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Travels with Kapuscinski

“A journey, after all, neither begins in the instant we set out, nor ends when we have reached our doorstep once again. It starts much earlier and is really never over, because the film of memory continues running on inside of us long after we have come to a physical standstill. Indeed, there exists something like a contagion of travel, and the disease is essentially incurable.” One of life’s great pleasures is to encounter yourself in the pages of a book written years ago. How satisfying it is to see the thoughts you’ve always had - but could never quite express - manifest themselves on the page, spilling out eloquently before you as if reflecting a hidden truth you didn’t know was there.

“This is the most intimate relationship between literature and its readers: they treat the text as a part of themselves, as a possession.”

“Finally,” you think, “someone else understands.” The beholder of nascent wisdom you could never fully articulate, you come across a simple truth or incisive analysis, and wonder: did the author pull these ideas out of my head? Or is it possible that the ideas I’ve just stumbled upon preceded me; that the author was simply more capable of conveying them?

Of course, it's always the latter. The desire to connect with our inner selves and others through universal truth is part of the great human experience that binds us all. This is the essence of art. The desire to connect to truth through enduring beauty is not unique to literature - one can find this in film, music, or good conversation; even a beautiful cityscape can evoke those emotions. This beauty that I speak of is both a reflection of - and a reaction to - suffering. Kapuscinski explains:

“When we look at lifeless temples, palaces, and cities, we can't help but wonder about the fate of their builders. Their pain, their broken backs, their eyes gouged out by errant splinters of stone, their rheumatism. About their unfortunate lives, their suffering. But the very next question that inevitably arises is: Could these wonders have come into being without that suffering? Without the overseer's whip, the slave's fear, the ruler's vanity? In short, was not the monumentality of past epochs created by that which is negative and evil in man? And yet, does not that monumentality owe its existence to some conviction that what is negative and weak in man can be vanquished only by beauty, only through the effort and will of his creation? And that the only thing that never changes is beauty itself, and the need for it that dwells within us?”

It took me longer than I’d like to admit to discover Ryszard Kapuscinski, the legendary Polish reporter. By reading his work, I immediately felt a connection to him. Despite the temporal and geographic space dividing us, I could feel his sincerity, his effortless ability to connect with people, his unquenchable curiosity about the human experience. Of the Greek historian Herodotus, he observes:

“I began to feel something akin to warmth, even friendship, toward [him]. I actually became attached not so much to the book, as to its voice, the persona of its author. A complicated feeling, which I couldn’t describe fully. It was an affinity with a human being whom I did not know personally, yet who charmed by the manner of his relationships with others, by his way of being, by how, wherever he appeared, he instantly became the nucleus, or the mortar, of human community, putting it together, bringing it into being.”

This is precisely the sort of closeness that I felt with Kapuscinski, and in my own journeys, his books in hand, I began to develop a relationship with the author. Life was imitating art. His musings became companions to my own experiences, and the transformations I was going through were precisely those that he spoke about:

“A new, hitherto unfamiliar world was pulling me into its orbit, completely absorbing me, obsessing and overwhelming me. I was seized at once with a profound fascination, a burning thirst to learn, to immerse myself totally, to melt away, to become as one with this foreign universe. To know it as if I had been born and raised there, begun life there. I wanted to learn the language, I wanted to read the books, I wanted to penetrate every nook and cranny. It was a kind of malady, a dangerous weakness, because I also realized that these civilizations are so enormous, so rich, complex, and varied, that getting to know even a fragment of one of them, a mere scrap, would require devoting one’s whole life to the enterprise. Cultures are edifices with countless rooms, corridors, balconies, and attics, all arranged, furthermore, into such twisting, turning labyrinths, that if you enter one of them, there is no exit, no retreat, no turning back.”

Kapuscinski was a maestro, a literary titan. Equal parts artist and reporter, he was an astute observer of the human condition. Embedding himself in Latin America, Africa, Asia, and the Middle East, his career spanned decades and continents, yet he always retained his simple, descriptive style. He covered coups, revolutions, postcolonial liberations, and ethnic strife: no topic was too convoluted, no subject taboo. Seamlessly blending reportage and travel writing, he pioneered his own distinctive style.

“My writing is a combination of three elements. The first is travel: not travel like a tourist, but travel as exploration. The second is reading literature on the subject. The third is reflection.”

His language was neither pretentious nor unsophisticated; his sharp insights accompanied by vivid descriptions. As Salman Rushdie observed in an article shortly after Kapuscinski’s passing in 2007, “Kapucsinki’s writing, always wonderfully concrete and observant, conjures marvels of meaning out of minutiae.” Take, for example, the reporter's observation on the desk. “Upon the desk I have declared a silent war. It is, after all, a specific piece of furniture with particular properties. While many whole categories of furniture may be man’s serviceable instruments, his slaves, in the case of the desk a contrary relationship obtains: man is its instrument, its slave. Many thinkers worry over the progressive bureaucratization of the world and the social threat of its terror. Yet they forget that these very bureaucrats are themselves terrorized, and that they are terrorized by their desks. Once plunked down behind one, a man will never learn to tear himself free. The loss of his desk will strike him as a natural disaster, a catastrophe, a fall into the abyss. Notice how many people commit suicide at their desks, how many are carried straight from their desks to psychiatric hospitals, how many suffer their heart attacks behind desks. Whoever sits down behind a desk begins to think differently; his vision of the world and his hierarchy of values change. From then on he will divide humanity into those who have desks and those who do not, and into significant owners of desks and insignificant ones. He will now see his life as a frenzied progress from a small desk to a larger one, from a low desk to a higher one, from a narrow desk to a wider desk. Once ensconced behind a desk he masters a distinct language and knows things—even if yesterday, deskless, he knew nothing. I have lost many friends for reasons of desks. Once they were truly close friends. I cannot say what demon it is that slumbers in a man and makes him talk differently once he’s set behind a desk. Our symmetrical, brotherly relations fall apart; there arises a troublesome and asymmetrical division into higher and lower, a pecking order that makes us both feel uncomfortable, and there is no way to reverse the process. I can tell that the desk already has him in its clutches, in a full nelson. After a few experiments I give up and quit calling. Both of us, I think, accept the outcome with relief.”

Beyond his simple and effective language in describing complex topics, Kapuscinski was an artful observer of the human condition. Like all great writers, he mastered the ability to understand and reflect on the forces that drive human behavior through the use of symbols and archetypes.

“In Algiers, one speaks simply of the existence of two varieties of Islam — one, which is called the Islam of the desert, and a second, which is defined as the Islam of the river (or of the sea). The first is the religion practiced by warlike nomadic tribes struggling to survive in one of the world's most hostile environments, the Sahara. The second Islam is the faith of merchants, itinerant peddlers, people of the road and of the bazaar, for whom openness, compromise, and exchange are not only beneficial to trade, but necessary to life itself.”

Kapuscinski understood that we all react to forces beyond our control, as products of our environment. Kapuscinski’s genius shines through the page in his interpretation of global events. It was his sense of self - as well as his curiosity of peoples, customs, and cultures - that pushed Kapuscinski to explore the places that he did. “Such people, while useful, even agreeable, to others, are, if truth be told, frequently unhappy–lonely in fact. Yes, they seek out others, and it may even seem to them that in a certain country or city they have managed to find true kinship and fellowship, having come to know and learn about a people; but they wake up one day and suddenly feel that nothing actually binds them to these people, that they can leave here at once. They realize that another country, some other people, have now beguiled them, and that yesterday’s most riveting event now pales and loses all meaning and significance. For all intents and purposes, they do not grow attached to anything, do not put down deep roots. Their empathy is sincere, but superficial. If asked which of the countries they have visited they like best, they are embarrassed–they do not know how to answer. Which one? In a certain sense–all of them. There is something compelling about each. To which country would they like to return once more? Again, embarrassment–they had never asked themselves such a question. The one certainty is that they would like to be back on the road, going somewhere. To be on their way again – that is the dream.”

He lived through 27 coups and revolutions, and narrowly escaped death four times. Reporting from all over the developing world in the second half of the twentieth century, he travelled throughout the global south during one of the most turbulent periods in world history, that of the independence movements and liberations of countless countries after the Second World War.

“There aren’t many such enthusiasts born. The average person is not especially curious about the world. He is alive, and being somehow obliged to deal with this condition, feels the less effort it requires, the better. Whereas learning about the world is labor, and a great all-consuming one at that. Most people develop quite antithetical talents, in fact - to look without seeing, to listen without hearing, mainly to preserve oneself within oneself […] We do not really know what draws a human being out into the world. Is it curiosity? A hunger for experience? An addiction to wonderment? The man who ceases to be astonished is hollow, possessed of an extinguished heart. If he believes that everything has already happened, that he has seen it all, then something most precious has died within him—the delight in life.”

By these measures, then, and many more, Kapuscinski’s life was a life well lived.

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