‘The Weight of a Mustard Seed’ by Wendell Steavenson

WeightofaMustardSeed

Non-fiction – paperback; Atlantic Books; 320 pages; 2010.

When it comes to non-fiction I seem to have made a career out of reading books that explore moral culpability*, and this book, which explores the life and times of one of Saddam Hussein’s generals, is no exception.

The author, an American born British journalist, never met the subject of her book, Kamel Sachet, but she brings him to life by interviewing an extensive cast of colleagues, family and associates. What emerges is a man conflicted by loyalty to his country and loyalty to his own individual faith, and, in turn, his conscience.

Using the techniques of literary fiction, Steavenson weaves a narrative that jumps backwards and forwards in time as she traces Sachet’s rise to power — and his later fall from grace. But, of course, she cannot tell Sachet’s story without also telling the story of Iraq, and, in particular, its recent bloody history, from the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990 to the American invasion of Iraq in 2003. Often in this telling there are so many different battles and violent incidents recounted that it’s hard to keep track of exactly which war Steavenson is making reference to, until it becomes clear that it doesn’t really matter: this is a country with a bloody history and never more so under Saddam Hussein’s rule. (In fact, Saddam’s soldiers were in a lose-lose situation: they could be killed in battle, but if they lost a battle they could be executed under military order. It was up to them to decide which was the easier way to die.)

The book also explores what it is like to live under tyrannical rule, albeit from the point of view of Saddam’s inner circle, and how the all-pervasive fear turns good upstanding citizens into quivering wrecks who make poor moral judgements.

I’d like to argue that The Weight of a Mustard Seed is a sympathetic portrait of a man who chose to carry out Saddam’s orders instead of quietly resisting them, but I’m not so sure that is the case. While Steavenson develops a close friendship with Sachet’s wife and children, she refrains from making any overt judgement about the man. Ultimately it is up to you, the reader, to determine exactly how you feel about him. All I know is that I came to the end of this book feeling such a deeply profound wave of sadness, even writing this tears me up.

This is a powerful, well-written and moving account of the legacy left by Saddam Hussein and the American invasion of Iraq. Anyone interested in the so-called War on Terror will find plenty here to intrigue, outrage and shame you.

* Some of my favourite non-fiction books include Gitta Sereny’s incredibly powerful biography of Hitler’s architect, Albert Speer: His Battle With Truth, and Sereny’s equally compelling book on Treblinka commandant Franz Stangl, Into That Darkness. I can also recommend Sereny’s The Case of Mary Bell: A Portrait of a Child Who Murdered (can you tell I love Gitta Sereny?), Blake Morrison’s As If (about the Bulger murder trial) and Norman Mailer’s Executioner’s Song (about murderer Gary Gilmore’s wish to be executed for his crimes). And that’s just for starters…

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4 thoughts on “‘The Weight of a Mustard Seed’ by Wendell Steavenson

  1. Definitely. I like non-fiction to try to explain why seemingly good people do bad things, because I simply do not believe that they are born evil. (In fact, I hate the word evil…) And narrative devices help to bring stories to life, too.
    As for this cover, it is pretty gorgeous, isnt it?

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  2. Thank you so much for choosing this book for Riverside Readers last month Kim as it really took me out of my comfort zone and into the realms of non fiction which can be a real problem read for me and I thought this was fascinating and the discussion was great. I now have quite a lot of research to do to find some other great non fiction reads like this.

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  3. Any of the books I’ve footnoted on this review come highly recommended, Simon. I also have a true crime category, which might prove useful.
    http://kimbofo.typepad.com/readingmatters/genre-true-crime/
    But if you want to read more non-fiction it helps to decide what interests you and then take it from there. For me, as I discuss above, it’s about reading books that explore moral culpability (or why good people do bad things), but I also like stuff about the media and current affairs/history.

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