Azar Nafisi on Chasing the Flame: Sergio Vieira de Mello and the Fight to Save the World, by Samantha Power

This is one of those books that tempt one to make statements such as “President Obama, nay, anyone in the foreign policy world should read this book—very carefully!” But of course to say this is to reduce a richly complex book into a mere handbook for US foreign policy. This book does not offer easy formulas on dealing with the world, but a new attitude, a different way of perceiving it and changing it. Chasing the Flame, the biography of the charismatic UN Commissioner for human rights who was killed in Iraq in 2003, is a multilayered story, rich with anecdotes and voices, that resonate on many different levels. On one level it is about Sergio de Mello’s personal life (seductive, charismatic and intellectual, a lethal combination), but also it reveals the paradoxes and complexities of an agency such as the UN and the problems of dealing with “evil,” with individuals and states that accept no rules, and set no limits to their appetite for cruelty and brutality. And in the end it is also a homage to the idea of individual integrity, to the idea that not just greed, and brutality but also the aspirations that shape mankind, the desire to have the right to life, liberty and pursuit of happiness are also universal and shared by people from different places and different cultures. Once we agree with this supposition then we will perhaps agree that observing human rights is not a philanthropic idea but a pragmatic one, related to our own survival as much as it is related to the survival of others.