Sunday, June 6, 2010

Always there at the collision of cultures... (Books - Travels with Herodotus by Ryszard Kauscinski)

When Poland still sat behind the iron curtain, Polish journalist Ryszard Kapuscinski traveled to far flung countries both Eastern and Western - Iran, Egypt, India, China. Early on he reported for the Soviet-run press services but he is now remembered as having been the writer of observant, beautifully written, book-length pieces of journalism about places most of his countrymen would never see - generally distant and sometimes dangerous places undergoing some political unrest or outright revolution. Many of his travels were made with Herodotus's 2500-year-old The Histories in tow. Kapuscinski's Travels with Herodotus looks back on his travels using The Histories as a lens through which to reflect on what forces influence the formation of a country from a clan or a culture from a country, and what happens when those cultures collide.

Thrust into India in the early 1950s with only Polish and Russian, he took both solace in and instruction from Herodotus:
Cast into deep water, I didn't want to drown. I realized that only language could save me. I started to think about how Herodotus, wandering the world, had dealt with foreign languages. Hammer writes that Herodotus knew only Greek, but because Greeks at the time were scattered over the entire planet, had their colonies, ports, and factories everywhere, the author of The Histories could avail himself of help offered by the countrymen he encountered, who serves as his translators and guides... I approached India not through images, sounds, and smells, but through words; furthermore, words not of the indigenous Hindi, but of a foreign, imposed tongue [English], which by then had so fully taken root here that it was for me an indispensable key to this country, almost identical with it. I understood that every distinct geographic universe has its own mystery and that one can decipher it only by learning the local language. without it, this universe will remain impenetrable and unknowable, even if one were to spend entire years in it.
Spoken like a writer.

There are three qualities Kapuscinski brings to his work that make him the ideal revealer of places. From reading his Imperium I thought that one was fearlessness, but this memoir reveals that that was not true. It was more like a nearly guileless innocence that seemed to bring him smack into the center of dangerous situations.
Once, as I was leaving the hotel, one of these people stopped me and asked that I follow him - he would show me an old mosque (I surmised that the man was one of them, as he always stood in the same spot, surveying what was probably his beat). I am by nature quite credulous, to the point even of regarding suspicion not as a manifestation of reason but as a character flaw; now the fact that an undercover agent proposed a visit to a mosque instead of ordering me to report to a police station brought me such relief - joy, even - that I agreed without a moment's hesitation.
The second was the recognition that he has much to learn about other people. The third was a quality that he brought to finding out about them - that is a curiosity coupled with imagination. The result is that what he sees on his travels or what he reads in Herodotus generates questions about the place he is in or the people he is with, questions about the specifics of their circumstances or their internal life. For example in reading of Herodotus:
What sort of child is Herodotus? Does he smile at everyone and willingly extend his hand, or does he sulk and hide in the folds of his mother's garments... Is he obedient and polite, or does he torture everyone with qeustions...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 at lessons? Does he slip others answers? Is he a tattletale?
As he reads Herodotus on the sixth century Babylonian uprising against the Persians:
Once their rebellion was out in the open, this is what they did. The Babylonian men gathered together all the women of the city - with the exception of their mothers and of a single woman chosen by each man from his own household - and strangled them. The single woman was kept on as a cook, while all the others were strangled to conserve supplies...

Our Greek says nothing more about this mass execution. Whose decision was it? That of the Popular Assembly? Of the Municipal Government? Of the Committee for the Defense of Bablylon? Was there some discussion of the matter? Did anyone protest? Who decided on the method of execution - that these women would be strangled? Were there other suggestions? That they be pierced by spears, for example? Or cut down with swords? Or burned on pyres? Or thrown into the Euphrates, which coursed through the city?

There are more questions still. Could the women, who had been waiting in their homes for the men to return from the meeting during which sentence was pronounced upon them, discern something in their men's faces? Indecision? Shame? Pain? Madness?
Travels with Herodotus is chock full of these waterfalls of marvelous questions. That is what encounters with history generate in Kapuscinski, and that is why he is such a marvelous writer - an artists, really - about the things which generate countries and cultures. They remind me of the kind of the questions actors and directors ask in order to translate the generalities provided by scripts into the specifics of behavior. They are the means Kapuscinski uses to make abstract ideas observed about places most of us have never been into human terms, recognizable to the reader as close to their own. Kapuscinski introduces many such ideas - the notion that the construct of culture is at base an aristocratic one, or this one, probably my favorite:
If reason ruled the world, would history even exist?
Travels with Herodotus is not a light read, but Kapuscinski's jaunty voice and his adventures provide rich insights on the world we live in and that is why I love reading him.


Sheila O'Malley said...

I still miss him. He didn't write that many books. They're all marvelous. I still ache for more.

The tribute I went to at the NY Public Library when he passed away - headed by Philip Gourevitch - was phenemonal. The audience was full of Poles. Packed with Poles. Everyone was drinking vodka in the middle of the day.

Wonderful writer.

Ted said...

Sounds fantastic! We HAVE to see each other and drink red wine.

Marie Cloutier said...

Sounds like a wonderful book. I'm not familiar with Kauscinski but he sounds like someone I need to check out.