Tyrant's rants: imagining the final hours of Muammar Gaddafi

The central figure of The Dictator’s Last Night ends up as a cross between Shakespeare’s Macbeth and Sacha Baron Cohen’s Admiral General Aladeen.

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Post-colonial tyrants have loomed so large over the modern novel that they carved out their own distinctive subgenre: the novela del dictador. Many of the most prominent examples are either Latin American or African: from Miguel Ángel Asturias’s Mr President, The Autumn of the Patriarch by Gabriel García Márquez and Mario Vargas Llosa’s Feast of the Goat, to The Shameful State by Sony Labou Tansi, Ahmadou Kourouma’s Waiting for the Wild Beasts to Vote and Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s Wizard of the Crow. Contributions from North Africa and the Middle East so far have been curiously lacking, and are mainly confined to fables, such as The Caves of Hydrahodahose by Salim Barakat and The Stubborn Snail by Rachid Boudjedra. Thus, the plot of the latest offering from the Algerian author Yasmina Khadra seems particularly promising.

On 19 October 2011, Muammar Gaddafi is hiding at an abandoned house in the Libyan city of Sirte. The rebels are at his door, and Nato fighter jets are flying overhead. The Raïs has ruled Africa’s fourth-largest country for 42 years but now his domain has been reduced to less than a square mile. There’s barely enough to eat, and his goons are running out of bullets.

As the novel begins, the “Brotherly Leader and Guide of the Revolution” hears one of his guards doubt whether they’ll make it to the next morning. He holds steady: “If I am still alive, it is proof all is not lost. I am Muammar Gaddafi. That should be enough for faith not to waver.” Khadra then treats us to recollections from Gaddafi’s penniless childhood, his spotty teenage years and the 1969 coup d’état against King Idris, as well as memories of his family.

One expects the biography to give way eventually to some thought-provoking reflections, but halfway through it becomes clear that the description is little more than a sequence of clichéd phrases: “the Sahara’s mysteries swirled around me like an army of jinns”. Although Julian Evans has translated Khadra’s prose ably, you can’t do much with lines like that.

Although The Dictator’s Last Night is ostensibly a novela del dictador, it provides us with a multifaceted portrait of neither the tyrant nor the society that produced him. It is only a novelistic treatment of Gaddafi’s final 24 hours, as already related by newspaper accounts and countless gory videos on YouTube. Disappointingly, Khadra’s Gaddafi merely roams his rapidly diminishing stage muttering, “Why are they doing this?” – they, of course, being his brutalised subjects – until he is interrupted either by bursts of gunfire or by the sight of his trembling orderlies and panicking generals.

The Brotherly Leader easily could have made a fantastic character, but Khadra’s writing fails to exploit the premise and produce anything more than a superficial, psychotic rant. Over the course of 190 pages, Gaddafi abuses the few underlings still risking their lives for him, has the odd dose of heroin shot into his veins by one of his “Amazons”, talks about his recurring visions of Vincent Van Gogh (who sometimes appears to him dressed as a Bedouin sheikh), blames al-Qaeda for the civil war, or dreams of executing the entire population of Benghazi: “Just the sound of the name makes me want to throw up so violently I would set off a tidal wave that would flatten that damned city and all the villages around it.” Even when Khadra tries to humanise his narrator and describe his “love life”, it comes across like a cheap pot-boiler: “Nothing is more beautiful than a woman, and nothing is more precious. The heavens may twinkle with their millions of stars, but they will never make me dream as much as the figure of a concubine.”

The end result is a cross between Shakespeare’s Macbeth and Sacha Baron Cohen’s Admiral General Aladeen, with neither the former’s psychological depth nor the latter’s crass, zany humour. By the time Gaddafi is captured and executed, one feels no closer to the man behind the headlines. Those interested in more nuanced portraits of his rule would be better rewarded by reading The Tumour by Ibrahim al-Koni and Hisham Matar’s In the Country of Men

The Dictator’s Last Night by Yasmina Khadra is published by Gallic Books (190pp, £7.99)

This article appears in the 14 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, David Bowie