Book in the news: an engaging tale about a one-dimensional man

Cover of Mr Five Per CentMr Five Per Cent

The Many Lives of Calouste Gulbenkian, The World’s Richest Man
Jonathan Conlin
Profile, £25
Buy on Amazon

“A dealmaker for the age,” Calouste Gulbenkian was the richest man in the world by the time of his death in 1955 owing to his role in brokering deals between oil companies and oil-rich kingdoms in the Middle East. This biography tells his story, one “of a businessman playing off great powers in the Middle East, exploiting loopholes in the world’s financial architecture, avoiding accountability, making a fortune for himself, and spending it on a life of luxury”, says Oliver Bullough in The Guardian.

Gulbenkian is not an easy subject as his single-mindedness in the pursuit of money “renders him rather dull”, says Gerard DeGroot in The Times. However, Conlin “somehow constructs an engaging tale about this one-dimensional man”, providing “delightful details that provide welcome contrast to all those labyrinthine deals”.

The author guides the reader “with a sure hand and a lucid talent for exposition through the very different worlds of connoisseurship, family trauma and the making of millions”, says Philip Hensher in The Spectator. But the main interest is in the book’s “exploration of what this level of wealth does to a man and the people around him”. Conlin “compels unwilling admiration for the sheer tenacity of his hero over decades, while leaving us in no doubt of the hellish narrowness of Calouste’s focus”.