Sunday, 7 February 2010

Shah of Shahs by Ryszard Kapuściński


Shah of Shahs (Penguin Modern Classics)
by Ryszard Kapuściński

From the cover you would believe that Shah of Shahs tells the story of Mohammed Reza, the last Shah of Iran. But in fact the destiny of this cruel, hapless and slightly silly habitué of Swiss ski resorts is only part of the picture.
Rather, Kapuściński's theme here, as in The Emperor before it, is not the person but the ecosystem of repression that keeps a dictator in power. In the Shah's case it was the villainous secret police, known as Savak, that shored up his throne with a rule of terror that in Kapuściński's description makes Stalin's Russia sound like a walk in the park.
Eventually the Iranian people turned on their oppressors in a bloody revolution that was powered by self-sacrifice and martyrs' blood. Here too, Kapuściński is riveting in tracing the moment at which inner resistance turns to outward defiance, leading with ever greater urgency to the ultimate overthrow and ejection of an unloved monarch. But in this the Shah is no more present than any other member of the crowd. He is, rather, a cipher in military gear, a puppet cut loose and greying at the temples.
In his work as a reporter for the Polish news agency, Kapuściński witnessed dozens of coups and revolutions. The Iranian revolution is described in a series of meditations, interviews, reportage and diary sketches that communicate both the tension and the feeling of emptiness that followed the elation of overthrow.
Once the Shah left, the "good" revolutionaries, who wanted democracy and toleration, were quickly removed by a group of "ignorant bearded thugs", Kapuściński tells us, calling to mind Yeats's dictum that "the best lack all conviction while the worst are filled with passionate intensity". And thus Iran"s current leadership was born.
To my mind Kapuściński is one of the twentieth century's great writers in any genre; indeed, genre is something it's difficult to pin on him. Too profound for travel writing, too poetic for politics, too political for belles lettres, and too playful for sociology, he stands above the common fray. If you're interested in dicovering his world, this book would be a fitting beginning.

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