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Why dictators find the lure of writing books irresistible

Daniel Kalder investigates why dictators have aspired to be, as Stalin put it, “engineers of souls”, and – in pursuit of that object – have written some very long and very tedious books.

Daniel Kalder was living in Moscow in the early years of this century when, switching on his television, he saw a Brobdingnagian book. It was candy-pink and green, and as high as several houses. On its front cover was embossed the golden bust, in profile, of a dictator.

By the time Kalder travelled to Turkmenistan in 2006 the self-styled Turkmenbashi (Father of all Turkmen) was dead. The mechanism of the gigantic book, which opened to display, each night, a different double-page spread of his thoughts, had failed, but the book still loomed, floodlit, over the capital, “ominous and immense and exceedingly kitsch”. A symbol of the vanity of human hubris to rival Ozymandias’s trunkless legs, it set Kalder off on an investigation of the curious fact that dictators from Lenin to Kim Jong-il, not content with absolute power over their people’s lives, have aspired to be, as Stalin put it, “engineers of souls” as well, and – in pursuit of that object – have written some very long and very tedious books.

Kalder’s own book, on the other hand, is brisk, and full of antic fun. Here are some of the words and phrases he uses to describe the works under consideration: “turgid”, “boring”, “entirely vapid”, “aggressively stupid”, “obscure”, “repetitive and violent”, “staggeringly incompetent”, “rote pap”, “sub-fascist waffle”, “virulently awful”, “the worst books ever written”. Here are some of the words I scribbled in the margin to describe his approach to them: “flippant”, “facetious”, “sarcastic”, “sneery”, “ironic”, “sprightly”.

The despots and mass-murderers he’s writing about were, he argues “enemies of laughter”. And so he combats them by laughing at them, as his predecessors in the field, from Charlie Chaplin onwards, have done. Dictator Literature is the outcome of lots of hard-slog research. Kalder’s glancing references – to Borges, Tertullian, Aldous Huxley – hint at sophisticated reading. But the idiom in which he has chosen to present his findings is broadly comic. In the face of so much pomposity, so much wrong-headedness, so many broken communities and ruined cultures, so many people dead, what can you do – he seems to be asking – but crack some jokes?

We like to think that reading and writing make us better people. When Václav Havel came to power in Czechoslovakia in 1989 I recall listening to much talk about how this was a good thing, not only because of Havel’s record of courageous opposition to political oppression, but because he was a writer, and therefore – surely – wise. Since then I’ve written about Gabriele d’Annunzio, the author of much beautiful poetry and some fine novels, who was a bloodthirsty nationalist warmonger, and I’m no longer so sure that literacy makes the world a better place. Kalder is clear about it. Books are dangerous. The question whether a person of 1889, who could foresee the future, should or should not have murdered the infant Hitler in his pram, is, he writes, a bit of a conundrum. But surely there is no doubt that it would be better if young Iosif Dzhugashvili (aka Stalin) had somehow been prevented from learning to read?

Dictators make books: books make dictators. In the beginning – the beginning of the sequence of revolutions and dictatorships that made up the “terrible twentieth century” – was the word. Even before he had read Marx, the young Lenin read Nikolai Chernyshevsky’s 1863 novel What Is to Be Done? (Kalder’s snap review – “wooden characters and tedious didacticism”.) Deeply impressed, Lenin gave the same title to one of his own books, of which there were many. His collected works runs to 55 volumes.

Lenin changed the world, but before he did so he had spent decades sitting in an armchair reading. Even once he was ruling a vast empire he still found plenty of time to write. He advocated direct action. He urged his followers to arm themselves, to beat up and murder their opponents, “to blow up their headquarters etc”. That “etc” gives away his actual lack of enthusiasm for physical brutality. That side of things, he delegated. His role was to incite others to violence by means of literature. Kalder sees him as a drug-dealer of the mind. “Strident, staccato, charged with a throbbing, pulsating, angry energy, Lenin’s prose caries the reader along… like fate, like destiny.” If you were his contemporary, shared his hatreds and believed his prophecies, “the text-Lenin reached up from the page to hand you a crack-pipe of the good shit”.

Stalin was hooked early, but before he’d encountered Lenin’s oeuvre he was already high on Ninety-Three, Victor Hugo’s novel about the French Revolutionary Terror of 1793. His other favourite book, as a young man, was a popular Georgian novel about a noble bandit, Alexander Kazbegi’s The Patricide, described by Kalder as “a violent romantic yarn of blood feuds, vigilante justice and the forceful appropriation of other people’s property”. Stalin adopted its hero’s name, Koba, and was soon robbing banks in the cause of revolution. He had been made by books, and he made it part of his life’s work to make the Soviet Union by the same means. A trained seminarian, he became the exegete of Marxist-Leninism. He collected and commented on and refocused Lenin’s writings, excising the passages where Lenin sounded like a “dyspeptic ranter” and bringing to the fore those in which the Father of the Revolution sounded suitably paternal. And, of course, Stalin wrote, or had written for him, a shelf-full of books of his own.

It would be reassuring to sentimental literati to think that someone responsible for so much slaughter as Stalin could not possibly be a competent writer, but Kalder has to praise his “orderly, structured” work. He has “modest but real strengths”. He is clear and succinct, “good at summarising complex ideas for a middlebrow audience; the Bill Bryson of dialectical materialism, minus the gags”.

Tyrants aren’t necessarily poor stylists. Kalder records a moment when, reading Mussolini’s My Diary over his supper, he stopped, and reread a passage, asking himself, “Wait, was that… good?” He had to concede that it was. And why shouldn’t it be? Mussolini was an enthusiastic autodidact, who had done what all aspiring writers should do – he immersed himself as a lonely teenager in the reading of classic texts. He loved words: he intoxicated himself and his public with them. He wrote poems and novels and plays. He was a flamboyant propagandist, and a dramaturge who created tremendous spectacles with Italy’s cities as their stage, and himself as the star. Even his seizure of power, the famous March on Rome, was a piece of theatre: il Duce actually arrived in the capital by train. Dictatorship, detestable though it may be, is an art-form.

And so to the failed painter and author of the international best-seller, Mein Kampf. Kalder likens Hitler’s book to David Copperfield (both are “far too long”). He calls it “Homeric” but only for its “crudity”. The author, he writes is “never one to make a point without beating it to death and then dragging the corpse for several exhausting miles through the mud”. In reacting, he himself seems exhausted, perhaps because here his self-imposed brief becomes perversely limiting. To consider Hitler solely as an author requires the wearing of very large and cumbersome blinkers.

Not so in the case of the last of Kalder’s Big Five. Mao Tse Tung was a reader. When he first encountered Marxism he was working in a library, “the ideal location for a cash-strapped nascent megalomaniac in need of easy access to inspirational bad ideas”. He went on to open a “Cultural Bookstore”, and meanwhile was devouring the texts that would provide “an ideological fig-leaf for his tumescent will to power”. (As Kalder’s interest revives his prose perks up.)

Each of Kalder’s subjects presents a different methodological problem. How to write about a dictator who is too notorious or too obscure, too crazily extreme in his behaviour, or too predictable? In Mao’s case the difficulty is that his life was far too long and eventful to fit easily into a brief biographical-cum-literary-critical essay. Kalder, sensibly, resorts to making lists. He gives us a timeline of Mao’s career up to the foundation of the People’s Republic of China in 1949. He narrates the next phase of the story through appraisals of Mao’s writings. The first is an essay on the peasantry from 1927. Its subtitle is “Down with the Local Tyrants and Evil Gentry!” Nuance was not Mao’s forte. Another, from 1930, is entitled “Oppose Book Worship!” But a revolutionary leader can change his mind. By 1956 reading groups for the study of Mao’s literary output were proliferating across China. Ten years later the Red Guards were waving banners reading “I love Chairman Mao’s Books Best of All”, and the best of the best was the Little Red Book.

Mao seldom left China. He deferred to Stalin, but repeatedly ignored his directives. Kalder points out that Mao’s particular brand of despotism, and his literary style, both evolved from Chinese models. The Little Red Book followed a traditional form called the yulu whose antecedents go all the way back to Confucius and his Analects. The first of the Ming emperors had produced a similar anthology of mottoes and slogans, and decreed that every family in China must own a copy.

In Mao’s China, as in the Ming era, a written word was not just the material equivalent of a unit of language. It was a talisman, and an artefact. Mao’s words, printed and published en masse, reached people who then transformed them back into artefacts. Posters of Mao’s dicta covered walls. They were inscribed on metal plates for attachment to cars and motorbikes. They were carved on to the side of mountains, or etched on grains of rice. They were ornaments. They were miracle-working amulets. They were tools for killing. One of them, which was recast as a hit song, ran “Ensure that Literature and Art Operate as Powerful Weapons for Exterminating the Enemy”. The humanist vision of literature, as a means by which minds could commune peaceably with others belonging to the long dead or the immensely distant, had been overturned. So had the notion of reading and writing as a stimulus for original and diverse thought. Kalder evokes a nightmare vision of an entire population possessed by the Chairman-ventriloquist, whose thought “seized hold of the tongue and jerked the limbs” as people spoke to each other only in the words of Mao.

Having dealt with his five great monsters, Kalder moves on to “small demons”, lesser tyrants from Mongolia to Haiti, from Libya to Cuba, from North Korea back to Russia. His chapters on Ayatollah Khomeini and Saddam Hussein are illuminating, because in each case he gets inside his subject’s mind, rather than standing back and jeering. Some of the other essays feel perfunctory – one damned dictator after another. There is a falling off of narrative momentum which is not so much a failing of Kalder’s energy – his prose remains impishly vituperative to the end – as a reflection of the way the revolutionary fervour of 1917 was dissipated in a century of failed experiments. The kind of fervour now loose in our world is outside Kalder’s scheme. He is writing about humans whose books have attained the status of holy writ: the fanatics now menacing peace in the name of God’s own scriptures he leaves alone.

Turkmenbashi’s big book broke down. Most of the millions of copies of Mao’s little book are now in the dustbin of history. Kalder’s cynically humorous conclusion is at once bleak and consoling. Books, those objects that have been, for millennia, treasured and venerated, banned or burnt, are, after all, he suggests, nearly impotent. By the time of his death Hitler owned some 16,000 books. They didn’t broaden his mind much. “Bad people read good poetry and remain evil, while good people read bad novels and remain good, and we all, anyway, forget most of what we read.” 

Lucy Hughes-Hallett’s books include “The Pike: Gabriele d’Annunzio: Poet, Seducer and Preacher of War” (4th Estate)

Dictator Literature: a History of Despots Through Their Writing
Daniel Kalder
Oneworld, 379pp, £16.99

This article appears in the 04 April 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Delusions of empire