Saddam Hussein, Romance Novelist

Welcome to the weird world of dictator lit

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    Darren Thompson

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In an isolated prison cell, an aging, mustachioed man sits writing at a small table. Recent months have seen a stark change in his fortunes. Gone are the Gucci suits, the French hair dye, and the private entourage. The writer has very little outside contact now, save the occasional visits from the Red Cross and his interrogators. He has no idea if the novel he is working on, an epic tale of passion and revenge, will ever be published.

Provisionally titled The Great Awakening, his fifth novel will emerge into a critical climate very different from the one that greeted the others. In his home country his works were acclaimed best-sellers with sales into the millions. One was made into a 20-part television series. It had recently been announced that his books were to be studied as part of the national school curriculum. And then the regime changed.

For the past eight years, Saddam Hussein has been carving out an alternative career as a writer of romantic and fantasy fiction full of thinly veiled political allegory, grandiose rhetoric, and autobiography. He has published four novels in less than five years—prolific for someone whose day job was, presumably, fairly demanding.

Many statesmen and revolutionaries have been consummate writers of prose and poetry. Saddam, however, is part of a less honorable tradition—of despots who have turned their attentions to the arts. From Nero to Napoleon, Hitler to Mao, there’s been enough output to suggest that we acknowledge this as a genre in its own right: dictator literature.

As with any genre, the level of dic-lit talent varies. Libyan autocrat Colonel Muammar Gaddafi built a solid literary reputation in the ’90s with a collection of short fiction titled The Village, the Village, the Earth, the Earth, and the Suicide of the Astronaut. A 1998 international edition renamed Escape to Hell and Other Stories included a foreword by the late Pierre Salinger, one of John F. Kennedy’s press spokesmen, who says the writing provides insight into a unique mind.

Saddam’s writing is at the other end of the dic-lit spectrum and follows a populist family tradition. His uncle, a former mayor of Baghdad and local tyrant himself, wrote a 1974 tract whose title has been translated, among other ways, as He Created Them by Mistake: The Persians, Jews, and Flies. His masterstroke was to make 20,000 Iraqi schools purchase 50 copies each. Result: a million-seller, and no marketing costs at all.

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