Magazine | June 25, 2018, Issue

Dictator Lit

Kim Jong-il in 2010 (KCNA via Reuters)
An absurd and horrifying genre

A fair number of books can be counted a disgrace to literature. But only a special type of book stands as an embarrassment to printing. At the very top of this pile are the books written by dictators: the only works written for audiences that can accurately be described as captive.

On a shelf alongside me as I write is one such book, from the relatively lighter end of the genre. The Ruhnama (also known as “The Pink Book”) is the work of Saparmurat Niyazov — also known as “Turkmenbashi” — who was the first post-Soviet ruler of Turkmenistan. Though this was a gift from a friend who visited that country, similar works dotted around the shelves are the results of my own travels. These include tracts, seminal works, and compilations such as Saddam Hussein’s On Democracy. It is a relief to discover from a new book by Daniel Kalder, The Infernal Library: On Dictators, the Books They Wrote, and Other Catastrophes of Literacy, that an interest in this branch of publishing is shared by at least one other person.

Unreadable though all these books are, they all contain a worth beyond that of merely satisfying curiosity. Obviously there is value in anything that records the motivations, ideas, and limitations of various dictators. But these strange artifacts are also a cautionary tale for bibliophiles. For just as all readers must at some stage contend with the question of why some of the kindest and most decent people have never read a book, so in these volumes we must accept that some of the worst people in history have thought it desirable to be known not just as thinkers but specifically as authors. And while most books add (in however small a way) to the sum of human knowledge, here are examples of a select group that turn that received wisdom on its head: volumes that actively aspire to limit human knowledge, divert it, drain it — and even burn it.

So far as I can tell (and this is not a settled science), dictator-authors generally divide into three groups: those who wrote books and then became dictators; those who wrote books in order to become dictators; and finally those who wrote books because they were already dictators.

The first class includes Mussolini. It was not obvious that he was going to rule Italy when he wrote his 1904 pamphlet “Man and Divinity: God Does Not Exist,” or his racy 1910 novel The Cardinal’s Mistress. With Hitler it was different. The prison writing project that became Mein Kampf turned out, despite the original critical panning and poor sales, to prove useful to Hitler’s rise to power in a way that The Cardinal’s Mistress never could have been. Or to put it another way, Mussolini did not insist on constant reprints of his juvenilia for distribution among the masses after he achieved power.

Yet it is the third class of dictator literature — the book written around, or after, the achievement of power — that is the most interesting example of the genre. And the most interesting precisely because it is the least interesting, indeed positively painful, branch of this literature to try to read. These works are not so much books as anti-books, having come into existence not because the author wanted to write them (let alone because an audience wished to read them) but because the author needed to produce them and an audience needed to be forced to respect them.

For in these volumes the book became a tool to demonstrate to the masses why the person ruling over them had the right to do so. It communicated, for instance, that their ruler was above all things wise. And it is this that makes the dictator books slightly fascinating. They are not written to clearly or lucidly communicate ideas but rather are objects into which almost any combination of words and thoughts might be poured, so long as the result could be presented as that dictatorial vanity tool: “a book.”

It is into this group that most of the “colored” books go. Chairman Mao’s “Little Red Book,” Colonel Qaddafi’s “Green Book,” and of course Turkmenbashi, coming up last (when all the other colors had been chosen) with his pink book. Colonel Qaddafi’s Green Book, written in the 1970s after he reached power, may be said to typify the editor-less (or editor-terrified) style. Here is a typical paragraph:

Women are females and men are males. According to gynaecologists, women menstruate every month or so, while men, being male, do not menstruate. . . . As man does not get pregnant, he is not liable to the conditions which women, being female, suffer.

Menstruation and crop cycles are certainly overwhelming preoccupations of the author. And yet Colonel Qaddafi believed (or claimed to believe) that this book was a “gospel” that would lead the masses to “worldwide revolution.” Which was just one reason that it was important in all the dictator books of this genre that the audience at home be sustained with the lie that the book they were instructed to venerate had an equally big (or at least growing) reputation outside the country (the reputation of the work inside the country being impossible to heighten).

Perhaps I allow the Ruhnama to sit on my shelf because it is the most bathetic and pathetic end of this horrible genre. Whereas the Green Book and the Red Book were able to be published in cheap editions, the Ruhnama attempts to proclaim its significance from its production values on. Printed on thick, wipe-clean paper and weighing so much that it feels as though lead has been woven into the spine, the sole work of the late Turkmen dictator purports to consist of “reflections on the spiritual values of the Turkmen.” As well as repeated insistences that his countrymen are directly descended from Noah, whenever Turkmenbashi feels his inspiration flag there are sudden rallying cries of “Oh Turkmen!” or “My dear people!” To further awe the reader, facsimile pages of the working manuscript are included. From a man who renamed the days of the week in his country after his mother, there is inevitably some reflection on parenting. Otherwise this “national book” includes patriotic hymns and poems, some regional quasi-history, and some even more quasi-philosophy. Before Turkmenbashi died and passed the running of his country over to his dentist, a vast statue replica of the pink book was erected in the capital of Ashgabat. This hideous object was cranked open on special occasions.

The one retrospective consolation for the unfortunate citizens of Turkmenistan and Libya might be that at least their leader had written only one central book that they were expected to revere. By contrast, the Kims in North Korea have produced an almost unbelievable quantity of volumes. And though it appears that the current leader, Kim Jong-un, has not yet made his mark on publishing, it would be understandable if he felt compelled to do so. For as well as being the third-generation ruler of that Marxist monarchy, Kim Jong-un is also heir to one of the most diarrheically prolific families ever to engage in book printing.

On a visit to the country several years ago, I picked up as many books and pamphlets as I could carry back in my bags. And with the exception of a single, slim cookbook, all are by or about the Kim dynasty. Indeed, it seemed from conversations with locals, as well as from an examination of those books available in the bookshops I was allowed into, that almost no reading material was available that was not written by the ruling family. At such moments the outside world’s attitude of slight amusement at the oddities of the Kims becomes a glimpse into the horror of what living under them must really be like. Just as the flowers are all named after the Dear Leader, and the songs are all by or about the same subject, so even the one respite that people might have in a dictatorship (to escape into your own thoughts and there to roam free) was taken away by the Kims. In North Korea even the garden of literature is claustrophobically narrow, barren, coated in ideological AstroTurf and locked on each side.

As my haul from that trip showed, the collected works of Kim Il-sung and his son and heir, Kim Jong-il, span scores upon scores of volumes. Most of these works claim to explain Kim Il-sung’s fundamental “Juche idea,” which was his attempt to apply some reading of Marx to a North Korean context. His efforts to claim these vague results as a unique philosophy, especially suited to the North Korean people, were built upon by Kim Jong-il in such works as On Correctly Understanding the Originality of Kim Il Sung–ism. Of course the whole thing was a crock: a “philosophy” whose authors could not have been any more certain about the nature of this idea than they allow their readers to be. But then the dictator has no critic, only legions of terrified servants willing to scoop up his emetic utterances and agree that they are worthy of the most authentic form of preservation that recent centuries have discovered.

Few of either man’s public utterances were not compiled into edited volumes such as Answers to the Questions Raised by Foreign Journalists, vol. 4 (1991). A typical example of these questions is this one (from October 16, 1986) from “the editor in chief of the Egyptian newspaper Al-Massa”: “Your experience in the struggle to build a new society has won worldwide admiration. Mr. President, would you please tell me briefly about this experience?” Kim Il-sung’s restrained answer to this question fills only three succeeding pages.

His son and successor spread his wings slightly farther, writing about passions other than Juche. But the tone is always the same: that of a man writing in a land not only without any critics, but without any possible editors. Kim Jong-il’s 1989 work On the Art of the Cinema is a treatise on every aspect of filmmaking and contains insights such as these: “An actor inevitably acts the parts of various types of people living at different times. Yesterday he portrayed a worker, but today he may be a peasant or he may represent a student, even though previously he was a Party worker. The actor should therefore be prepared to play anybody at any time.”

And here is the moment of ugliest overlay around books by dictators. In the rear-view mirror of history, let alone from the safety of another continent, it is easy to mock these books. “Turgid,” “unreadable,” “banal,” and every other damning word in the lit-crit armory can certainly, and without exception, be applied accurately to these works. Yet at the same time such words get us nowhere. It is like using a whelk-pin to try to land a whale. Daniel Kalder falls into this trap on occasion, such as when he writes of Hitler that his “métier was talking rubbish, not scribbling it on paper.”

Because of course none of this helps. If we had been unfortunate enough to have grown up in Turkmenistan at the turn of our century, the pink book would not have been just a hideous object but one of the most important objects in our lives. In school we would have had to learn portions of the book by heart. Hell, we would have had to study it just in order to obtain a driver’s license. And this book — so far as dictators, their books, and their worst practices go — is among the least harmful in dictatorial history. Imagine the Iranians who read the sections of Khomeini’s Blue Book adjudicating on various bodily activities and then worrying themselves to sleep. Or the countless Libyans who must have tried to understand Qaddafi’s Green Book and wondered why its meaning still eluded them. Or the Koreans even now who must lie awake at night wondering where Juche ideology comes from and even daring to wonder whether it — or the regime that invented it — might ever stop.

That is what makes this niche of publishing so disturbing: It is the written word not as a mental liberator but as a control mechanism, a reminder that even the book, perhaps the most civilizing method of education and communication ever devised, can be turned against itself and become a satire on itself. And while some of these volumes are transparently, sometimes hilariously, risible at a distance of time and space, they are also a reminder that with different luck, in another time and a different place, they might have had to be everything to us. All draw us to the same conclusion: Look on my words, ye people, and despair.

In This Issue




Dictator Lit

A fair number of books can be counted a disgrace to literature. But only a special type of book stands as an embarrassment to printing.

Books, Arts & Manners


The Week

The Week

Tensions are high, conflict threatens to flare up, but let’s hope the situation between the White House and the Philadelphia Eagles can be resolved peacefully.

Fair as Feck

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