Books

Dictator Lit

News from the publishing frontier.

Saddam Hussein’s 2003 novel Devil’s Dance is to be published in English for the first time, in December 2016 by Hesperus. The original manuscript was thrillingly smuggled out of Iraq during the early part of the war by his daughter Raghad, whilst its author was left to swing. This exciting literary development should solve most of your Christmas present problems. Fans of Saddam’s classic novel Zabibah and the King, published in Iraq in 2000, will remember that Zabibah was raped by a man who personifies the imperialism of the United States and later a bear (representing Russia) has sex with a human. It is billed as a romance. Saddam clearly relished torturing metaphors as well. Soon you can enjoy more of his words of mindless drivel.

Who can forget that other classic of the genre: Colonel Gaddafi’s short stories from the early 1990s, Escape to Hell? In rambling surreal prose one protagonist, in the story Suicide of the Cosmonaut, returns to earth after a visit to the moon, finds he is unsuitable for the terrestrial economy, and commits suicide. It is undeniably awful. It may be wiser to stick to Vogon poetry instead. Or what about Ayatollah Khomeini’s Persian poems? He may have loathed Salman Rushdie’s literary work but did he really need to subject us to lines such as “I have become imprisoned, O beloved, by the mole on your lip”. Those of you who are fans of Enver Hoxha of Albania (a man who once dismissed a cabinet minister by personally shooting him dead) may have heroically battled your way through all 79 volumes of his memoirs (a positively Soviet level of production) that settled old scores in crushingly dull psychopathic detail. Or you could move on to Mein Kampf, the introduction to which, in my copy, by D.C. Watt, describes the prose as “lengthy, dull, bombastic and extremely badly written” And, I suppose one could add, unreliable. Dorothy Parker could not get past the following sentence early in Benito Mussolini’s 1928 novel The Cardinal’s Mistress: “From the tiny churches hidden within the newly budding verdure of the valleys, the evensong of the Ave Maria floated gently forth and died upon the lake.” I’m not sure that she was trying hard enough.

There is an essential difference between real literature and dic-lit. One is ambivalent, provisional, ironic, the other literal, certain and absolute. Tyrants seem so fond of writing one cannot but suspect they chose a career in despotism merely as a manoeuvre to a publishing contract. Zabibah and the King was an instant bestseller in Iraq (over a million copies were sold), became obligatory on the Iraq school syllabus, was made into a 20 part TV miniseries and a musical. These authors certainly command a large and secure market. Let us just say that it is one of the perks of the job. It seems in dictatorships no editor can be found to stand up to the author and his deranged dottiness. Something is going to be tortured, and its either the language or the publisher. I suppose the only merit in wading through this spew of nauseous, malignant, grandiloquence is to gain an insight into a third-rate mind. The ravings and waffle of disordered, illiterate obsessives can, in the end, be masterpieces of platitudinous banality. Devil’s Dance, I suggest, is one for your Christmas stockings.

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