Traveling Light

Traveling Light

Travels with Herodotus by Ryszard Kapuscinski.

Travels with Herodotus
Ryszard Kapuscinski
Knopf, 2007, 288 pp., $25.00

To the extent that the two are separable, Ryszard Kapuscinski is revered as much for his legendary persona as for his work. Until his death last January at seventy-four, the Polish journalist and badass embodied the glamour of the uncompromising foreign correspondent. For decades he rushed toward the places everyone else wanted to flee, to be there for the war, the coup, even the humdrum poverty. Rather than interviewing officials, his preferred research method was idling in bars with locals. And he recorded his impressions with acuity and lyricism, in books that are often said to transcend the limits of journalism. Kapuscinski himself espoused this view in a 1987 Granta interview, describing his genre as “a completely new field of literature,” whose subject was “what surrounds the story. The climate, the atmosphere of the street, the feeling of the people, the gossip of the town, the smell; the thousand, thousand elements of reality that are part of the event you read about in 600 words in your morning paper. . . . This is more than journalism.”

More, but perhaps also less. Critics charge that, due to a combination of sloppiness and fabulism, his books are littered with inaccuracies. Two well-respected reporters, John Ryle and Michela Wrong, have documented errors ranging from the customs of tribes to the character of a given town to the reading habits of Ethiopian despot Haile Selassie. Kapuscinski enthusiasts include unshaven backpackers and esteemed novelists; his detractors tend to be people who know the regions he covered, whether ordinary residents or foreign experts.

In the end, both assessments are right: Kapuscinski transcended and violated the limits of journalism, and is probably best read as a storyteller. The Emperor, his postmortem of Haile Selassie’s dictatorship, is, if not an entirely reliable guide to Ethiopian history, an incisive and mesmerizing study of how tyranny holds together and falls apart. It evokes the choreography of everyday life in the palace, through accounts of former servants, identified only by their initials, and their extravagantly specialized duties. (One source reports that for ten years, he wiped the urine of Haile Selassie’s dog, Lulu, from the feet of visiting dignitaries.) In addition to the manifestations of the emperor’s power, this slim masterpiece also examines his techniques for sustaining it, such as rewarding loyalty while punishing talent.

Several of Kapuscinski’s other books—The Soccer War, Imperium, The Shadow of the Sun—provide a series of dispatches rather than cohesive narratives. They are inconsistent—sometimes swaggering, sometimes tedious—but they frequently crackle with arresting images, kinetic prose, and surprising insights. ...

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