Shah of Shahs Critical Context - Essay

Ryszard Kapuściński

Critical Context

(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

In the genre of travel literature, there are those writers who give to the reader what Lawrence Durrell has called “the spirit of place”; among such are the classics, the works of Alexander Kinglake, Charles Doughty, Freya Stark. Others seek to use their wanderings as a vehicle for social and political commentary, and in most cases, such works, even when they achieve an immediate success, enjoy only an ephemeral reputation. To this generalization, Kapuciski is likely to prove an exception. One clue to his uniqueness is to be found in a statement printed in an issue of Contemporary Authors:. . . I think that because the social and political structures of unstable third world countries are not quite so sophisticated as those of the developed world, one can more easily observe man and his behaviour in those countries. It is easier to observe the essence of modern conflicts, their generation. The field of observation is sharper, more focused.

In Shah of Shahs, he has provided a brilliant and evocative portrait of Iran in revolution such as is unlikely to fade much with the passage of time. The Iranian Revolution inspired an enormous literature, yet leaving aside the academic monographs and the fascinating (although often self-serving) memoirs by participants, the sheer complexity and subtlety of the context eluded the visiting journalist, whose quest for instant information within an unfamiliar historical setting frequently kept him oscillating between the bizarre and the commonplace. Somehow, Kapuciski avoided both these hazards and wrote in Shah of Shahs a minor classic of travel and of informed observation which may well take its place alongside the classic works on Iran by European travelers.