Dictators Who Write

When Muammar al-Gaddafi became headline news in February, I began to have this nagging feeling that I half-remembered something (that is, when I wasn't having vivid flashbacks of the eighties). Then it hit me: this guy's written a book. And I wasn't thinking of The Green Book (his statement of his political philosophy). No it was something else. A quick catalog search, one network request and two weeks later I had in my hands  Escape to Hell and Other Stories by none other than the "Mad Dog of the Middle East" (Ronald Reagan's words, not mine). There are many reasons you may want to read a book. The most common is you think you'll enjoy it. Or you think you'll learn something. But sometimes you don't expect to enjoy a book, you don't imagine you'll learn anything of value, you just want the experience.  The last was my reason for reading Escape to Hell. And what an experience I had. This book is mind-bogglingly bad. None of the stories had anything you could call a plot except for "The Suicide of an Astronaut," which was about—you guessed it—the suicide of an astronaut. Second, the language was not quite idiomatic. Actually, it was kind of bizarre. A passage in one of the stories  begins, "We, however, must go forward with this herb for treating the mentally disturbed, as well as using artichokes." Some of the oddness of the book's language can be accounted for by bad translation: it was originally written in Arabic, then translated into French. Then a Quebec publisher picked up the North American rights and commissioned a translation into English. And I'm guessing that final translator's mastery of English is shaky. However, you can blame bad translation for only so much. These "stories" are incoherent, with undeveloped characters (when they have any characters at all), and are mostly didactic ramblings that tell us a) Gaddafi hates cities and technology, b) loves the desert and Bedouin life, and c) likes artichokes. But we have to bear in mind Gaddafi is in a bad situation for a writer. Writers get better by getting constructive criticism of their work. But if you're a dictator as well as an aspiring writer, your chances of getting honest feedback are nonexistent. And since he's been an international pariah for most of the past twenty years, he probably wouldn't have been welcome at the Iowa Writers' Workshop. However, reading Escape to Hell made me wonder: how many other absolute rulers have had literary aspirations? It turns out I didn't have to do much research. Simply posting the question to a listserv of absurdly knowledgeable people yielded several examples.   And the good people at Passport (the blog of Foreign Policy magazine) had already assembled a list. Saddam Hussein wrote erotica? Kim Jong Il writes film criticism? Who knew? My hat is off to the bloggers at Passport for the awesomeness of this list, but they are guilty of a couple of glaring omissions. Mao Zedong was a poet in the classical Chinese style, and supposedly not a bad one. Secondly, while they do note that the late President for Life of Turkmenistan Saparmurat Niyazov wrote 400 pages of spiritual advice and musings on Turkmen identity entitled Ruhnama, they left out the best part: there's a statue of the book. It wasn't enough to tell people that if they wanted to go to heaven they had to read his book three times a day. Niyazov built a monument  in honor of the book.


And I close by letting you know that before Mussolini became Il Duce he tried his hand at fiction, including a historical romance called Claudia Particella, l'Amante del Cardinale: Grande Romanzo dei Tempi del Cardinale Emanuel Madruzzo. It was published in English as The Cardinal's Mistress and didn't do too badly. There was enough demand to justify a second printing of the English edition, and it was translated into German as well. Unfortunately, that doesn't change the fact that it's horrible. Here's what a reviewer at Odd Books has to say about it. Finally, a word of advice: if any of you reading this want to be writers and aspire to absolute power, do the writing first,  before discerning readers are afraid to give you feedback.

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