The World by Simon Sebag Montefiore

Reviewed by Ian Lipke

As others have said, this is, without doubt, a dazzling achievement – if just in terms of tonnage. The book purports to follow the human story from a starting point thousands of years ago through all the myriad ages since. It is easy to bag the book and argue that as much has been left out as included but to do that is to suggest that the author might begin a new volume. His work to the present has been more than adequate.

Beginning with a family walking along a beach 950,000 years ago, Montefiore opens up a world that confounds and amazes us. Never has an educated reader grasped before this the extent of human depravity in which we dwell. The author opens for us a world of palace intrigue, of poisonous love affairs and family lives, where one sibling murders another with little apparent psychological damage. Concepts such as war, plague, religion and medicine attach to human persons perhaps without dire results. It is not just rulers, or those in authority generally, who are afflicted. The man in the street finds such misbehaviour acceptable.

The World is fresh and original, a history of humanity that uses the family to tell the story. This is a clever way of telling the story as it is genuinely global. What a sorry catalogue of events are revealed at this level. One might expect multitudes of hangings and mutilations in Old Testament times, but to find mankind equally cruel and murderous is beyond the pale. There are so many instances of killings one wonders why boredom had not set in.

From the anecdotal to the epic – this story contains them all. There are stories to gladden the storyteller’s heart. There are more than ample to flesh out the tales teachers love to tell their pupils. The story of a desperate Marie Antoinette’s refusal of permission to relieve herself and her doing so anyway vies for human interest with ‘The Shah, the Stuffed Emperor and the Salted Testicles’ or, in our own time with the collapse of the floor of the coffin containing Brezhnev’s body before the gaze of world leaders.

Mankind has found many excuses to kill his fellows from as far back as Montefiore’s anecdote recalling the smashing of the head of Senenre the Brave to the murders carried out by Pol Pot and his regime. When one reads of the frequency of beheading as a punishment worldwide, one grows cynical of French claims to have invented the guillotine. Beheading, according to Montefiore, has a much longer history.

While there is much good performed by the people mentioned there is much that their leaders let slip. There is much of extreme pleasure and mush of extreme hope.

Let the final words be with Henry Kissinger:

“In this work of astonishing scope and erudition, Montefiore interweaves the stories of the servants, courtiers and kings, pioneers, preachers and philosophers who have made history. A brilliant synthesis that will impart fresh insight to even the most learned readers.”

The World


by Simon Sebag Montefiore

Weidenfeld & Nicolson

ISBN: 978-0-2978-6967-2

$69.99; 1333 pp


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