Jason Burke

Beyond The Spectacle

Travels with Herodotus


Allen Lane / The Penguin Press 288pp £20 order from our bookshop

Long-term admirers of Ryszard Kapuscinski may be disappointed to learn that in Travels with Herodotus, his last work, the Polish journalist and writer is mellower, kinder, warmer than in books published in the spit and fury of his younger years. The opening lines – a description of the moment when, as a young student in a devastated post-war Poland, he first heard the name of the Greek historian – lack the rawness of those other works. The preface of Another Day of Life, Kapuscinski’s minor masterpiece on the war in Angola in 1975, commences with the words: ‘this is a book … about being alone and lost’. The first chapter starts with the bald statement: ‘For three months I lived in Luanda, in the Tivoli Hotel.’ From his hotel room, Kapuscinski said, he could see the freighters out to sea sailing away when the news from the front was so dismal that there was no point in staying. He of course stayed. The author of Travels with Herodotus is a happier man than the driven reporter of earlier works. So nor is there the horrific immediacy of Kapuscinski’s descriptions of demonstrations in Tehran in 1979 that mark another great work, The Shah of Shahs. In that, a typically economic description of the government security forces carefully picking off a wheelchair-bound protestor left to his fate in the middle of a street by the crowd has a harrowing power. The image has stayed with me and surfaced at odd times, particularly while reporting from Iraq in recent years.

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