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Eve's Review

Dictators Are Lousy Writers

"The Infernal Library"
Daniel Kalder
Henry Holt, 379 pages
$32

Eve Ottenberg
Dictators are lousy writers. Yet many have felt the urge to commit their thoughts, such as they are, to paper and then to compel their captive audience not only to read them, but also to rhapsodize about them. Given the abysmal nature of this genre, one can only conclude that Daniel Kalder – whose book "The Infernal Library, On Dictators, The Books They Wrote and Other Catastrophes of Literacy", required him to slog through thousands of pages of hogwash – has uncommon stamina. How he did it, and wrote so well about it, is something to marvel at. He ploughed through the oeuvre of Stalin, Hitler, Mussolini, Mao, Gaddafi, Franco and many others and adroitly summarizes their banal pensées. Having read his book, one feels no need to consult the original sources. Of Mussolini’s "Fascism Its Theory and Philosophy," Kalder writes that it “sounds like the work of a clever autodidact, way out of his depth, drowning in his own pretension.” Of Hitler he remarks, “it seems that Hitler’s ideas were fluctuating, and that as late as 1919 he was interested in pursuing career opportunities other than crazed ultra-nationalist, anti-Semitic genocidal tyrant.” The ghastly "Mein Kampf" sold well in Nazi Germany, but could never compare with the market share of another dictator tome: “The billion selling 'Quotations from Chairman Mao' was coming.”

Mao’s bibliography reveals that in addition to theoretical works, the chairman wrote poetry, which Kalder describes as “not as bad as Hitler’s painting, but not as good as Churchill’s.” As dictators who murdered more people than anyone else in the history of civilization, Hitler, Stalin and Mao deserve their own category. But Kalder’s literary focus leads him to lump these mass murdering genocidal tyrants together with garden variety murderous dictators. And so "The Infernal Library" also considers the writings of Zaire’s Mobuto, of Haiti’s Papa Doc Duvalier, of Uganda’s Idi Amin, and of Zimbabwe’s Mugabe, who “took a break from declaring that he would build socialism while not actually building it,” to issue several tomes on the subject. And then there was Gaddafi’s unforgettable "The Green Book." “The problem is that the book is exceedingly awful,” Kalder writes. “It is not merely boring or banal or repetitive or nonsensical…It is quite simply stupid.” Even by the extremely low standards of dictator literature, "The Green Book" flunks.

There is only one point to quibble with here: Kalder refers to Khrushchev’s “naïve good Lenin/bad Stalin dichotomy.” But the man who dared stand before the Twentieth Party Congress in 1956 and denounce Stalin to an audience of true believers, was anything but naïve. He knew the difference between a dictator like Lenin, who had killed people in a revolution and a civil war and a world-class mass murderer like Stalin, who had sabotaged any hope in the revolution with his purges, Terror and gulags and, in "On the Cult of Personality and Its Consequences," reportedly deployed that difference to great effect. He found Leninism useful and Stalinism criminal.

Kalder aptly describes Khrushchev as “a jovial fat man of peasant stock,” who, coming to power, “had just spent two decades wading through gore on behalf of a capricious master, who had murdered many of his close colleagues.” But for all his savvy toughness and experience, Khrushchev was maneuvered out of power within a decade of his heart-stopping speech. After this came Brezhnev, who also produced tomes of deadly prose. Somehow Kalder read these too.

Addressing dictatorship itself, Kalder asks, could it happen here? And he answers, yes. “It couldn’t happen here? Why not? It happened there.” He cites the United States’ “long, deep experience with millenarian hopes and apocalyptic terrors that, in mutant form, played an important role in the rise of the twentieth century’s great dictators.” Kalder’s in-depth exposure to dictatorial prose gives him a well-informed appreciation of just how fragile and tenuous our exemption from tyranny really is. Read More 
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