hips of strolling stewardesses, sleep, clouds, falling engine speed, fasten seat-belt, descent, circling, landing, earth, unfasten seat-belts, stairs, airport, immunization book, visa, customs, taxi, streets, houses, people, hotel, key, room, stuffiness, thirst, otherness, foreignness, loneliness, waiting, fatigue, life.
Kapuscinski is an extremely personal writer, yet his literary persona is elusive, always vanishing just shy of the moment of true revelation. He wrote about every place he went, but to assemble these accounts into a biographical narrative, a reader must jump around from chapter to chapter and book to book. It was not Kapuscinski’s way to tell the story straight. He wrote fairly little about his early life, at least in his main body of work. (There are apparently quite a few of his books that have yet to be translated from Polish.) Kapuscinski was 7 years old in 1939, when Germany and the Soviet Union carved up Poland, and his hometown, now part of Belarus, fell on Stalin’s side of the bargain. In his book Imperium, he describes how the NKVD marched into town and leveled its church with cannon fire. “A person who lived through a great war is different from someone who never lived through any war,” Kapuscinski writes elsewhere. “They are two different species of human beings. They will never find a common language.”
The search for words, and their ultimate failure, is a recurring Kapuscinski theme. In Travels With Herodotus, he writes of his unquenchable desire as a young man simply “to cross the border.” A committed Communist, he joined the staff of a youth newspaper at 23 and quickly became such a journalistic star–based on an investigative report into lousy working conditions at a steel factory–that he was offered a rare overseas posting, to India. With his faltering English, the young Pole was lost there. “I understood that every distinct geographic universe has its own mystery and that one can decipher it only by learning the local language,” he writes. But even after he learned to speak, Kapuscinski was still confused, and he wondered whether his mind “was too fully imbued with rationalism and materialism to be able to identify with and grasp a culture as saturated with spirituality and metaphysics as Hinduism.” Later, he visited China, where there was a new language, and a new set of misunderstandings. Then he moved on to Africa, the place he’d love best.
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