three-and-half-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
34-May-June-2008
user_rating: 
0

A-Chasing the FlameOn August 19, 2003, a bomb ripped through the United Nations headquarters in Baghdad, killing 22 officials. Among the dead was the charismatic Sergio Vieira de Mello, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. Described as "a cross between James Bond and Bobby Kennedy," the Brazilian-born Vieira de Mello had joined the United Nations in 1969, having graduated from the Sorbonne. He served through some of the worst humanitarian and political crises of the last 30 years—Rwanda, Afghanistan, Cambodia, Bosnia, East Timor, and Kosovo—while courting some of the most notorious leaders to broker agreements. He gradually traded in his youthful idealism for a more practical approach to the world’s despots and saved countless, innocent lives in the process. His career and ideological transformation, Power argues, reflect the challenges faced by the United Nations today.
Penguin. 640 pages. $32.95. ISBN: 1594201285

Economist 4 of 5 Stars
"Samantha Power’s detailed and sympathetic biography tells the tale of a Brazilian expatriate whose world outlook was shaped by the left-wing idealism of Paris in 1968 but then tempered by ever-increasing doses of reality. … As a person, he remains a bit of a puzzle."

Milwaukee Jrnl Sentinel 4 of 5 Stars
"Commendably, Power doesn’t obscure the fact that Vieira de Mello’s renowned charm included a smarmy quality; he tended instinctively to cozy up to those politicians and warlords—however unsavory—who wielded power. Yet Power demonstrates that even while exuding geniality toward sadists such as Serb militia leader Radovan Karadzic during the Bosnian war, Vieira de Mello engineered the escape of hundreds of Bosnian civilians from besieged Sarajevo by smuggling them aboard U.N. cargo planes." Rayyan Al-Shawaf

NY Times Book Review 3.5 of 5 Stars
"In the end, the book does not make a persuasive case that the United Nations will ever be able to evolve into an organization that can deploy adequate amounts of hard power or take sides in contentious political disputes. … But surely the life and death of Sergio Vieira de Mello is a good place to begin a serious debate about the proper way to manage world order in the future." Francis Fukuyama

San Francisco Chronicle 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Despite occasional lapses in judgment, he’s an appealing character in Power’s portrait, someone whose humanitarianism owes more to an intuitive generosity of spirit than to an abstract commitment to the universal rights of man. … But while [Power] nimbly excavates colorful artifacts from Vieira de Mello’s life, her workmanlike writing dampens their effect, and her prose often fails to ignite." Ben Tarnoff

Washington Post 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Her book is an ambitious effort, a long, meandering narrative that in the end succeeds brilliantly but is so slow-paced, especially in its early pages, as to leave the reader wishing Vieira de Mello would grow up, move on or find some epiphany amid the serial catastrophes. … The strength of the book lies in Power’s use of Vieira de Mello’s life (and death) as a well-placed window on the international community’s successes and failures." James Mann

Critical Summary

Samantha Power, a professor at Harvard, met Sergio Vieira de Mello when she was a journalist in Bosnia in 1994. Although he charmed her as he did everyone else, she has written a balanced biography of the flawed but dedicated and likable man. While Power impressed the critics with her research, she failed to convince all of them of her arguments. Several reviewers also noted that Power’s writing, laden with detail and subtle layering, doesn’t rise to the level of her Pulitzer Prize–winning A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide (2002) until the very end, when she recounts Vieira de Mello’s last moments. As much a critique of the United Nations and its policies as the story of a man battling injustice, Chasing the Flame, despite being cited as a somewhat slow read, is a significant contribution to our understanding of global affairs and the future of peacekeeping.