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Books Review
Here’s the facts: form your own opinion!
Sophie Larder

The map of Iran at the beginning of John Farndon’s latest contribution to Icon’s Everything You Need to Know series by Icon Books shows you immediately what stance this book is taking. Three landmarks are provided in the key: capital cities, monuments and….nuclear facilities.

The book aims to shed light on one of the world’s most enigmatic and widely misunderstood countries. At the forefront of world politics and in the news every other day, Iran is the Western world’s current bogeyman. Seen by a large percentage of Westerners as a huge danger zone and cited by America as a key player in the “Axis of Evil”, this Islamic state is made even more frightening by its current preoccupation with developing nuclear energy, and intensified by hardliner President Ahmadinejad’s calls for Israel to be “wiped off the map”.

Farndon begins the book with this disturbing quote about Israel and then launches into a flourish of contradictions about Iran: A place where Islamic hardliners rule but two thirds of the university students are women. A place conceived by most Westerners to be Arab, yet in fact a country seeped in unique Persian history and culture with its own rich language. Natural scenery of a central scorching desert surrounded by “ranged green hills of gentle beauty and snow clad mountains of dizzying grandeur” where scholars believe the Garden of Eden lay. Farndon intends to lay the central contradiction in Western minds to rest: The Persia of mythical beauty and legend, and the fiercely puritanical modern Iran, are one and the same place.

The book takes us back to Persia’s beginnings with Farndon’s easy-to-read condensed history of Iran (not an easy thing to do considering Iran’s status as one of the oldest places of human inhabitance in the world). We hurtle through the coming of Islam, Persian renaissances and dynastic Shahs all the way to the Islamic Revolution and the horrific yet little known facts of the bloody Iran-Iraq war. Along the way Farndon doesn’t hesitate to provide us with the less edifying details of Britain’s and then America’s involvement in the politics of this country. Farndon describes how the Americans ironically provided Iraq with the practical means to continue the war with Iran, apparently even supplying some of the bacteria and fungus cultures needed to make biological weapons. The book is scattered with small boxed texts containing everything from the birth of the Iranian Women’s Movement in the harem to Ahmadinejad’s background as an assassin in the Revolutionary Guard.

As the book ends we get a sense of deja vu. America and Iran are once again squaring off at each other over the issue of nuclear power. He then concludes with a discussion of Iran’s sense of injustice and distrust while facing the American belief in the evils of an Iranian hard-line, out of control Islamic government. Farndon finishes on an almost comic picture of these two long time rivals in the school playground with a final hint of a much needed optimism after the bleak facts of the bloody twentieth century in Iran.

It’s a book to pick up when the Western press’s hysteria about Iran needs a bit of a balance.

Everything You Need to Know
by John Farndon
Icon Books UK £5.99, 205 pages

Was he mad, or was he really at the 1966 World Cup?
John Bonar

You are never really sure if Yevgeny did half the things he recounts such as going to ‘Vemberly’ (Wembley) or clubbing with the Rolling Stones. But one thing you can be sure of he certainly never met with Lenin in 1966, a delusional episode, that Martin Sixsmith describes with ironic effect.

Yevgeny recounts meeting Lenin in the British Museum Reading Room. “ ‘I been seeking You for so many years. How come You here in London?’

And Great Lenin reply, ‘Zhenya! How you can be such doubting Tomas? Maybe you never heard, Lenin always with us?’

And I say, ‘Yes, Great Lenin, but this is year of 1966 and You been dying forty more years ago.’

But Great Lenin just smile and chides me, ‘Zhenya! Surely you know Lenin lived; Lenin lives; Lenin will Live!’

And now things all becoming sensible, of course. Lenin is always here, always here in every place where Russian people gathered in His name, and where poor Russian boys needing His help.”

As a long time expatriate in Moscow, I Heard Lenin Laugh inspires a feeling of incredulity at the absolute precision with which Martin Sixsmith captures the nuances of syntax of the Russian who speaks English, but not fluently. Then you remember that Sixsmith was formerly the accomplished BBC correspondent in Moscow and everything clicks. He perfectly captures the fifties and sixties Soviet Union through the first person accounts of his main character, the flawed and delusional Yevgeny. You will meet the local party bosses, the petty corruption, and favoritism endemic throughout this era as Sixsmith pokes gentle fun at the Soviet apparatus through the chaotic story of Yevgeny or Zhenya.

“Hello and pleasure for meet you. My name Yevgeny,” opens this tumultuously hilarious novel.

“Now where was I born? In Vitebsk.”

“And when? In very first year of Great Patriotic War. So 1941 of course.”

“You want to know about Vitebsk?”

“OK. Start thinking about famous painter, Marc Chagall. Now you see Vitebsk: it got cows flying over roofs of houses playing violins and green sheeps smiling very large.”

“All, right only joking.”

The novel continues in the same vein through the hilarious escapades of Yevgeny, up until 1966 when he ends up in a Soviet mental home, where he stays until dying in 2006. Throughout the book Sixsmith keeps the reader constantly off-balance.

A farcical romp that every lover of Russia and many who have never been here, will chortle through.

I Heard Lenin Laugh
By Martin Sixsmith
McMillan, UK £12.99, 352 pages

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