The Dictator’s Last Night
They have crossed out my slogans, disfigured the portraits of me that decorated the facades of buildings . . . Is that how people show love for their guide? Did this people love me sincerely, or was it merely a mirror reflecting back to me my own exaggerated narcissism?
~from The Dictator’s Last Night by Yasmina Khadra
The dictator spoken of in the title is Muammar Gadaffi, the late Libyan despot famed for his stubborn control of Libya and his pathological cruelty. A magnetic leader with a fascinating but protean political mindset, he demonstrated a fierce readiness to hurt and destroy his enemies while exploiting the vulnerabilities of his followers.
It’s hard to think of an author more fitted for this subject than Yasmina Khadra. The name is a pseudonym (it’s actually his wife’s name) for Mohamed Moulessehoul, an Algerian military man who chose a female moniker to hide his avocation.
Khadra writes not only as someone versed in the complexities of human psychology and emotion, but as one who could well picture the final days of a sagging, bewildered Cain propped up by his few remaining scraps of military might. Khadra, with his compassionate insight, has been brave enough to crawl inside the mind of this monster as if it were a sewer pipe, looking for stars and flowers. I imagine that once this book was finished he needed a long vacation.
Khadra produces a poetic portrait of a former Bedouin well acquainted with open skies and ancient wisdom, an elegant man with keen insight and the capacity to sniff out the subtlest of emotions. But this richness of soul quickly merges into the delusions of grandeur that permit him to act out his antipathies without remorse.
There’s only one way to present such a man like Gaddafi in such a sensitive light, and that’s to wall off the compartments of the protagonist’s mind, never letting the poetic side know what the evil side is thinking and at the same time obliging the poetic side to be blinded by a false idea of the greatness of the self.
Khadra does this quite cleverly and without showing the distaste he must have been feeling. He also scrutinises the dictator’s view of those who serve him. At first you don’t know if the trembling obsequiousness of his henchmen is reality or the viewpoint of the dictator’s swollen ego, and yet when you read about how in fact those close to Gaddafi defended him to the death, going days without sleep and fasting so that their “Brotherly Guide” could eat, the worshipful subservience portrayed in the novel is quite believable.
But the dynamic takes on mythic proportions. The dictator’s inner voice becomes the dialogue of the tyrant that may very well lie dormant in all of us— that part of us willing to excuse our rages, hatreds, and vices in light of a belief in our own superior qualities and in the inferiority of others.
It’s an interesting technique, showing a takedown carried out from the loser’s persepective (much like the films about Hitler’s last days), showing up not only the psychology of the leader who’s met his Waterloo but the sometimes perplexing beliefs of those who’ve chosen to go down with him.
Gaddafi is credited with having stirred up a hornet’s nest of Islamist extremism around the world. The writing of Yasmina Khadra, a Muslim who loves Steinbeck, has been much occupied with the dangers of such extremism. The gist of the interview I did with him back in 2010 was a warning against religious dictatorship. Religion, Khadra maintained, must always be a private choice, never imposed from without, and always a matter of the heart.
The Dictator’s Last Night manifests seven of the Mindful Bard’s criteria for books well worth reading.
It’s authentic, original, and delightful.
It poses and admirably responds to questions that have a direct bearing on my view of existence.
It’s about attainment of the true self.
It inspires an awareness of the sanctity of creation.
It displays an engagement with and compassionate response to suffering.
It renews my enthusiasm for positive social action.
It makes me appreciate that life is a complex and rare phenomena, making living a unique opportunity.