Sunday, August 12, 2007

Travels with Kapuściński

I've finally gotten around to picking up Ryszard Kapuściński's Travels with Herodotus, which I mentioned previously. I'm 25 pages in and there's so much I could quote, but I thought I'd select the following and encourage others to pick the book up as well. The author relates how he purchased a copy of Hemingway's For Whom the Bell Tolls to work on his English once he'd settled in India:

I returned to the hotel, opened the Hemingway to the first sentence: "He lay flat on the brown, pine-needled floor of the forest, his chin on his folded arms, and high overhead the wind blew in the tops of the pine trees." I understood nothing. I had a small English-Polish pocket dictionary, the only one that had been available in Warsaw. I managed to find the word "brown," but none of the others. I proceeded to the next sentence: "The mountainside sloped gently..." Again—not a word. "There was a stream alongside..." The more I tried to understand this text, the more discouraged I became. I felt trapped. Besieged by language. Language struck me at that moment as something material, something with a physical dimension, a wall rising up in the middle of the road and blocking my way, closing off the world, making it unattainable. It was an unpleasant and humiliating sensation.
We've all felt that way, but Greek and Latin have never left us alone in a foreign land. Even Herodotus, as Kapuściński notes, had the benefit of Greek being the lingua franca, which is why English was so important for Kapuściński to learn. How he did it showed great determination and possibly courage, though he really had no choice. One bit in particular could be taken as good advice by students of Greek and Latin:
I was never without the Hemingway, but now I skipped the descriptive passages I couldn't understand and read the dialogues, which were easier...

1 comment:

Laura said...

Hey Dennis,

You've always had a way of making the most mundane topics sound interesting.