About 15 years ago, Scottish writer Daniel Kalder intended to start an anti-tourism movement. Famous landscapes and monuments have nothing to offer, he said. The only stops worth visiting are “wasteland, black holes, grim urban areas”.
Given this preference, it is hardly surprising that by writing not about places, but about other books, he chose to explore the works signed by despots of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. “It’s a book about some of the worst books of all time. Written and so, it was terribly painful research,” he says of “The Dictators’ Library.” “That’s why I did it. . “
Does the term “worst books” refer to content or form? Both. For Kalder, nothing redeems dictatorial literature. He begins his journey with negative expectations and ends it without changing his mind. No one expects to find defenses like the one the Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek usually makes of Lenin or Mao in the text. Kalder is less imaginative and much more sane. He believes that political terror never pays off, whatever the cause.
Lenin is named founder of the “dictatorial canon”. His books contain the logic of the totalitarian state and step by step of its implementation. Then come the “big four” of the twentieth century: Stalin, Mussolini, Hitler and Mao. Kalder then proceeds to collect names left and right, on all continents. Franco, Salazar, Tito, Nasser, Kim Il-sung, Fidel, Idi Amin, Kadhafi, Khomeini, Saddam … None of them refrained from writing copiously to destroy their adversaries, indoctrinate their followers or build their own own myth.
In a gruff and comical tone, Kalder demonstrates that dictators usually write in obscure and tedious ways. Their rhetorical flights generally lead to ridicule. But, from time to time, there is a break in this logic. In Ayatollah Khomeini, Kalder recognizes the gift of analytical clarity. He grants Mao the talent of the aphorism. And he almost sympathized with the modesty of the Portuguese Salazar, whose works “are interesting because of the great effort not to generate excitement”.
Some dictators cause a real surprise. In his memoirs of the First War, Mussolini is revealed to be “an insightful and even poetic observer”. And he even wrote a novel. “The cardinal’s mistress,” says Kalder, is marked by a very complicated plot and a “sadistic and unruly physicality”.
There are two other dictator-novelists: Generalissimo Franco, of Spain, and Saddam Hussein, of Iraq. The first wrote “Race”, in which two brothers fight on opposite sides of the Spanish Civil War (1936-39). The brother who fights for the nationalists is the alter ego of Franco who, after winning the battle, swears loyalty to the head of the country. In other words, Franco swears loyalty to Franco, which Kalder amusingly describes as an “avant-garde moment.”
As for Saddam, just before his dismissal, he had fallen in love with writing historical fictions. In her masterpiece “Zabiba and the King”, a grandmother tells her grandson stories of a past filled with blood and rape, even informing him that in a certain region of Iraq, bears tend to take human beings for lovers.
“The Library of Dictators” can be described as a book to avoid reading other books. Everything you need to know about the history of totalitarian prose is here, along with the right sentences of condemnation. Too bad it is not a genre that has disappeared. Going forward, a business similar to Kalder’s will still make sense – this time digging up Twitter, not dusty shelves.