Dead Man’s Voice

Jeremy Harding

  • The Dictator’s Last Night by Yasmina Khadra, translated by Julian Evans
    Gallic, 199 pp, £7.99, October 2015, ISBN 978 1 910477 13 7

‘I am not a dictator,’ the hero of Yasmina Khadra’s latest novel assures himself as his end approaches. ‘I am the uncompromising sentinel, the she-wolf protecting her little ones … the untameable jealous tiger that urinates on international conventions to mark his territory.’ Not long afterwards we find him stumbling through a field as his jubilant enemies close in. The Dictator’s Last Night is the latest addition to a line of fiction – the dictator novel – that has its origins in 19th-century Argentina. Latin American novelists have continued the tradition and some have taken the consequences. Yo el Supremo, based on a historical figure – the ‘sole consul’ of Paraguay – who died in 1840, was the work of the Paraguayan novelist Augusto Roa Bastos, written during a thirty-year exile in Argentina. Alfredo Stroessner, Paraguay’s dictator at the time, took offence when the book was published and announced that the author could never return home. (Roa Bastos ended his days as a celebrity in Asunción; Stroessner ended his in exile in Brazil.)

Like Chinua Achebe’s president in Anthills of the Savannah, Khadra’s hero has a military background. And like Gabriel García Márquez’s Autumn of the Patriarch, Khadra’s novel has a tricky minister of defence acting both as the tyrant’s servant and as his victim. But the central figure is not an exquisite corpse, cobbled together from a variety of bullies. We know exactly whose company we’re in after a few pages: ‘I am Muammar Gaddafi, mythology made flesh.’ We meet him in an abandoned school in Sirte, moving about by candlelight with strips of tarpaulin covering the windows. He will lead us – via interior monologue and conversation with his aides – through a long, tormented night, into the dawn and on to a desultory break-out from Sirte, when his convoy is hit by Nato aircraft and Predator drones. Some time before 10 a.m., dragged from his hiding place, and now at the mercy of a murderous crowd, he confides his final thoughts.

A dead man’s voice is strangely reliable, both as a device for a novelist and as a way to light a dark passage in the past. The UN adopted Resolution 1973 in March 2011, calling for a ceasefire in Libya. The story of the Arab Spring was hanging by a thin thread; Libya’s ‘spring’ was little more than a civil war, and by the time the resolution was tabled it looked as though Gaddafi was about to put thousands of civilian opponents to the sword. On 19 March coalition forces, led by Nato, began bombing in support of the revolutionaries. Gaddafi’s army was hopeless in the face of this onslaught: when he was captured, in November, the coalition included nearly twenty partner states. Nobody liked Gaddafi, yet the overthrow of a pantomime villain by a Nato-led force, in support of an uprising that included a lively Islamist contingent, raises questions about Western policy objectives in relation to the Global South and the rise of violent Islamism.

It’s not Khadra’s business to answer these questions, but he allows us in a roundabout way to ask them again, by investing his dictator with an inner life – fanatical pride, anxiety about his family origins, a paranoiac tendency to feel slighted or betrayed – and a sense of outrage that holds any easy assumptions about humanitarian intervention in check. His death is depicted as a sacrificial rite. All this requires a combination of cynicism and sympathy on Khadra’s part, especially at the end, when Nato has foiled Gaddafi’s escape – unwittingly, in this account – and he is in the hands of the rebels, beaten and bloodied, covered in spittle, mocked. With barely a nudge from the text, we’re reminded of Rome’s use of the mob to destroy the garrulous prophet whose followers claimed he could walk on water.

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