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Simon Sebag Montefiore: Chronicler of Time

By February 18, 2019No Comments

Source : The New Indian Express

An author of close to 15 books that comprise fiction, non-fiction and surprisingly, children’s genre too, his love for Russia is evident, with most of his non-fiction revolving around the country.



On his recent visit to India, author Simon Sebag Montefiore remembers how at 17, he literally talked his way into Downing Street to interview British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher for his school magazine. Ask him how his experience was with the Iron Lady, and Sebag only smiles and says, “Unforgettable.”

A lot has happened since then. The USSR broke up, prompting Sebag to visit the fractured country where he encountered revolutions at every corner. It was enough to convince him that journalists were to be found only in Moscow and it was something he had to do. Needless to say, twice he came close to being killed amid the chaos; and once in Tbilisi in the middle of a civil war, he e famously used the only working phone on the presidential desk to ring up his mother and reassure her that he was fine.



So, when this man decided to foray into chronicling the great Russian lives, it is natural that the world would sit up and take notice. World leaders from Bill Clinton to Vladimir Putin and Barack Obama claim to read him; and the Prince of Wales is a close friend.

He says quietly, “It is interesting to talk to world leaders.” Sebag confesses to enjoying his trips to India. The history buff is himself taken up with reading Sunil Khilnani’s Incarnations. On the fact that a lot of young authors in India today are going back to history, he says, “It is a good sign. Indians are also reading a lot of my books and it’s a pleasure to meet them at literary events.”

An author of close to 15 books that comprise fiction, non-fiction and surprisingly, children’s genre too, his love for Russia is evident, with most of his non-fiction revolving around the country. He says, “Well, it is a mystery to me too. I do write about Jerusalem and the Middle East a lot, but keep going back to Russia.” In fact, in his recent book, Written in History, Sebag selects letters that have changed the course of global events or touched a timeless emotion—whether passion, rage, humour—from ancient times to the 12th century.



Sebag has extensively written about Stalin and his books are being read by Putin. So, how has Russia changed between the two? “A lot,” he says, adding, “In between, there was a kind of thawing, then a re-Stalinisation, followed by a stagnation, then the fall of the Soviet Union and gangster capitalism, after which came liberal democracy and now again it’s an autocracy.”

By his own admission, Sebag found writing on Jerusalem a daunting task. “In Jerusalem people die for history,” says Sebag, who believes that someday there can be peace between Israel and Palestine, but the time is not now. He has often been quoted saying, ‘Jewish people should have their suitcases psychologically packed to escape persecution’. The author who boasts a Jewish ancestry gives a sad nod and says, “This statement will always be relevant, as much as it is now. God knows what’s ahead for the world and for any of us. We live in strange and dangerous times.”

One of the most read modern-day historians, Sebag steadfastly believes that the true role of a historian is to find the truth, to warn from the past, to inform and entertain the present, and to plan for the future. Surprisingly, this chronicler of the past, who grew up admiring the works of Simon Schama, Antonia Fraser and Robert Conquest, enjoys writing fiction.

“I prefer writing fiction and I am very proud of my novels. They are love stories and political thrillers. Both love and war are great subjects for a writer,” he smiles. So, if he were to name an author that he thinks is under-rated in today’s times? “Guy de Maupassant,” pat comes the reply. After a second thought, Sebag adds, “Maybe the French writer is not really under-rated, but rather neglected.” And a book that disappointed him? “Oh, I could never get through any of Henry James,” he rues.

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