Form and Content

(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

Born in 1932 and a graduate of the University of Warsaw in 1952, Ryszard Kapuciski has since pursued a highly successful career in journalism in his native Poland. He was on the staff of Sztandar mlodych (banner of youth) from 1951 to 1958; of Polityka (politics) from 1959 to 1961; and of Kultura (culture), of which he was deputy editor in chief from 1974 to 1981. He has also worked as a free-lance writer: from 1972 to 1974, and again since 1981. Of particular significance for his development as a journalist, however, and as the catalyst for his reputation as a writer outside Poland, was his service with the Polish Press Agency in Africa, Asia, and Latin America between 1962 and 1972, which sowed the seeds of an abiding interest in the Third World and its problems, on which this highly perceptive Polish observer, citizen of a country without traditions of overseas imperialism and a centuries-old victim of Great Power rivalries, has uniquely incisive insights. In his study of the corruption and decrepitude of the government of Haile Selassie of Ethiopia, The Emperor: Downfall of an Autocrat, published in 1983 in a translation by William R. Brand and Katarzyna Mroczkowska-Brand (originally published in Polish as Cesarz in 1978), Kapuciski artfully constructed, through a sequence of commentaries by palace officials and employees, an insider’s picture of the rottenness at the core of the Ethiopian empire. Very different in...

(The entire section is 535 words.)

Shah of Shahs

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 10)

In Shah of Shahs (published in Poland in 1982 as Szachinszach), Ryszard Kapuciski unfolds a rich story which merges factual reporting with his keen impressions and reflections. The book is both engrossing and revelatory and offers a highly personal portrait of the psychological condition of a country in the throes of revolution. The captivating volume is more an impressionistic commentary than a history of the causes and consequences of the Shah’s overthrow and the Ayatollah Khomeini’s ascendancy to power. The author appeals to his readers’ imagination rather than to their intellect and makes his points with images rather than with tightly structured ranks of facts and analysis. In some respects, reading the book is like watching a potpourri of news broadcasts. The narrative jumps from place to place and from episode to episode with no seeming respect for standard historical or even literary conventions. Nevertheless, the text is as absorbing as it is acrobatic—a work of sublime creativity which provides a brilliant firsthand account of the Islamic upheaval that toppled the Shah.

The book illustrates at many points how the extreme oil-derived wealth of Iran corrupted the Shah’s social vision. Oil kindles extraordinary emotions of strength, wealth, and power among Mideastern leaders. To possess and control the fortune wrought by this resource seems to evoke an almost mystical conviction that a divine power has elevated a nation above others, electing it as its favorite. For the Shah and his minions, oil created the illusion of a paradisiacal life without work or effort. The great oil resources of Iran corrupted its leadership into believing that social progress and economic stability could be achieved through the vagaries of fortune rather than through sweat, anguish, and hard work.

For Iran’s rulers, one of oil’s most alluring qualities was that it strengthened their authority; from their point of view, oil caused few social problems because it engendered neither a numerous proletariat nor a sizable bourgeoisie to challenge the status quo. The government, freed from pressures to split the profits with anyone, could spend the wealth according to its own ideas and desires. The Shah as well as governmental ministers became lords of energy, publicly and privately exhibiting their hubris and power. It seemed as though Iran were an elect nation, an attitude re-enforced by the fact that Islam was enjoying a period of expansion as new crowds of faithful embraced the religion.

Inevitably, the Shah’s grandiose but short-sighted ambition to build the “Great Civilization” in Iran was doomed to failure. From his isolated palace, the leader issued hundreds of decisions in the early 1970’s that convulsed his homeland and set the stage for his overthrow a decade later. He doubled domestic investment, began importing modern technology, and created the third most advanced army in the world. He built atomic power plants, electronics factories, steel mills, and great industrial complexes. Iran became a sales mecca, and the presidents of multinational corporations, directors of great conglomerates, and lesser corporate sales representatives flocked to this flood tide of spending. For a time, it seemed that Iran was moving along a smooth current of development, but shoals and eddies began to appear. Billions of dollars were spent making purchases, and ships full of merchandise began steaming toward Iran from all the continents. When they reached the Persian Gulf, however, the country’s small, obsolete ports proved unable to handle the mass of cargo. Several hundred ships backed up at sea and remained unloaded for up to six months. These delays forced Iran to pay nearly $1 billion annually to shipping companies.

Somehow the fleet gradually unloaded, but there were no warehouses to store the mass of goods. Millions of tons of cargo had to be stockpiled in the open and subjected to unrelenting tropical heat. Half of it, consisting of perishable foodstuffs and chemicals, was thrown away. The remainder needed to be transported to the country’s interior, but, alas, there were few trucks, trailers, and other forms of transport. Two thousand tractor-trailers were accordingly ordered from Europe, but as there were not enough drivers, hundreds of people had to be flown in from Korea. When the goods finally began to move, the Koreans learned that Iranian drivers were earning higher salaries than they, and so they quit. Scores of trucks, unused to this day, still sit along the Bander Abbas-Teheran highway.

With time and the assistance of foreign freight companies, the machines purchased abroad finally arrived at their appointed destinations. No engineers or technicians, however, were available to build, operate, and maintain factories. From a logical point of view, the designer of a Great Civilization...

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(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

Ajami, Fouad. Review in The New Republic. CXCII (April 8, 1985), p. 36.

Booklist. LXXXI, March 1, 1985, p. 922.

Fox, Edward. Review in Nation. CCXL (June 22, 1985), p. 772.

Kaufman, Michael T. “Autocrats He Has Known,” in The New York Times. CXXXVI (Feburary 15, 1987), p. 12.

Kennedy, Moorhead. Review in The New York Times Book Review. XC (April 7, 1985), p. 7.

Leonard, Louise. Review in Library Journal. CX (March 15, 1985), p. 52.

Library Journal. CX, March 15, 1985, p. 52.

The London Review of Books. VII, July 4, 1985, p. 22.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. March 17, 1985, p. 1.

Lyons, Gene. Review in Newsweek. CV (March 4, 1985), p. 66.

Massing, Michael T. “Snap Books: Big Writers and Little Countries,” in The New Republic. CXCVI (May 4, 1987), p. 21.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXVII, January 25, 1985, p. 83.

Virginia Quarterly Review. LXI, Summer, 1985, p. 94.

The Wall Street Journal. CCV, April 4, 1985, p. 28.