As a 24-year-old reporter for a Warsaw youth newspaper, Ryszard Kapuscinski had never set foot outside Poland. Then, one day in 1956, his editor called him in and said he would be going to India as the paper's first foreign correspondent. Almost as an afterthought, the editor handed him "a present for the road" a Polish translation of Herodotus' The Histories. For the next four decades, that book was the journalist's traveling companion through war, peace and journalism in Asia, Africa, Latin America and Eastern Europe. As Kapuscinski writes in the newly published English translation of Travels with Herodotus, "I was quite consciously trying to learn the art of reportage, and Herodotus struck me as a valuable teacher."
That he was. The Greek writer traveled throughout the known world 25 centuries ago, describing its tribes and nations in all their diversity, and chronicling their many wars with an air of humanity and sadness. Herodotus was one of the first classical writers to leave the comfort of the agora, Kapuscinski says, and thus should be viewed "as a visionary on a world scale, an imagination capable of encompassing planetary dimensions in short, as the first globalist."
Kapuscinski was a globalist too and one of the most intrepid reporters since Herodotus. Before his death in January at age 74, he had been jailed 40 times, witnessed 27 coups and revolutions, survived four death sentences, contracted tuberculosis, cerebral malaria and blood poisoning, and was once doused with benzene and nearly set ablaze. "I was driving along a road from where they say no white man can come back alive," he wrote of that incident, in war-torn Nigeria. "I was driving to see if a white man could, because I had to experience everything for myself."
When he wasn't risking immolation for the Polish Press Agency, his longtime employer, Kapuscinski wrote books blending reportage, philosophical musings and novelistic grace. He remains a national hero to many in Poland, where he has been the subject of radio and TV documentaries, as well as Andrzej Wajda's 1978 feature film Rough Treatment. Salman Rushdie called his work "an astonishing blend of reportage and artistry." John le Carré hailed him as "the conjurer extraordinary of modern reportage."
Sometimes he was more conjurer than chronicler. Kapuscinski's writings, especially those on his beloved Africa, have inspired torrents of objections and corrections. His first best seller, The Emperor an impressionistic 1978 account of the last days of Ethiopia's Haile Selassie contains dozens of factual errors and improbable characters, like the former palace employee whose sole job for 10 years was to use a satin cloth to wipe urine from the shoes of visiting dignitaries set upon by the emperor's pet dog.
Still, these liberties do little to blunt the book's power as literature or, perhaps more important, as an allegory of Kapuscinski's own communist-era Poland. Indeed, as The Emperor was going to press, the Polish government approved an extravagant flood-control program for the Vistula River; the author phoned in a new passage about a costly dam built by Selassie. "Everything is a metaphor," Kapuscinski once said. "My ambition is to find the universal."
More recently, Kapuscinski has been accused of spying for the very communists he satirized. Citing documents in the former secret police archives, Newsweek Polska reported last month that Kapuscinski agreed to pass along information to Poland's spy agency between 1967 and 1972, probably as a condition for being allowed to travel abroad. Such deals were not uncommon for Polish journalists under the Soviet-backed regime, and in one document his handlers complain that he never gave them anything of value. With Kapuscinski unavailable for comment, the spying allegations will remain a cloud over his career. But he was acutely aware of his journalistic critics and, though he never confessed to inaccuracy, spoke of pursuing a truth that transcended mere facts. "There are so many complaints," he once said. "Kapuscinski never mentions dates, Kapuscinski never gives us the name of the minister, he has forgotten the order of events. All that, of course, is exactly what I avoid. If those are the questions you want answered, you can visit your local library, where you will find everything you need: the newspapers of the time, the reference books, a dictionary."