Two Gems by Ryszard Kapuscinski, 10|9, 8|6

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soccer war

The Soccer War
by Ryszard Kapuscinski
Translated from the Polish by William Brand
Vintage International, 1992


Travels with Herodotus
by Ryszard Kapuscinski
Translated from the Polish by Klara Glowczewska
Knopf, 2007

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This pair of books by the late Polish journalist Ryszard Kapuscinski brims with the creativity and insight of great fiction. The Soccer War details the explorations of Poland’s sole reporter with a ‘third world’ beat, from African independence movements to Cold War flashpoints in Central America. Travels with Herodotus is Kapuscinski’s last work and is more of a meandering memoir about the shaping of a journalist who met dozens of world leaders and thrust himself into the middle of conflicts under the drudge of the pen.

Of the pair of books, the most compelling is certainly The Soccer War, for it is in this volume that Kapuscinski deftly portrays independence leaders while sharing his own experience in the forests and bullet-ridden cities. The work is a collection of insightful vignettes and free-form essays borne of direct experience.

“Why was I traveling?” a traveler asks Kapuscinski. His response: “To look, to walk around, to ask, to listen, to sniff, to think, to write. “

Kapuscinski witnessed several dozen coups, yet all the while managed to articulate a detached, considered understanding. He began his career in India and China, and moved on to a lifelong relationship with the African continent:

In those days, the 1960s, the world was very interested in Africa. Africa was a puzzle, a mystery. Nobody knew what would happen when 300 million people stood up and demanded the right to be heard. States began to be established there, and the states bought armaments, and there was speculation in foreign newspapers that Africa might set out to conquer Europe. Today it is impossible to contemplate such a prospect.

The title piece depicts the five day war between Honduras and El Salvador in 1969. Sparked by deteriorating diplomacy and an inflammatory soccer match, the Soccer War produced one of the most fascinating pieces of reportage ever written. The book is worth reading for this section alone.

Travels with Herodotus is a very different kind of work. In it we find Kapuscinski seeking kinship with other wandering journalists, charting his inspiration to the ancient Greek Herodotus. Given Herodotus’ Histories by a colleague as a gift, he carries it across continents and ideologies. Herodotus traveled throughout the Mediterranean, engaging locals, sampling foods, and, unusual for his day, listening to the exotic tales of his contemporaries with some degree of skepticism. Kapuscinski’s ambitions were much simpler:

And so my greatest desire, which gave me no peace, which tormented and tantalized me, was actually quite modest: I wanted one thing only—the moment, the act, the simple fact of crossing the border.

But then his desire to cross the border grew to something much, much more.

Travels with Herodotus is a more reflective examination of Kapuscinski’s own life than The Soccer War but becomes distractingly inquisitive at times. Several pages are nothing but unanswerable questions about the ancient world, and others are lengthy quotations from Herodotus’ work. The sections that pop are similar in tone to The Soccer War, such as an encounter with Congolese rebels and catching a performance by Louis Armstrong in Khartoum shortly before his death. Unlike The Soccer War, in which Kapuscinski avoids categorization when possible, Travels with Herodotus feels like the author is trying to force the wooden Herodotus onto his own otherwise unexpected and vibrant life.

What does it mean to meet a legendary figure? In Kapuscinski’s portrait’s, typically of politicians, face to face encounters are insights into their humanity, stripping away the veneer of fame without the idolization of today’s Hollywood-type encounters. If he is guilty of idolizing it his penchant for celebrating charisma and power rather than material wealth. His world leaders put their pants on every day just like everyone else. Even the Great Wall of China fails to impress him:

The worst aspect of the wall is to turn so many people into its defenders and produce a mental attitude that sees a wall running through everything, imagines the world as being divided into an evil and inferior part, on the outside, and a good and superior part, on the inside.

Perhaps – though this is a bit of a stretch – his failure to celebrate material wealth stems from his upbringing in an Eastern Bloc country. “In the city,” he writes, “there are the boss, the landlord, the grocer. One pays you, and the others have to be paid. There are more of the latter and that’s when the trouble starts.”

Anyway, Herodotus was Kapuscinski’s traveling companion, and helped him frame the myriad of torrential events in which the journalist thrust himself. One of Herodotus’ contributions – along with Homer – was to offer accounts of history in a non-linear fashion. Writers of Herodotus’ day told stories chronologically, while Herodotus began his tales in the middle of the action (in media res), layering it with rich digressions and allusions. Kapuscinski’s storytelling takes this structure to new heights. Some of his chapters are a paragraph long, or digress to discuss an object such as a desk and its relevance in modern life. The problem is that in Travels with Herodotus, the author spends too much time wondering about Herodotus’ own day, and his efforts to parallel the ancient Greek world with, say, unrest in the Congo, fall short.

These works belong in their own genre. Kapuscinski called them ‘literature by foot‘ or ‘personal reportage.’ Unlike travel writing, the rants are not about the value of espresso machines while lounging on Thai beaches, but ruminations about life in the face of vast and historical social upheaval.

If you are in the mood for a good story, then the better read is The Soccer War. For a patient, digressive tale that attempts to bridge the ancient and modern experiences, Travels with Herodotus will read well with a bowl full of dates.

–Deji Olukotun

For more information about Herodotus, check out Herodotus: The Histories, translated by Aubrey de Sélincourt, with an informative introduction by A.R. Burn. Penguin, 1972.

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