Plenty of Central European writers have been obsessed with the theme of human memory. The poems of the late Polish Nobel Prize winner Czeslaw Milosz, the prose of Czech émigré Milan Kundera and the writings of countless others have focused on, as Kundera put it, how "ultimately everyone lets everything be forgotten."
No one fought harder against that than Ryszard Kapuscinski, the Polish journalist turned literary superstar who died last January at age 74. And nowhere is this more explicit than in his last book, "Travels with Herodotus." Like many of his works, this is a collage of sorts, part travel writing, part self-reflection. But as befits a work that feels almost like a last testament, it's far more of the latter. He describes how in his travels he took along Herodotus' "The Histories," snatching it up as soon as a Polish translation was available during the post-Stalinist thaw in 1955. He views the Greek who lived in the fifth century B.C. as his role model, someone who set out to see the world and record everything he could. As Herodotus put it, "The purpose is to prevent the traces of human events from being erased by time."
This was a concept that instinctively resonated with Kapuscinski. As he made his first forays as a foreign correspondent to unfamiliar countries like India and China, he tried to learn from Herodotus. Like the Greek, Kapuscinski was fascinated by endless wars and conflicts, drifting through the world's most dangerous zones, picking up whatever he could in the way of "news" while gathering the raw material for his remarkable array of books. Although it's unclear how much Herodotus really traveled, he was a keen reporter who wanted to see and hear firsthand whatever he could. He was also a fair one, for whom, as Kapuscinski notes, "the world's multiculturalism was a living, pulsating tissue." In other words, Herodotus—like Kapuscinski—was a true globalist.
As Kapuscinski focused more and more on Africa, the continent that he grew to know and love best, he applies those lessons. He observes without rushing to judgment. He makes readers feel what it's like to be there. Above all, though, he ruminates about his love of travel and reporting, and what this has taught him about the meaning of writing, history and memory. He credits Herodotus with the discovery that, as Kapuscinski puts it, "we are never in the presence of unmediated history, but of history recounted." Since people remember selectively, "The past does not exist. There are only infinite renderings of it." But that makes the work of the traveler, the reporter, the historian all the more important. Herodotus was all of those things; so was Kapuscinski.