BOOK REVIEW / Sad stories of the death of kings: Shusha Guppy on a humane evocation of one man's journey through the Shah's last days. 'From Palace to Prison' - Ehsan Naraghi Tr. Nilou Mobasser: Taurus, 19.95 pounds

On 28 September 1978 Ehsan Naraghi was summoned to the Royal Palace in Tehran for the first of eight audiences with the Shah. Each of these tete-a-tetes lasted several hours, and the final one took place on 16 January 1979, 48 hours before the Shah left Iran forever.

Naraghi was a prominent member of Persia's intellectual elite. He sat on committees, advised the government on education, and Queen Farah on cultural matters. But he was not in the Shah's entourage. The Shah 'had a robust contempt for intellectuals', and Naraghi's independent outlook and moderate criticism of his regime, had made him persona non grata. So why this sudden attention?

For a quarter of a century the Shah had ruled his country autocratically. In 1973 he quadrupled the price of oil and rocked the world economy. In the resulting boom he embarked upon a massive programme of development 'to turn Iran into the Japan of the Middle East', and her army into one of the strongest in the world. He surrounded himself with technocrats and yes-men, crushed all opposition, and sent wise experienced statesmen into 'retirement'. There was no one to tell him the truth: that his policies would not lead to the 'great civilisation' of his dream, but would split the nation into two - a small Westernised elite and the traditionalist majority - and bring catastrophe.

From the first wave of the revolution the unreal edifice he had constructed began to collapse. His family and 'friends' fled. He felt betrayed and abandoned, and in desperation turned to independent channels of information - elder statesmen and critics like Naraghi.

Dr Naraghi wrote down his conversations immediately after each visit, intending to publish them later. But in December 1979 he was arrested as he was boarding a plane to Paris for a holiday. The suitcase containing his manuscript was already checked in, and his son was able to collect it at Paris airport and keep it safe. It forms the first, 'Palace' part of his book, and is a unique account of the last days of the Shah and his state of mind, his feelings and thoughts as he watches the storm gather. .

At their first encounter the Shah, bewildered and prone to conspiracy theories, asks Naraghi who in his view is the real engineer of the revolution. 'You yourself, Majesty,' he replies. 'You'. This unusual frankness sets the tone for their exchanges, and in 40 to 50 hours of informal conversation the whole history of Iran under the Pahlavis, from 1921 to 1978, is reviewed and the Shah's own fatal mistakes discussed.

The Shah had believed that all opposition to his regime was from the Left, and he underestimated the power of the Clergy - the Ayatollahs and their legions of mullahs: he walked looking over his shoulder for fear of being stabbed in the back, while all along his enemy was in front, advancing towards him. Naraghi, who comes from a clerical family and whose father was a grand Mullah, explained to him the revolutionary nature of Shiism - 'Islam's Persian schism'. He also explained that to the appeal of religion had been added the influence of Western intellectuals such as Franz Fanon, and of certain Islamic groups which had joined hands with Marxism and nationalism.

Khomeini succeeded astutely in focusing all these tendencies on to himself, presenting himself as a 'Gandhi figure' who would retire from politics after the Shah's demise. As a result, not only Iranian but also influential foreign intellectuals, such as Michel Foucault, as well as almost the Western media, were hoodwinked into endorsing his revolution.

At the end of these conversations, the Shah at last emerges from the cocoon of fantasy woven around him by sycophantic courtiers and corrupt officials, and stands before his interlocutor alone, stripped, doomed, 'a truly pathetic figure', yet touched by a certain tragic grandeur which brings to mind Richard II. Fatally ill with cancer, and dropped by his 'allies' - the Americans, British and French - the Shah is depicted with clarity and compassion.

In the second, 'prison', part of his book Dr Naraghi tells of his sojourn in the notorious Evin prison, where he was incarcerated for three years. He was first arrested a year after the revolution, for four months, and his companions were ministers, senators and generals. He was arrested again in July 1981, by which time the country's situation had changed radically: Iran was at war with Iraq, and Khomeini's coalition was disintegrating, for the Marxist-Islamic Mujaheddin had declared an underground civil war against the regime they had helped to power, and were using terrorist tactics to kill those faithful to the 'Imam'. Their leader had fled, along with the Imam's 'godson', Prime Minister Bani Sadr.

The Mullahs' reaction was ruthless: young Mujaheddin, mostly in their teens and twenties, were rounded up and executed without ado; Evin was crowded and 'the smell of death was always in the air', with up to 80 executions a night. Naraghi's 'crime' was that years earlier he had taught Bani Sadr. Fortunately he was able to prove that he had had no contact with Bani Sadr since, or he too would have been killed.

Naraghi's description of his companions - monarchists, communists, Mujaheddin - and guards reads like a collection of short-stories: vignettes that together make up a vast and enthralling canvas of a country in the grip of collective psychosis. With cool objectivity and a humane understanding, Naraghi observes that in their idealism and innocence the young Mujaheddin, brain-washed into a trance and betrayed by their 'leader', had more in common with their rivals, the pious Guardians of the Revolution, than with their fellow prisoners who had been wealthy members of the ancien regime - some of whom are the only people in the book to show selfishness and arrogance. Nor does Naraghi leave out the women who share the prisoners' ordeals - wives, mothers, sisters - who kept families together, and earned a living, in constant fear of their loved ones' execution: 'They waited impatiently for the evening papers to go over the name of the executed prisoners in fearful silence.' He conveys their fortitude and dignity without sentimentality: 'My wife never left the house for fear of missing my phone-calls . . . On the very rare occasions that I managed to ring from prison, she was always there. . .'

Eventually the wave of summary executions subsided, and Naraghi was able to organise classes and discussion groups, teaching his fellow inmates history, sociology, political theory, Islamic Law. His good-humour and optimism never left him, and he helped others who had sunk into despair by lending a sympathetic ear.

(Photograph omitted)