Author Daniel Kalder discusses the strange and scary world of 'dictator literature'
Tyrants, it turns out, like to write. And they like to force people to read their books.
—Daniel Kalder, a Scottish author who lives in Texas, has written books about his voyages through faraway places like Siberia and Russia's ethnic republics. But nowhere he's explored is quite as peculiar as the land of dictator literature.
Tyrants, it turns out, like to write. And they like to force people to read their books, whether they're the turgid political prose of Stalin and Lenin, the bizarre romance novels of Saddam Hussein, or the soporific spiritual ruminations of the leader of Turkmenistan.
Kalder chronicles his exploration of read-this-or-else literature in The Infernal Library: On Dictators, the Books They Wrote, and Other Catastrophes of Literacy.
In an interview, Kalder talks about the strange musings of megalomaniac men, a rare touching moment in dictator literature, and the satisfying fates of these horrific works.
Q: How did you come up with the idea for this book?
I lived in Russia for a long time, almost 10 years. While I was living there in the mid-1990s, the Soviet Union had collapsed, but it was a fairly recent memory and there were signs of it everywhere.
I'd rent fully furnished apartments, and they'd have book collections – the complete works of Lenin or Stalin. One apartment had the works of Stalin sitting there for decades.
And then in the early 2000s, you had romance novels by Saddam Hussein. I asked my parents to give me one for Christmas. It was terrible, and that was predictable, but it was terrible in unpredictable ways.
Q: What happened during your trip to Turkmenistan?
Around 2005, I was there at the height of the personality cult of dictator Saparmurat Niyazov, who'd written "[The] Book of the Soul: Reflections on the Spiritual Values of the Turkmen."
You had to read it to pass your driver's test, and there was a giant replica of the book visible from my hotel at night. It would open with hydraulics, and a projector would beam onto it whatever page it was open to. In a dictator irony, it was actually broken when I was there.
So I pitched a column to The Guardian where I'd review dictator books. I realized that I was on a precipice, that I'd discovered something bigger. There was a tradition of dictator books, they were referring to each other and developing over time, so I decided to go all in.
Q: You write that these books are almost universally terrible, but a couple of dictators – Stalin and Mussolini – actually had some talent. What were they good at?
Mussolini's diary about World War I is arrogant at the beginning. But as as the war goes on, it becomes quite honest. He describes a body out in no man's land in a way that's really affecting.
I remember reading it in a restaurant and being caught off-guard. This book was meaningful.
His true calling, however, was as an annoying opinion columnist. If he'd stuck to that, the 20th century would have been very different.
As for Stalin, as a teenager, he had poetry published in a prestigious poetry journal in tsarist Georgia before anyone knew who he was.
Q: Does something tie dictators together in their terribleness?
Stylistically, the Communists have a lot in common. There's definitely a school of empty Communist verbiage, this deathly suffocating stagnation that just spreads onward in the Soviet Union and satellite states. There's an avoidance of anything new, and the language becomes mind-numbingly repetitive: Onward, forward, the revolution.
Fascists, however, are unique and personal in their voices. The one thing that unites them ... is a monumental arrogance: They have the answer to what ails mankind, they have the true insight into the movement of history. There's no debate, this is the answer, and the false believers must be opposed.
Q: Is some of this work actually hilarious to read?
Mussolini's work is so pompous and arrogant that it crosses this line to pure bathos.
As for Saddam Hussein, there's a really weird bit in his romance novel "Zabiba and the King" where it starts digressing about a place in northern Iraq where bears want to be romantic with humans. This is all put in the mouth of a grandmother who's allegedly talking to children. This is the most inappropriate bedtime story you've ever heard.
Q: Is there any good news about dictator books?
What kept them alive was fear. People were forced to read them, and they could only exist and be popular in police states where there was compulsion. When that compulsion was lifted, the books crumbled, and they were forgotten quite quickly.
There's hope in how quickly they lose their power. Most of these books have lost their sting and aren't coming back.
But they're still an object lesson, a warning. And we can see the stirrings of new forms appearing.