Dictators usually live lives that are rich in experience. They wield the power of life and death over millions and frequently live like small gods . . . Certainly, their lives are much more interesting than those of most authors . . . and yet, to a man, they almost always produce mind-numbing drivel. I wanted to know why.
In this entertaining book, Kalder, a journalist from, most notably, the Guardian, gives the reader exactly what the title of the book indicates. As he says of fascism at one point, it is what it says on the tin. Kalder spends the majority of the book on what he considers to be the top five Writing Dictators: Lenin, Stalin, Mussolini, Hitler & Mao. The rest of the book he spends talking about various other dictators of lesser import and their weird forays into literature; worth talking about, but not needing as much space as those main five: Vladimir Putin’s judo manual, Gaddafi’s Green Book, the Ayatollah Khomeini’s ruminations on homosexuality. That last one is particularly choice, let me tell you. My favorite chapter, however, was almost certainly the one about Saddam Hussein and his series (!) of historical romance novels! This is good stuff and Kalder has a somewhat sardonic tone at times; it isn’t just that, in his view, the men who wrote these books were evil, it’s also that they were just dreadful authors with a few exceptions. He singles out Mussolini as a writer who isn’t without skill, particularly in his war journalism and his single novel. But he isn’t afraid to crack jokes and utilize sarcasm. But this isn’t just a pop culture book; the scholarship is extreme, given the statistics, facts and chronologies Kalder marshals to the field. And, as Kalder continually reminds us, he actually READ these damn things cover to cover and, look, if you’d managed to get through some of this stuff, which he excerpts quite heavily to make points and also give the reader a taste for the content, you’d probably brag too. This book can certainly be a little dense at times; you try boiling down Stalin to fifty pages. The layman will occasionally find themselves a bit baffled by all the names and dates, while the expert will find the historical narratives lacking, I’m sure. But I found it to be immensely entertaining. Kalder’s tone is charming, erudite and funny. And, of course, there are serious things to be uncovered in these works, serious things about the way authoritarians try to use words to reshape reality and also about just exactly how the authoritarian mind works, what their interior life is like. Understanding those things, or trying to at least, will never go out of style; the people Kalder talks about here are gone, but, as he notes in the final chapter, their books remain. Some, like Mein Kampf, are more popular now than they’ve ever been; chilling facts like that bring home that this book is more than just an entertainment. Regardless of all that, I just loved it and highly recommend it. 3 ½ stars.
tl;dr – entertaining book explores the fascinating world of dictator literature; compelling, often funny, often disturbing. 3 ½ stars.