Book Review: “Chasing the Flame: Sergio Vieira de Mello and the fight to save the world” by Samantha Power

Written by Suganthi Singarayar

My initial interest in Chasing the Flame: Sergio Vieira de Mello and the fight to save the world was as a result of reading Lynne Minion’s book, Hello Missus: A Girl’s Own Guide to Foreign Affairs, in which she describes her experiences in East Timor while working for the United Nations training news journalists at TVTL, then later on working as an adviser to the Prime Minister, Mari Alkatiri.

In her book, Minion mentions Sergio Vieira de Mello, the UN Transitional Administrator in East Timor, and her description of him is very different to that portrayed in the mainstream media – that of a charismatic and hardworking on-the-go troubleshooter. Minion looked beyond the PR and described his soap star looks, his opulent seaside residence in poverty enveloped East Timor, and his beautiful girlfriend. (He was married.)

I think it was this dichotomy, along with an interest in aid, trade and development issues, that made me pick up Samantha Power’s book.

Power is currently a special adviser to President Obama and has been “blamed” for Obama’s intervention in Libya. She is a former journalist and her first book, A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide, won a Pulitzer Prize in 2003.

Chasing the Flame is no hagiography. Although it would seem that Ms Power admired Mr Vieira de Mello, that does not stop her from showing his many faults. In fact, in the beginning, he seems to have more faults than virtues, even his good looks and ability to look well-put-together in a war zone seem to be viewed as a fault and certainly this ability seems to have annoyed many of his colleagues – to the point where there is a description of them breaking into his room in Kosovo to find out how it is that he managed to look so effortlessly good, despite the house they all shared being politely described as “unhygienic”.

The image one is left with is that of an incredibly flawed man and his journey through life. But on reaching the end of the book, I wondered if that was too harsh a description of Sergio Vieira de Mello. For a start he was not there to be interviewed and he could not refute any of the statements that Power makes, or the conclusions that she draws as a result of the extensive interviews (around 400) that she has undertaken.

One could argue that while he was very much a part of the United Nations system, he was learning to think outside the bureaucratic box. It is very easy to be clever as a result of hindsight. None of us were placed in the situations that Mr Viera de Mello was placed in and neither did we have to make the decisions that he had to, or deal with the bureaucratic nature of the United Nations or countries that decide on peacekeeping missions but then do not provide the resources to implement them competently.

The book is long (541 pages) but easy to read. Anyone interested in good writing or international events would enjoy this book.

  • Nim

    Beautifully written review, Suganthi. It has definitely piqued my interest and curiosity and i look forward to reading this book. 

  • Ipanema2002

    Minion’s book is a false start, my friend- it is she who did not interview anybody! And Vieira de Mello was separated for 23 years – she likely did not check! or you think Timor was a place to have a family?