Our Man: Richard Holbrooke. Racy account of a diplomat’s life

Book review: John Banville on a biography of one of America’s most controversial figures

Richard Holbrook: no saint, but he did the state, and the world, some service. Photograph:  Win McNamee/Getty

Richard Holbrook: no saint, but he did the state, and the world, some service. Photograph: Win McNamee/Getty

There are no facts, says Nietzsche, only interpretations. It is a thought to trouble the sleep of any historian, whether an adherent of Caryle’s “great man” theory of history, or a member of the annales school. We might add to the night’s disorders by observing that objectivity, like perfection, is not of this world. No one has ever seen a cube; all we have is the broad concept, and a limited point of view. Recall the apocryphal Frenchman in London wondering why so many places, such as Waterloo Station and Trafalgar Square, are called after defeats.

So how is the historian, and the historian-biographer, to proceed? George Packer’s rich and racy account of the life-story of the diplomat Richard Holbrooke, one of the most fascinating and controversial figures in post-war American public life, has been widely praised but in some quarters thoroughly deplored. Packer is a former New Yorker staff writer now with the Atlantic magazine, and the winner of many prizes, including the National Book Award in 2013 for The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America. He has also written fiction – two novels and a play – and in Our Man, it shows.

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