Dictators often come wrapped in lofty literary pretensions, it seems. And you thought the novel was dead.
Suzanne Murkelson has a terrific piece in Foreign Policy about the literary lives of dictators. She was disciplined enough to avoid the term tortured prose. But I’m not.
Murkelson notes that it was the late Turkmen autocrat Saparmurat Niyazov who blurbed his own work:
A person that reads Ruhnama becomes smart … and after it, he will go to heaven…
What writer wouldn’t love such an Amazon review? The gift of intelligence in this life, the promise of eternal happiness in the afterlife? I wonder what you get if you reread it?
Muammar al-Qaddafi wrote a children’s story called “The Astronaut’s Suicide” about an American space explorer who ends it all after he returns to Earth and discovers he’s lost his job due to budget cuts. Goodnight, Moon. One hopes he at least read Niyazov.
New York Times columnist Gail Collins has made the supreme sacrifice and actually read some of the recent work of contemporary American politicians. Her conclusion?
We may be embarking on a new era in politics, in which candidates and officials are just as likely to be brought down by bad writing as adultery.
Maybe there are politician/authors telling their spouses they are out hiking the Appalachian Trail when they are actually off composing their magnum opuses in dark coffee houses. If there are, I bet they don’t confess it in their books.
Wouldn’t it be great if all the dictators belonged to a special intellectual group, like Bloomsbury or the Beats? Maybe they could be called the Beaters.
I don’t know what to think about Saddam Hussein’s novel, Zabiba and the King, which includes a passage about having sex with a bear. I’m equally baffled by the official propaganda claim that Kim Jong Il has written 1,500 books.
Joseph Stalin is easier to come to literary grips with. He wrote pastoral odes. Here’s a passage from his poem, “Morning”:
The pinkish bud has opened,
Rushing to the pale-blue violet
And, stirred by a light breeze,
The lily of the valley has bent over the grass.
As Collins has shown us in her columns on the books of American politicians, our local literary men-who-would-be-kings focus less on bent lilies or copulation with bears and more on the subject that obsesses them all: themselves.
Political autobiographies and memoirs have become just another item on the campaign must-do list, like direct mail, kissing babies and rubber chicken dinners with suckers-who-would-be-donors. The lives they depict are, of course, highly redacted. So even if there was something about a bear in the past it’s unlikely to make it into an American politician’s book.
According to Ken Layne over at Wonkette, Rolling Stone Keith Richards is the author of America’s greatest political book, putting Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich, Mike Huckabee and other politician/authors to shame. Richards earns the title by including several scathing anecdotes involving the Stones and American politicians. For instance, while governor of Arkansas, Huckabee pardoned Richards for a 30-year-old offense he was never charged with. “I got pardoned anyway,” Richards wrote.
Barack Obama received generally positive reviews for two of his books, Dreams from my Father and The Audacity of Hope. They were candid and well-written, qualities that helped raise suspicions that Obama was not an American at all.
But it is Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini who wins the award for candor, I think. He wrote a poem, published by The New Republic after his death, which gives us a Khomeini we had no idea of:
Open the door of the tavern and let us go there day and night,
For I am sick and tired of the mosque and seminary.
I have torn off the garb of asceticism and hypocrisy,
Putting on the cloak of the tavern-hunting shaykh and becoming aware.
The city preacher has so tormented me with his advice
That I have sought aid from the breath of the wine-drenched profligate.
Leave me alone to remember the idol-temple,
I who have been awakened by the hand of the tavern’s idol.
I feel about politician/authors the way Khomeini felt about the city preacher. They have so tormented me with their advice that I prefer the tavern, day and night.