Andy's Reviews > Shah of Shahs

Shah of Shahs by Ryszard Kapuściński
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Mar 02, 12

bookshelves: geopolitics, violent, history, nonfiction, translations-into-english
Read in February, 2012

I picked up this book because of the rather striking epigraph in The Blind Assassin. This is a book about Iran during the last days of the Shah, before he was toppled and replaced by the Ayatollah Khomeini. Ryszard Kapuscinski is an openly literary writer of nonfiction; the back cover says that he "brings a mythographer's perspective and a novelist's virtuosity" to his subject; his Wikipedia article mentions Adam Hochschild describing his work as "magic journalism," in comparison to fictional magic realism. So you have to take that into account when you pick him up - don't expect a dispassionate retelling of the facts. But if you accept this then you have a pretty decent book o your hands.

The story is told through a series of vignettes, like peeling through a memory, or seeing paintings at a museum. Some are extremely vivid. The one that sticks with me most is when Kapuscinski meets a man who was tortured by the Shah's secret police in cruelly creative fashion: he is strapped to a chair that gradually moves towards a white-hot iron wall until he admits wrongdoing. While retelling his story he breaks down crying and pleads, "God... why have you chastised me with such a terrible deformity as thinking? Why have you taught me to think, instead of teaching me the humility of cattle!"

The vignettes are excellent but Kapuscinski sometimes oversteps the bounds of his abilities. He is a great storyteller but not a great analyst. For example, when he directly describes what he believes to be the Shah's vision of a Great Civilization, the writing is weak and a bit outlandish. But when he gives a concrete instance of the Shah's ambitions, describing the Shah's splurge on infrastructure and subsequent massive waste from horribly inadequate planning, it is a memorable and funny story.

A very short book that you could read in a day.
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