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COLUMN: DICTATORS AS WRITERS

May 13, 2018

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The larger-than-life shadow of despotic tyrants takes over all aspects of society, from work ethics to spirituality. However, what happens when they start proclaiming themselves as writers, with their books taking over large shelves in school libraries, crowding out all others?

Dictators are a modern phenomenon we all know because of their ruthless pursuit of power, trampling over and often murdering anybody who comes in their way. But they are presented through their literary ambitions in Daniel Kalder’s recently published Dictator Literature: A History of Despots Through Their Writing. A remarkable literary rogues’ gallery emerges as Kalder presents Vladimir Lenin, Joseph Stalin, Adolf Hitler, Benito Mussolini, Mao Zedong, Muammar Qadhafi, Saddam Hussein, a few Central Asian figures and, ultimately, Kim Il-Sung of Korea.

Kalder terms this body of work as “dictator literature”, defining it as “the canon of works written by or attributed to dictators” and goes on to say this is “about some of the worst books ever written.” In spite of, or because of its subject, Kalder’s book is amazing and full of surprises. Lenin and Stalin’s ambitions are known, but who can forget Hussein “neglecting his duties as a dictator in the last years of his regime” to churn out Mills and Boon-style romances in which “the obvious lack of craft was enough to dispel suspicions professional ghostwriters were involved”? The ending is predictable: “Reader, they hanged him.”

Although he praises some books, Kalder has not rescued any masterpieces from the dunghill of history and, in presenting the great despots of the 20th century, he writes with more wit than wisdom about their politics and framing of ideas. In some instances, the politics appears to be naïve, as when he characterises Lenin as “a master troll, king of the flame war.” The chapter on Cuba is rather cursory and I wish there were more of Africa, but we have to be grateful to Kalder for saving us from joining “hundreds of millions of people — compelled to read very bad books.”

In the conclusion, Kalder falls victim to generalisation, as he tries to wrap up the complex narrative. Listing the changes of the last century, he writes: “Democracy was out; utopian fantasies were in; tyranny and mass murder ensued. It was the worst of times, and it was the worst of times. Today we are also living in an era of disintegration, albeit of a less dramatic sort.”

Although it lacks a theoretical base and is free of attempts at psychologising of any kind, the best part of the book is its breezy and readable summary of the dictators’ lives and their literary progeny — useful, as I cannot imagine anybody in their right mind getting down to seriously read such insufferable books as literature. What I hanker for is a less straightforward portrait of any such dictator enlivened through taking into account the writers they tried to punish and obliterate, yet who managed to outlive them: Lenin’s ascent to power through the fictions of Mikhail Bulgakov and Boris Pasternak; Stalin viewed from the poetry of Anna Akhmatova and Osip Mandelstam, who wrote a biting poem making fun of the despot’s moustaches and ended his life in Siberia. Mao can be seen from the flip side of the coin in the works of Yan Lianke and Eileen Chang. Lianke is a contemporary classic and innovator of a high order, but Chang’s novels were commissioned for United States’ propaganda and her memorable Naked Earth has been recently reissued after a gap of 50 years. Above all, the tyrant of tiny Albania, Enver Hoxha, was enriched through a reading of Ismail Kadare, author of The Palace of Dreams and one of the finest novelists of this day and age. These dictators are immortalised by the very writers they strove hard to suppress. The most memorable dictators are to be found nowhere in history, but in imaginative novels.

An unwritten, but not entirely unimaginable, chapter in this study could focus on Pakistan’s share of dictators who have held the reins over this country for the larger part of its history. The country does not boast of a single dictator who had the kind of literary ambitions or pretensions the various tyrants presented here had. I, for one, feel left out of this international feast of literary dictators. Why can some of the smaller African nations boast of book-producing despots, but we, who have been badly served by our dictators, have not been able to get a single seat in literature’s Hall of Shame?

Why can some of the smaller African nations boast of book-producing despots, but we, who have been badly served by our dictators, have not been able to get a single seat in literature’s Hall of Shame?

If it’s some compensation, we do have rulers — from Gen Ayub Khan to Gen Pervez Musharraf — who took up the pen mostly to write self-justifying memoirs with an eye to posterity. I sometimes wonder where the dust-laden, overstocked copies of these books are being stored. Surely not in the record room of history?

In such a list I miss the familiar voice of Gen Ziaul Haq. Did he not have a story to tell? If he lacked the literary aspirations of the memoir-writing type, this did not stop him from having literary opinions and expounding on these at length. Rulers and dictators throughout Pakistan’s history used and rewarded certain privileged writers who would turn out copy on command and I hang my head in shame at the otherwise distinguished names who would make such a list. It is to Gen Zia’s credit that he turned this into a literary occasion when he summoned the Academy of Letters to organise a writers’ conference and used the occasion to display his talent as literary critic. He quoted and criticised some poets in a threatening manner. He referred to Ahmed Nadeem Qasmi and recited from Akhtar Hussain Jafri’s poem published in an issue of the reputable journal Funoon. This is one of the strangest episodes in the chequered career of literature in Pakistan. Gen Zia’s legacy continues to thrive in Islamabad’s echelons of power as writers are rewarded in the name of literary conferences.

The columnist writes fiction and essays and teaches literature and humanities at Habib University, Karachi

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, May 13th, 2018