Dictator Literature by Daniel Kalder review – the deathly prose of dic-lit

Mein Kampf is drivel, but what about Stalin’s poetry and Mussolini’s bodice-ripper? And does an autocrat lurk within every dreadful writer?

I enjoyed this book a great deal – not least because for a long text that is itself a series of summaries of many other still lengthier texts, it’s actually a rather snappy read. And all the snappier when you come to consider its subject matter. Daniel Kalder was living in Moscow in the early 2000s, when he saw on television an item about the Rukhnama, or The Book of the Soul. This was the principal (but by no means the only) contribution to the genre of dictator literature, written by Turkmenbashi, the then führer of Turkmenistan. Struck by the lurid – not to say supernatural – way in which this bizarre tome was being depicted, Kalder set himself the task of reading it; as he says: “I had known about Mein Kampf and Mao’s Little Red Book since I was a child and I had visited many Russian apartments where dusty volumes of Lenin cluttered up bookcases. This, however, was the first time I had witnessed the phenomenon of the living dictator book.”

Unfortunately, so maddeningly tedious is The Book of the Soul that by the time Kalder finished it – some three years later – Turkmenbashi’s body had given up. The idea of a book about the book-mad overlord of this desert realm was – if you’ll forgive a cliche worthy of any dictatorial wordsmith – dead in the water. So, instead, Kalder set himself the task of reviewing an extensive selection of the unwieldy tomes penned by the dictators of the 20th and early 21st centuries. He didn’t even have any assistance such as the weird contrivance Turkmenbashi had devised: a statue featuring an enormous copy of the Rukhnama, which “was supposed to open by itself, to reveal a double-page spread of [his] wisdom each night – but it never did. The mechanism had broken, and nobody repaired it.”

Some might argue this was a good thing – and that furthermore, these vanity/tyranny-published novels, volumes of poetry, memoirs and many reams of pseudo-ideological claptrap should also be consigned to the dustbin of history, along with their originators. But as Kalder points out: during the long years he was writing the book the world has lurched into a new and fissiparous era – one that might well be as productive of dictators as the middle years of the last century. Meanwhile, the medium through which dictatorial – or wannabe dictatorial – “thought” is conveyed has changed from millions of weighty words to a mere handful of twittering characters, arguably making it that much easier for the (let’s face it, reading-averse) masses to be simultaneously aroused and hoodwinked.

The Independence Monument in Ashgabat, Turkmenistan, with a gold statue of Turkmenbashi.
The Independence Monument in Ashgabat, Turkmenistan, with a gold statue of Turkmenbashi.
Photograph: Arthur Greenberg/Alamy Stock Photo

Kalder begins with the dusty volumes he saw cluttering Russian bookshelves. He argues, semi-persuasively, that Lenin should be viewed as the father of dictatorial literature. (And it’s worth noting here that although Kalder is adept at phrasemaking, he manages to resist the coinage, dic-lit. Would that I were so restrained.) A bookish lad, Lenin did indeed model his persona on the two-dimensional characters he found in Nikolay Chernyshevsky’s revolutionary pot-boiler What Is to Be Done? (1863). What’s more, when it came time, after the 1905 revolution, to seize control of tumultuous events, Lenin used this title for his own strategy chapbook. He also wrote a great deal of rather stodgy quasi-Marxist semi-theory, whereby he attempted to shoehorn the sprawling Russian agrarian economy (and its equally sprawling history) into the weird rubric of dialectical materialism.

Kalder is surely right to finger Lenin as the literary justifier of the so-called “dictatorship of the proletariat”; but while it’s also true that given the opportunity, he acted with exemplary – and dictatorial – cruelty, surely what characterises his oeuvre overall is that it’s directed at seizing and consolidating power, rather than building some sort of monolithic mythos. As Kalder riffs, apropos Lenin’s vapid The State and Revolution: he “reached up from the page to hand you the crack pipe of revolution for another hit of the good shit”.

Kalder likes these anachronistic tropes – but while funny, I’m not sure they serve him well. They made me insistently aware that the minds who produced these works – whether incendiary or enervating – were in fact radically different from my own; and that their authors were responding to radically different circumstances. Which is by no means to justify the papery solecisms of Lenin et al – or the horrors they justified or covered up. But ultimately cracking wise doesn’t quite cut it when it comes to either preventing tyranny, or providing nuance. Kalder’s on firmer ground with Stalin, who, having seized power despite Lenin accusing him from beyond the grave of “rudeness”, went on to have an exemplary dic-lit career of churning out mind-numbing verbiage – whether by himself, or by committee. Building on Lenin’s example, Stalin crystallised the notion of the dictatorial canon: by making his works (and by implication, himself) the very synecdoche of truth itself.

Yet Kalder has some difficulties with Stalin as well, when it comes to his basic contention that within every dreadful writer there lurks a savage autocrat, waiting to get out. For while it’s true that he was a dictator sans pareil, and his mature prose was correspondingly crushingly awful, as a young man Stalin penned some not insignificant poetry in his native Georgian – evidence, perhaps, of the literary and ethical road less taken. Mussolini also gives Kalder pause for thought: Il Duce was, after all, a professional journalist, and highly successful newspaper editor, who knew how to analyse grammar. He was also refreshingly theory-lite – and free from the obligation to marmorealise any ideological predecessors. Kalder even has good words to say about Mussolini’s attempt at a weird bodice-ripper, The Cardinal’s Mistress, which has the distinction of being the only remotely “proper” novel written by a dictator. (Saddam Hussein had a late career burst of novelising, but the results make an average Mills & Boon look like Madame Bovary.)

Kalder gets round the Mussolini problem by pointing out that, as despots go, he was by no means the worst – more of a big bully than an out-and-out tyrant, at least until he entered the Nazis’ endgame. As for the Führer himself, Kalder quotes a copy editor: “At age thirty-five, Hitler had mastered neither basic spelling nor common grammar. His raw texts are riddled with lexical and syntactical errors. His punctuation, like his capitalisation, is as faulty as it is inconsistent.” Anyone who has to mark assignments by preliterate students will have suffered such profligate errancy – and while not every duff essay is a Mein Kampf, it can be difficult not to feel you’re at the mercy of “a posturing autodidact who seems to have no difficulty believing the utmost drivel”.

The afterlife of Hitler’s dreadful, poisonous, ill-written book is possibly the most disturbing: it still sells in shed-loads throughout the world. Not so Chairman Mao’s Little Red Book, the mass production of which once threatened to overwhelm China’s printing presses – it, together with the humongous amount of drivel attributed to the Great Helmsman (mostly written by dependable henchmen), ended up in landfill. Perhaps the critical verdict on the dictators described in these pages – variously lynched, shot and otherwise extemporised to death – should make us a little more sanguine about their literary efforts. After all, it’s one thing for your books to be remaindered – quite another to have your body pulped.

Kalder borrows the central conceit of Kafka’s story In the Penal Colony to characterise the full horror of dic-lit: like the ghastly machine that executes transgressors by inscribing their crimes on their living flesh, the books of demagogues as various as Enver Hoxha and Ayatollah Khomeini have been enactments of torment, rather than literature in any normal sense. Which rather counts against Kalder’s urge to finger literature itself for the mass murdering of the last century. True, all writers do indeed have dictatorial inclinations – how else can we rule effectively over our papery realms? But as he points out, all good writing depends on accepting the inherently chancy nature of the world – whereas all despotic governance, like all bad writing, is predicated on the exact opposite: a near-psychotic need to enforce hard-backed conformity.

• Will Self’s latest novel, Phone, is published by Penguin. Dictator Literature: A History of Despots Through Their Writing is published by Oneworld in the UK and is available in the US as The Infernal Library: On Dictators, the Books They Wrote, and Other Catastrophes of Literacy (Henry Holt). To order a copy for £14.44 (RRP £16.99) go to guardianbookshop.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99.


Will Self

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Ants Among Elephants by Sujatha Gidla review – life as an ‘untouchable’ in modern India
A wonderful book details the hardships faced even by educated Dalit in the first three-quarters of the 20th century, and how the horror of caste is all-pervasive

Amit Chaudhuri

02, Aug, 2018 @6:30 AM

Article image
Ethel Rosenberg by Anne Sebba review – a notorious cold war tragedy
This is a sensitive portrait of the American civilian who was executed for allegedly passing atomic secrets to the Russians

Melissa Benn

24, Jun, 2021 @6:30 AM

Article image
The Senecans by Peter Stothard review – at the court of Margaret Thatcher
This stylish memoir from the former Times editor recalls the politics of the 1980s through the prism of ancient Rome. Parallels between Thatcher and Emperor Nero are plain to see

Emily Gowers

22, Sep, 2016 @6:30 AM

Article image
Motherwell: A Girlhood by Deborah Orr review – a masterpiece of self-exploration
A searching memoir from the late Guardian journalist, which lays bare her upbringing and the evisceration of her Scottish industrial town

Andrew O'Hagan

08, Jan, 2020 @7:30 AM

Article image
Island Stories by David Reynolds review – how British history is shaping Brexit
Dreams of empire, blitz spirit, a country in decline … this crisp and concise book shows that competing visions of the past are driving the Brexit project

Fintan O’Toole

30, Oct, 2019 @7:30 AM

Article image
Continental Drift review – the rise of Euroscepticism
What would Churchill think of Brexit? Benjamin Grob-Fitzgibbon’s history of the European project brings an outsider’s perspective to our current squabbles

Colin Kidd

10, Aug, 2016 @6:30 AM

Article image
Writers and Their Mothers review – the legacy of maternal blessings
Made, marred, mollycoddled and inspired … Philip Larkin, Ian McEwan and Samuel Beckett are among the authors in this lively collection of affectionate and celebratory essays

Anthony Quinn

10, Mar, 2018 @7:30 AM

Article image
The Shipwrecked Mind: On Political Reaction by Mark Lilla review – how reactionaries have ruined our world
A controversial thinker targets the nostalgia behind our political moment – from Trump to Brexit, Putin to militant Islam

John Banville

14, Dec, 2016 @7:00 AM

Article image
Must I Go by Yiyun Li review – a haunting tale of a woman's becoming
An 85-year-old widow defines her legacy in a multilayered novel that is salty, funny and well observed

Kate Clanchy

28, Aug, 2020 @6:30 AM

Article image
Corbyn by Richard Seymour review – the strange rebirth of radical politics
Seymour investigates how the Labour leader proved doubters wrong – and a collection of essays, The Corbyn Effect, asks what might his government look like?

Andy Beckett

13, Dec, 2017 @7:30 AM