Wendell Steavenson's new book is remarkable for the way it grapples with the problem of evil: by letting its victims and perpetrators tell their own storiesby Neal Ascherson / March 1, 2009 / Leave a comment
The Weight of a Mustard Seed By Wendell Steavenson (Atlantic Books, £14.99)
Those with loud opinions, especially in Britain and America, like to believe that evil is done by evil people. When this is shown to be an unreliable rule, they panic. Recent examples abound. The film The Lives of Others, picturing a Stasi officer who grows complicit with those he spies on, was denounced on the grounds that only pinko “Ostalgiacs” could imagine a Stasi man with a human streak. Another film, The Reader—along with the bleak novel by Bernhard Schlink that inspired it—is desperately assailed for suggesting that a female SS guard who shares responsibility for killing Jewish prisoners could be seen as a complicated person, even a sort of victim.
Wendell Steavenson, who has written this extraordinary book about some of those who served, fought for and killed for Saddam Hussein, says simply: “These are people after all, and what person does not deserve to be listened to? None, I maintain, if we strive to understand ourselves in the other, which is the only and original reason to tell stories in the first place: none.” Her first book (Stories I Stole, about Georgia) reminded me of the late Ryszard Kapuscinski in its penetrating curiosity. And, interestingly enough, Kapuscinski himself could have written those sentences about listening to The Other—the title of his last book. In it, he explained what he learned from the religious philosophy of Emmanuel Lévinas: “He says you must not only meet the Other, accept him and converse with him, but you must also take responsibility for him.”
At the core of The Weight of a Mustard Seed is a certain Other whom Steavenson was unable to meet, accept or converse with. General Kamel Sachet, an Iraqi hero of the terrible eight-year war with Iran and later one of Saddam’s commanders in Kuwait, was already dead, executed for disloyalty or treachery in 1998. Wendell Steavenson, arriving in Iraq just after the 2003 invasion, set out to discover what she could about this man who had been loved and revered by many who hated the regime he served, who trusted Saddam for many years and was murdered by him, who entered deeper and deeper into his religion, Sunni Islam, as he grew older and became more disgusted by the paths his leader followed.
The result is a curious, clever literary structure. At its centre…