Tradition and the Individual Tyrant

The dictators of the 20th century were firm believers in the power of the written word. Lenin had read the theories of Marx and the Russian radical tradition but it was Nikolai Chernyshevsky’s novel What is to be Done? that caused him to abandon chess and other “distractions” to dedicate himself full time to revolution. Stalin was so impressed by Alexander Kazbegi’s novel The Patricide that he renamed himself “Koba” after its central character, and used the pseudonym throughout his early career.

Transformed by these encounters, and obsessed by questions of ideological purity, Lenin, Stalin et al. naturally demanded control over the printing presses once in power. And they also anticipated that their own deep thoughts, captured in print, would mould the minds of their subjects.

Massive print runs and critical acclaim for dictator books were de rigeur regardless of ideology or the particulars of each dictator’s personality cult. Mein Kampf is the most notorious and Quotations from Chairman Mao was the most widely distributed, but these works–sacred texts for regimes run by man-gods–represent the tip of a very deep literary iceberg. From the obscure Stalinist Albanian despot Enver Hoxha to the theocratic Ayatollah Khomeini, the tyrants of the 20th century offered up their bibliographies as evidence of their genius.

Yet most (if not all) dictators realized that their subjects could not live by their word alone. When it came to affective forms of writing, others would have to write the novels, screenplays and poems that stir the emotions. Stalin put it best: writers were “engineers of the human soul,” reworking the inner lives of the masses for the new era. Let the dictator be the super genius of theory, but leave the inspirational tear-jerkers about tractors and concrete-pouring to the professionals.

But while many dictators did restrict themselves to grandiose works of “theory” or collections of speeches, some felt compelled to write novels, poetry and plays themselves.  Largely forgotten today, these writings represent a strange literary detritus of the 20th century that, on occasion, provide insight into the inner lives of their (would be) all-powerful authors.

Benito Mussolini, of course, was a professional writer long before he became dictator, enjoying more than two decades of total control over the page prior to his attempts at exerting the same control over Italy. In this first choice of career he had something in common with Lenin, but while the Bolshevik leader wrote dense, jargon-laden prose for initiates, Mussolini was a populist firebrand, spitting out vigorous, animated copy that had wide appeal. In his socialist period he took special joy in abusing the church and antagonizing the authorities of wherever he lived. Audiences responded well: when Mussolini became editor of Avanti he tripled its daily circulation from 28,000 copies to 94,000.

But Mussolini did not limit himself to journalistic hackwork; he was a literary journeyman willing to try anything, including fiction. So it was that in 1910 he, Dickens-style, blithely dashed off The Cardinal’s Mistress in 56 installments for Il Popolo, a socialist paper published  in the Austro-Hungarian city of Trent (from which he had recently been deported).

The Cardinal’s Mistress recounts the tale of Carl Emanuel Madruzzo, a 17th century Archbishop of Trent, whose love for the shapely Claudia Particella (her eyes understand “the sorcery of poisonous passions”) scandalized the city. The corrupt Madruzzo wants to marry the seductress Claudia, who is reviled by his peers in the church and blamed by the mob for their hunger, poverty and other sufferings. Madruzzo’s pursuit of his doomed love sets off conflicts with the prelate [SM2]  Don Benizio who likewise yearns for the exquisite flesh of the Claudia, and who plots to bring about the downfall of his enemy; meanwhile Madruzzo’s attempt to marry off his niece Filiberta to Claudia’s brother so he can gain access to her fortune not only fails but ends with her premature death, and earns him the undying hatred of her true love, the Count di Castelnuovo. Things get exceedingly complicated, and in the end, both the cardinal  and his lover die. Claudia succumbs to poison, while the cardinal lives out an empty and embittered existence, dragging out “the remainder of his existence like a heavy chain,”  ending with the extinction of his family line.

The Cardinal’s Mistress is not very good; but only in the way that most pot boilers are not very good. Mussolini demonstrates basic competence as a storyteller; he maintains a brisk pace and throws in plenty of drama and scandal, supplying the reader with vivid descriptions of torture, death and rotting female bodies. Occasionally he ascends to a level of joyous offense giving that is quite entertaining: the masturbatory fantasies of clerics are not off-limits (“After the flagellation, while his livid flesh was swelling under the bloody lashes, the image of Claudia would leap before his eyes. Claudia nude, quivering, seductive, offering the mortal caresses of Cleopatra!”) nor are the sins of hypocritical popes (Clement VII “maintained a troupe of lascivious women, among them a celebrated African, to solace him in the Vatican,”; Julius III “practiced Greek love.”

Exploitative and crass as it most certainly is, the novel nonetheless contains flashes of insight that are interesting in light of Mussolini’s later career, in particular his depiction of “the masses.” He understands their passions and fears, but clearly despises them. Mussolini portrays the people of Trent an unreasoning mob, easily moved by rumors, ready to erupt in an orgy of violence. Mussolini the novelist knew that there was a limit to how far you could push the crowd; a truth that Mussolini the dictator (and his mistress Clara Petacci) would relearn at the cost of his life decades later.

In 1913 Mussolini published a biography of Jan Hus, which was so light on sources that it counts as a work of the imagination; he also produced an interesting  war diary that contains some excellent sketches of life behind the lines. And once in power, “Mussolini” remained a prodigious generator of journalistic hackwork, although the business of writing these op-eds and articles was frequently outsourced to others. However, constructing the illusion that was Fascist Italy became his primary creative outlet and it seemed that he would never dabble in a “creative” literary form again. Yet in 1929, at the height of his power, he was inspired to create a historical drama based on the theme of Napoleon’s last days.

Mussolini was rather busy so he enlisted the assistance of Giovacchino  Forzano, a writer of historical plays (and card-carrying Fascist). Mussolini provided Forzano with notes which the playwright then developed into drafts that the dictator revised and edited until In Campo di maggio, was ready. Performed to much acclaim in Italy (where Mussolini’s name was not attached), it was translated into English (where it was) by the now forgotten poet John Drinkwater as Napoleon: the Hundred Days and performed in 1932 in London’s New Theatre.  

Napoleon: the Hundred Days  is much more boring than The Cardinal’s Mistress. Light on action, character and plot, and long on speeches and tedious political ramblings it is the work not of a radical journalist living by the seat of his pants but rather the pretentious despot Mussolini had become. Even so, like the earlier novel, it contains flashes of insight. Especially striking is that  at the height of his own power he was inspired to write a play not about Napoleon triumphant but rather Napoleon the betrayed titan, unable to defeat the forces amassed against him (Julius Caesar inspired another play). Once again, Mussolini the writer was wiser than Mussolini the leader; he even delivers his own epitaph . “Downfall is nothing, if one falls with greatness,” he writes.”It is everything, if one falls basely.”


Would any other dictator-author be able to rise to Mussolini’s standard of “not always entirely awful”? Certainly, General Franco could not pull it off: the Spanish dictator had knocked out the screenplay-novel Raza over a few weeks at the end of 1940 and start of 1941. This perfunctory narrative is set during the Spanish civil war and stars a heroic stand in for Franco himself. Raza was quickly adapted into a film that Franco would watch repeatedly, moved to tears by his own bathos. As for Antonio de Oliveira Salazar, dictator of neighboring Portugal, he earned the admiration of TS Eliot and was published in the UK by Faber, but this trained economist had the profound misfortune of writing like one. To the east, matters were still worse. Stalin had enjoyed success as a teenage poet in his native Georgia, but he was not much of a writer; he was, however, an exacting editor, and the middle manager communists who ran his Eastern European franchises adapted their prose to his suffocating house style. 

Mao Zedong, however, was different. In his pre-socialist days, he had contributed an essay on cultivating a strong body and will to New Youth, a reformist journal dedicated to rejuvenating Chinese culture and prose. Later, he took advantage of his distance from Moscow to doggedly pursue a path of the “sinification of Marxism”.  This was visible in his political writings, throughout which allusions to classical Chinese literature were scattered; even his much quoted phrase “Let a hundred flowers bloom” was a fragment purloined from the past and inserted into a new context. His most famous work, Quotations of Chairman Mao, had formal antecedents stretching back to Confucian times. He wasn’t even the first Chinese tyrant to produce an anthology that became a compulsory bestseller: Chu Yuan-chang, founder of the Ming dynasty, got there before him.  

Mao embraced another Chinese tradition: that of the emperor poet, starting when his authority was limited to his own political faction. Mao wrote following defeats and personal tragedies; he wrote after miraculous escapes; he wrote after victories over his foes.  Here, too he leaned on the classics, using  conventional patterns and structures, and inserting allusions to and borrowings from the past. Thus Mao’s poetry gleams  with a surface sheen but is rather dull, lacking even Mussolini’s “virtues” of periodic detours into exuberant bad taste. It is also relentlessly grandiose and pompous, with recurring imagery of mountains, heaven, armies, clouds and nature.  Mao the propagandist was always at hand to tie everything up neatly. Consider for instance “Against the First Encirclement Campaign”

                Forests blaze red beneath the frosty sky, 
                The wrath of Hwaven’s armies soars to the clouds.
                Mist veils Lungkang, its thousand peaks blurred.

Not a terrible start; next Mao inserts the heroic masses:
                All cry out in unison: 
                Our van has taken Chang Hui-tsan! 
                The enemy returns to Kiangsi two hundred thousand strong, 
                Fumes billowing in the wind in mid-sky. 

And then he is quick to resolve it with what is–even allowing for the vagaries of translation–some clunking propaganda.

                Workers and peasants are wakened in their millions 
                To fight as one man,
                Under the riot of red flags round the foot of Puchou!

Like any good Marxist he fixes his eye not on the individual but the forward movement of history, on the glorious struggle, on the collective marching ever(yawn)  onward. This was a trope ubiquitous in socialist propaganda, appearing in oil paintings from Moscow to Beijing, and which recurs in Kim Jong-un’s speeches today. Occasionally Mao could slip out of imperial mode and write something more personal; in one poem, “I Lost My Proud Poplar”, he wrote mournfully about the death of his second wife. That said, far better poems about grief exist and they have the added benefit of not being written by megalomaniacs with the blood of millions on their hands. 


Following Mao’s death in 1976, other dictator-authors emerged, but their work had a lesser impact than their 20th century predecessors. Colonel Gaddafi’s Green Book achieved a certain notoriety, but try as he might (and he tried everything, including paying a German ice hockey team to advertise it on their shirts)  the colonel could not get anyone outside of Libya to take it seriously. Nor did his execrable short stories, collected in Escape to Hell, set the world on fire — despite the promotional efforts of Pierre Salinger, former press secretary to JFK and LBJ.  The Ayatollah Khomeini’s poetry is little known and little translated. Brezhnev outsourced the work of his memoirs to others. This left the field more or less open for Saddam Hussein to emerge as the foremost exponent of “creative” dictator literature in recent years.

Given his penchant for military fatigues and comparing himself to the great conqueror Saladdin, the “Butcher of Baghdad” cuts an unlikely figure as a writer, let alone a novelist. And indeed for much of his career he was content to cultivate the image of “best pupil” to Michel Aflaq, the Ba’athist Party’s chief ideologue, while publishing stultifying texts such as Our Policy is an Embodiment of the Nation’s Present and Future (1981). However his literary career featured a second act– a late-life creative flowering that saw him publish the historical romance Zabiba and the King, one of the most intensely personal works of any dictator.

According to Sa’adoon al-Zubaydi,  Hussein’s English interpreter turned editor, he began work on Zabiba and the King after falling in love with the 24-year-old daughter of one of his advisers.  Nearly four decades younger than the dictator, she became his fourth wife and, says  al-Zubaydi, gave the besieged and disillusioned Hussein renewed “inspiration” and “vitality” in the latter stages of his reign; she even “encouraged him to pick up pen and paper.” Duly inspired, Hussein cranked out the tragic story of an isolated, alienated pagan king and the beautiful young Muslim woman who loved and died for him.

Here, the relationship between the older, powerful man and the younger woman is portrayed as a positive, beautiful thing. The king notices Zabiba while out riding; soon she is regularly visiting the castle to enjoy chaste discussions about leadership, in which she, the humble daughter of the people, provides wise insights that provide him with a sense of connection to “the people.” Hussein’s king is sensitive: surrounded by “a multitude of useless things” and “burdened by the intricate maze of his palaces” he bemoans that his “soul” has “died.” He falls in love with Zabiba, and, filled with yearning,  proclaims himself “jealous “of the air and the water and even of every morsel of food in her mouth.” Alas, both the king and Zabiba are trapped in loveless marriages–he to a wife who is conspiring against him, she to  “Hiskel” who forces her to participate in rape-parties with foreign invaders, in a none-too-subtle jab at the US.

In the physical world, Hussein ruled Iraq by fear. In the world of his imagination, the king loves and is loved back. In the perfunctory fight scene with foreign occupiers that ends the novel Zabiba hurls herself in front of a sword aimed at the king, whose name (she reveals) is “Arab.”  The people rise up in defense of their leader and chase the depraved foreign invader from their land. Allegory takes over. America loses; the Arabs win, and in spite of the tragedy of Zabiba’s death, things will only get better.

Hussein’s incompetence as an author, evident in the clunky structure and rambling discourses, and also (according to al-Zubaydi) his excited overuse of words he had just learned but didn’t fully understand,  is especially strong at the climax. Hussein had never served in the military and the climactic battle scene is over in two paragraphs: it is beyond his imagination. When it comes to rape and sexual abuse, however, his prose overflows with detail. Like Mussolini, he favors the lurid, including necrophilia as a metaphor for loveless sex (“my  corpse is decaying when I am in bed with my husband”). Nor is bestiality off the table: rather bizarrely, Zabiba contrasts her husband’s seduction techniques unfavorably with those of the female bears in northern Iraq who offer “Cheese, nuts and even raisins” to the herdsmen with whom they hope to “copulate.”

Like all great novels, even though it is actually a terrible novel, Zabiba and the King has a life of its own. Anxieties and obsessions that Hussein would have been wiser to conceal stand revealed. That it wasn’t quite the whole truth, that he distorted things and exaggerated and even lied at times, makes him all the more a novelist. Indeed, so dedicated was Hussein to this new career that he neglected his duties as dictator in the last years of his regime, instead (says al-Zubaydi) “shutting himself up in his office and writing.” In novels such as Walled Fortress, Men and the City and Get Out, You Damned One ! Hussein wove yet more dramatic tales exploring his thoughts, feelings and anxieties.  Although he published these books anonymously  his authorship was widely acknowledged and the obvious amateurism of a text such as Zabiba and the King is enough to dispel suspicions professional ghostwriters were involved.The books were so personal, so important to him that he worked on them right up until the end of his rule. He finished Get Out You Damned One! a direct rebuke to the invading American forces,  right before the Battle of Baghdad in 2003. Editing continued throughout the fighting, and the presidential publisher Al-Hurriah (Freedom) completed printing of the book mere hours before fighting ceased and the US cemented its conquest of the city.

Today, of course, we stand on the threshold of a new era of despotism. The naive hopes of a post Cold War era of freedom and democracy for all have collapsed entirely, and as the tyrants of old have left the stage, so their heirs have brought with them new books, demonstrating that the tradition of dictator literature is no dead letter. Xi Jinping has numerous titles to his name, including two volumes on “The Governance of China.” Vladimir Putin is the proud author of a judo manual, and in his youth Recep Tayyip Erdogan authored, directed and starred in a play, Maskomya (short for Masons, Communists and Jews) which is exactly what you would expect it to be.  Meanwhile the dictator of Turkmenistan, Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov, has issued books on anything and everything from the glories of tea drinking to a novel based on the career of his prison guard father.

And so, after a century of dictator literature we can look back and regard it for what it is: a total disappointment, a series of crushing failures that are only occasionally leavened by flashes of transcendent awfulness. This awfulness, it should be admitted, can be moderately amusing, so long as it comes in small doses and you are not compelled to live in a dictatorial regime.

But dictator literature is not just a failure; it is also a squandered opportunity. Dictators have access to knowledge that the rest of us do not; they know the giddiest heights of power and the darkest depths of paranoia.  But to write about that experience meaningfully would require honesty, and critical self-reflection, and literary skill, and these qualities are not conducive to a career as a tyrant. Instead we get tedium, megalomania, banality, mendacity, vanity and inadvertent self-revelations that confirm what we all suspected all along.

It would be nice if they stopped. But then again, why should they? Each dictator has what every author can only dream of: a captive audience.

From The Times Literary Supplement

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