Dictators are Bad… at Writing

By David Michael Newstead.

Daniel Kalder’s latest book The Infernal Library is a deep dive into perhaps the strangest genre of literature in existence: dictator literature. It’s a look at history’s worst writing by history’s worst people from Lenin and Stalin to Hitler’s Mein Kampf and Saddam Hussein’s romance novels. And while bad books are typically ignored or ridiculed in a democracy, books written by a totalitarian madman tend to have massive print runs, suspiciously positive reviews, and a legacy that would be comical if it wasn’t so horrific. Fortunately, author Daniel Kalder has read all these monstrosities so you don’t have to. He recently joined me to talk about dictators and The Infernal Library.

David Newstead: You emphasize how badly written many of these books are, but would you say any of them are worth reading nowadays? And if so, why?

Daniel Kalder: It depends on what you mean by worth reading. As guides to political or moral truth? Absolutely not. But as evidence of how quickly bad ideas can move to the center and derail entire civilizations, causing immense carnage and suffering for decades, and to see how very clever people can delude themselves into believing utter absurdities? Yes.

The Manichean ways of thinking that thrived in the 20th century persist and pose a danger to this day, although they are currently in less extreme forms. We should be able to recognize the signs, even if the specific details vary. There is no reason to believe that, given the right (or wrong) circumstances our species wouldn’t succumb to such terrible simplifications again.

That said, these books are truly awful and exceptionally difficult to plow through, and I understand why people who lived under dictatorial regimes would rather forget them.

David Newstead: It feels strange to phrase it like this, but do you have a favorite book from the ones you’ve read? Like were any of the books so bad they were good?

Daniel Kalder: In terms of “so bad it’s good”… mostly they’re so bad they’re just really bad. But Mussolini was a talented journalist and political provocateur before he was the Fascist dictator of Italy and he wins the prize for “least worst.” His diary of his experiences during the First World War even borders on being a good book. At first it contains the usual bombast you’d expect from “Il Duce” but as the war goes in, it breaks down his persona, and he writes powerfully and honestly about the boredom, horror and despair of life in the trenches. Ho Chi Minh also wrote a volume of poetry which is readable.

David Newstead: What was the absolute worst book in your opinion?

Daniel Kalder: Mein Kampf is every bit as vile as you’d expect it to be, and exceedingly badly written. But Gaddafi’s The Green Book is a concatenation of sheer gibberish that may be even less competent as a literary work. I go back and forth between those two.

David Newstead: Are there any notable dictators who just didn’t bother writing or pretending to write anything and are therefore not included in your book?

Daniel Kalder: The right wing military dictators of Latin America could not always be bothered to publish books. Many of them did not feel the need to pose as super theorists, and they certainly didn’t feel the need to translate their deep thoughts and disseminate them around the world like so many 20th century dictators. The irony, of course, is that they inspired so many good writers to take up the pen, with the result that the “dictator novel” is one of the genres most closely identified with Latin American literature.

David Newstead: Personally, I thought your book was very funny. And one thing that stuck out to me is that although dictator literature crosses a lot of genres from romance novels to Marxist theory, none of the authors seem to have a sense of humor even in their writing. From your readings, do you think that’s an accurate description? And if so, what’s behind that phenomenon?

Daniel Kalder: It’s accurate. Dictator books are aggressively humorless; although Mussolini, in his early days as a provocateur-journalist, could produce some entertaining invective. Laughter undermines authority and so dictators do not encourage it, and certainly not when it comes to their own words and personality cults. They prefer the “solemn joy” of the sort that can be cast into the face of a bronze monument.

David Newstead: There aren’t a lot of female dictators in your book or in general. Any thoughts on that?

Daniel Kalder: There have been female autocrats in history, though no there were no female dictators in the 20th century. As far as Nazis, Fascists and sundry right wing nationalist dictators go, it’s fairly simple: they believed women should be mothers and home makers, and that was that. On the communist side, there was a lot of talk about equality, and it wasn’t all bogus: women’s access to education did improve, and women became engineers and even bricklayers in the USSR. But the party elites were largely male and remained that way to the collapse of the Iron Curtain. The most prominent and influential female revolutionary of the early 20th century was Rosa Luxemburg, and she was murdered after a failed attempt at staging an uprising in Germany in 1919.

More recently, Grace Mugabe in Zimbabwe looked like she was getting all her ducks in a row to succeed her husband, but then the army staged a coup. The Uzbek dictator Islam Karimov’s daughter Gulnara was at one point tipped as a possible successor to her father, but then she fell out with her family and was detained. Kim Jong Un’s sister is said to be a powerful force behind the scenes, as was (I believe) his aunt, though they do not wield power directly, of course.

David Newstead: Speaking of the ghostwritten texts of male heads of state, what’s your opinion of The Art of the Deal?

Daniel Kalder: I own a copy (got it for a buck on the clearance shelves of my local bookstore), but so far have only had time to dip in and out of the riches it no doubt contains. There was a passage where he describes a trip to Moscow to discuss “deals”, though that was during the Soviet period, so no smoking gun. Mainly I was struck by the consistency of voice between Trump then and now; short sentences, limited vocabulary, that sort of thing. His ghostwriter did a good job.

David Newstead: You touch on the relative decline of dictator literature today. And while that feels like a good thing, I can’t help wondering if it’s a symptom of something else like people reading less or the overall decline of print media or all the modern dictatorships without any real ideology to write about. I guess my question is, do you think this signifies the decline of dictatorships in general or the adaptation of tyranny from one form to another?

Daniel Kalder: Literacy levels are much higher now than they were when the dictators of the 20th century started cranking out their collected works. I suspect their inaccessibility gave them extra numinous power to believers and careerists. But the very idea of “the book” as something high and noble (which is a holdover from religion) has lost some of its aura, and the decline of ideology also plays a part. Dictator texts served as substitute sacred texts, as evidence that the dictators were super theorists, more qualified than any other to wield power. But the ideas were so thoroughly exhausted and/or discredited by the end of the 20th century that they had lost their force, and perhaps more importantly the regimes lost the will to enforce even the appearance of belief. Today’s authoritarians are more modest than their predecessors. They set their sights lower. They don’t proclaim millenarian fantasies, or claim to be guiding humanity/the tribe to some earthly utopia. They manage “democracies”, manipulate elections and talk about raising living standards.

David Newstead: Related to that, what do you think will come next? For example, Chechnya’s ruler used to be pretty active on Instagram. Between photos of dictators riding shirtless on horseback and insane tweets, is this what we have to look forward to?

Daniel Kalder: I think we can expect dictators to use every channel they have open to them. The Ayatollah Khamenei is on Twitter. I remember he tweeted about his favorite Russian authors once. They were all writing about the Bolshevik revolution. But the books will continue to appear: Xi Jinping, Vladimir Putin and Recep Tayyip Erdogan are all authors, as are the less well known authoritarian leaders of Central Asia.

David Newstead: For this book, you had to read some of the worst garbage ever mass produced. What’s your next project going to be? And are you going to continue to subject yourself to this kind of torment?

Daniel Kalder: The Infernal Library took almost a decade to research and write so my instinct is to say I’d never subject myself to anything like this again… but I am attracted to difficult or seemingly impossible projects, so who knows? For now, however, I am still in recovery. For the last six months I haven’t been able to read anything more complicated than a 1970s Conan comic.