(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

Ryszard Kapuciski was writing about a regime—the venal, cruel, and ostentatiously banal monarchy of the shah, and of its nemesis in the form of a revolution headed by profoundly conservative Muslim clerics, which must have seemed indescribably remote and exotic to his Central European readers. How, therefore, was he to convey to such readers the personality and inner workings of Iran’s ancien regime and its headlong course toward self-destruction? His answer, since he could not provide a monographic analysis within the requirements of effective journalism, lay in his creation and careful placing of a series of vignettes of recent Iranian history, his “Daguerreotypes.” These were prefaced by an opening twelve-page section in which he conveyed the atmosphere in Tehran following the monarch’s departure and the triumphal return of Ayatollah Khomeini as seen from his hotel bedroom, with the employees playing cards and whiling away their time, with the television programs dominated by Khomeini’s charismatic presence on the screen, and with his personal imperative to organize and make sense of the quantity of notes, photographs, and tapes which littered his living quarters.

The “daguerreotypes” become, in fact, a skillful history lesson. There are twelve “photographs,” a “cassette,” and seven “notes.” Their alignment appears casual, but in reality they are precisely and deliberately arranged. The “photographs” set the scene and serve as recurring motifs, like faded pictures in a scrapbook: the shah’s father (then a mere trooper) guarding the assassin of a former shah; the shah’s father as an officer in the Persian Cossack Brigade; the shah’s father standing forbiddingly beside his seven-year-old son. Then there is the 1943 meeting of Winston Churchill, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Joseph Stalin in Tehran, followed by Mohammad Mosaddeq in his moment of triumph as the newly chosen prime minister in 1951. Next, the shah is seen in exile (Rome, 1953). Then comes a street scene, with a SAVAK informer (SAVAK was the shah’s dreaded secret police organization), followed by a child victim of SAVAK brutality. The succeeding vignettes are of the shah in 1973, at the time of the explosion of oil prices, announcing Iran’s commitment to “the Great Civilization”; his posturing as a Napoleonic warlord; a jet loaded with his courtiers flying off on a day-trip to Germany; and a revolutionary caricature of “the Great Civilization” as “the Great Injustice.” Taken as a whole, these “photographs” encapsulate a certain view of the Pahlavi period (1925-1979), the period when Iran was ruled by Mohammad Reza Shah and his father.

Among these “photographs,” the single “cassette” stands by itself, an anonymous Iranian commenting upon the career of Mohammad Mosaddeq, reminiscent of the structure of Kapuciski’s earlier study of Haile Selassie of Ethiopia. On this, and on the “photographs,” the various “notes” provide either glosses or serve to carry the narrative along. Thus, one discusses the shah’s egomania and isolation from reality; another pinpoints the crucial role of oil; yet another looks at the so-called monarchical tradition in Iran. One touches on the origins of religious opposition and the rise to public prominence of Ayatollah Khomeini. There is a perceptive account of the way in which SAVAK pervaded every aspect of Iranian life,...

(The entire section is 1390 words.)