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Kapuscinski's work is itself something of a library, including more than two dozen volumes of biography, reportage, memoir, poetry and photography, translated into nearly 30 languages. The Emperor was the first in a projected trilogy about dictators. The second installment, Shah of Shahs, traces the rise and fall of Iran's Mohammed Reza Pahlavi. Kapuscinski labored for years on a third volume, about Uganda's Idi Amin, but apparently could not find words for his excesses. When the Soviet Union foundered in the late 1980s, he abandoned Amin and headed for Moscow. The result, Imperium, is a perceptive travelogue-memoir of living under communism and watching it collapse. Another Day of Life is a harrowing account of the 1970s Angolan civil war; The Shadow of the Sun contains the best of the author's Africa reporting; and The Soccer War recounts, among other idiocies, the lethal, football-inflamed 1969 spat between Honduras and El Salvador.
Missing from that list are works dealing with the developed West. Kapuscinski's sympathies lay with the wretched of the earth the patient, plodding masses of countries suffused with sunshine and suffering. He began his career at a time when former colonies in Asia and Africa were gaining their independence: a big story for a communist-bloc press agency. Besides, Poland had itself been kicked around by imperial powers, so Kapuscinski knew what it was like as he wrote in The Shadow of the Sun "to have nothing, to wander into the unknown and wait for history to utter a kind word."
That may be why he found Herodotus good company. Travels is actually two interwoven stories: Kapuscinski's account of working in India, China, Egypt, Sudan, Congo and Ethiopia; and Herodotus' colorful observations on customs and conflicts in the equally exotic lands he visited. (Like Kapuscinski, he was accused of exaggerating for effect.) From Herodotus, Kapuscinski says he learned that "each culture requires acceptance and understanding, and that to understand it one must first come to know it."
The Greek's main subject is the costly, misguided 5th century B.C. war in which invading Persian forces were eventually repulsed by a united Athens and Sparta. Kapuscinski gets hooked by his ancient predecessor's storytelling skills. "As I immersed myself increasingly in Herodotus' book, I identified more and more, emotionally and cognitively, with the world and events that he recalls," writes Kapuscinski. "I felt more deeply about the destruction of Athens than about the latest military coup in the Sudan, and the sinking of the Persian fleet struck me as more tragic than yet another mutiny of troops in Congo." But Herodotus does more than report he also imparts a lesson that modern-day rulers should heed. "Whoever first starts a war," warns Kapuscinski, "in Herodotus' opinion commits a crime [and] will be revenged upon and punished, be it immediately or after the passage of time."
Kapuscinski, who suffered from cancer for many years, ran out of time before he could write a long-envisioned book on his Polish homeland. But from the apartment he and his pediatrician wife Alicja shared in a working-class district of Warsaw, he pounded out articles and gave interviews right up to his final hospitalization. In contrast to Kapuscinski's astounding output, Herodotus left only The Histories. In its opening passage, the ancient scribbler declares that his purpose in writing stunningly ambitious for the era is "to prevent the traces of human events from being erased by time." The Histories, concludes Kapuscinski, is an "expression of man's struggle against time, against the fragility of memory ... If he doesn't write down what he has learned and experienced, that which he carries within him will perish when he does." Thus, the world's first true reporter and his modern traveling companion share both a goal and a legacy.