Bicycle Diaries: Ryszard Kapuściński

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24.1.07

Ryszard Kapuściński


Life is truly known only to those who suffer, lose, endure adversity and stumble from defeat to defeat.
1932 - 2007
Few authors have inspired me more; not only to travel but also how to think about travel. Ryszard Kapuściński was born in 1932 in Pinsk (then eastern Poland). He was educated in Warsaw. At 23 he joined the Polish press Agency as its only foreign correspondent. He was the posted to India, his first trip outside Poland. His first book, The Polish Bush, Stories of the Polish frontier, appeared in 1962. It was an immediate bestseller.

Kapuściński travelled widely throughout the Third World; storing up, as he once said in an interview, the experiences for the books that would come later. His books cover a number of conflicts in Africa, Latin America, and Asia.

The first that was translated in English is The Emperor. It's based on the last days of Haile Selassie and subsequently made into a play produced by Jonathan Miller. His other books in English include Another Day of Life about the war in Angola, and Shah of Shahs, based on the Iranian revolution. It is particularly relevant reading today.

Imperium is the story of his travels across the dying empire of the Soviet Union in 1989. And The Soccer War is his eye-witness account of the strange conflict between El Salvador and Honduras. Both books are available at Granta along with many essays. His last book, Travels with Herodotus, will be published later this year.

Before Kapuściński left for India on his first voyage abroad, he received Herodotus's Histories as a gift. He would carry it along during all of his subsequent travels. Travels with Herodotus recalls many of the fascinating political and historical events he witnessed, juxtaposing them against the events Herodotus described. He also considers how ways of traveling, conveying information and describing events affect our understanding of the world.

Though it may seem that nearly everything about the work of a reporter has changed since Herodotus's time, it is as true now as it was then that it is hard to understand the course of history - and this in spite of the wealth of information that we receive today from various parts of the globe. For those who nevertheless wish to try, Kapuściński's book is a wonderful guide, above all because it provides no ready answers, teaching readers to ask wise questions instead.
So reportage work carries a significant responsibility. Plying our trade, we are not just men of writing pursuits but also missionaries, translators and messengers. We do not translate from one text into another, but from one culture into another, to make them mutually better understood and thereby closer, even friendlier to each other.
From his 2003 Lettre Ulysses Award Key Note Speech, Herodotus and the Art of Noticing.

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