Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Chronicles of Coups

Ryszard Kapuscinski, Polish chronicler of coups and revolutions, has died.

The BBC photo makes him look like a toiler, which I don't doubt - he wrote about dozens of upheavals. But I much prefer the photo in the facing page of my Vintage International paperback copy of Shah of Shahs. It makes him look like the Prince of Darkness, a mischievous and malevolent glint to his eye, an effect heightened by his big arched eyebrows, and completed by the crooked grin that just bares his teeth. I suspect it might be a more honest photo - someone so exposed to so much violence and turmoil often propelled by evil must take some kind of satisfaction from seeking it out again and again. Or perhaps it was just escaping a death sentence not once, but four times, that gave him a gallows humor. Then again, this one, pulled from the Wikipedia commons, has a touch of the charming, erudite intellectual about it and seems genuine enough.

The only work of his I've read is Shah of Shahs, assigned last year for school. I think he underestimated the role that memory of Mossadegh and the 1953 coup played in the consciousness of Iran in 1979 - Kapuscinski dismissed Mossadegh as ineffectual and inconsequential. But he seemed masterful at illuminating the mass psychology of living under two back-to-back interpretations of brutality, first the Shah and his Savak, and then the Ayatollahs and their Komitehs. It's usually so easy to think of behaving as a unfree person impossible from where I sit, but not after reading Kapuscinski. It's time to pick up more of his work.

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