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.

Throughout the night a handful of characters are in attendance. One is an orderly whose devotion Gaddafi exploits by quizzing him mercilessly and reading his reluctant answers as disloyal. He dismisses him in a fit of fury. Another is a concubine-cum-guard who gives him a shot of heroin. She, too, is rebuffed when she offers to share the leader’s bed. ‘I am not in the mood. Just massage my feet.’ These episodes, in which the monster at bay humiliates his servants, are like scenes in a well-constructed play. Three senior figures complete the entourage. Two, holed up with him from the outset, are based on known members of his administration: his demoralised minister of defence, Abu Bakr Yunis Jabr, and his chief of security and commander of the People’s Guard, Mansour Dhao. He despises the first a little less than the second and worries regularly about the flagging loyalty of both. The third is a dashing lieutenant-colonel who pitches up to organise the post-dawn break-out. ‘If I had a hundred men of his calibre,’ the rais thinks to himself, ‘I could outwit any army in the world.’ He admires the officer’s shiny boots and ironed uniform. ‘He appears to float above the war and its chaos. The dust on his battle-dress sparkles like fairy-dust.’ Abu Bakr, by contrast, is a sweaty time-server with an expression like ‘a flag at half-mast’. Mansour is ‘disgraceful’: ‘his flies are undone, he is unshaven, and his hair is all over the place.’

When Gaddafi is not enraged by the disaster unfolding around him, as Nato missiles whack into Sirte – ‘an old, rotting rug being beaten to pieces’ – he is looking forward to the arrival of his son Mutassim, and the convoy that will take him out of the city. Mutassim is continually delayed, and will only appear at the end, after his father has already left the school in a column organised by the lieutenant-colonel. (Mutassim, captured alive with minor injuries, was later killed by the rebels.) As the night draws on, Gaddafi looks back on his distant past, relishing the memory of power, and nursing old grievances: a dark moment in the 1960s, for example, when he asks an ‘upstart’ for his daughter’s hand. The man refuses: ‘I am certain you will find a girl of your rank who will make you happy.’ A few years after he comes to power in 1969, Gaddafi traces the young woman, abducts her, arrests her husband, and has her father killed.

Rank is a problem, or it used to be. The Brotherly Guide remembers how troubled he once was by a nagging uncertainty as to who, exactly, fathered him. As a boy he was told by his uncle that his father was a courageous man who died in a duel. By the 1960s, as he rose through the ranks of King Idris’s army, other stories were doing the rounds. We flash back to a brutal, impromptu interview with an NCO, who informs him that he was fathered by an Allied pilot, a Corsican brought down over the desert by the Germans in 1941. Gaddafi assaults his interlocutor. A pot-bellied major who has already accused Gaddafi of fomenting revolution in the armed forces bursts in on the scene and has him taken away. ‘What did I say to you, Bedouin? That I will oppose your promotion. Do you believe me now?’ A few years later, Gaddafi has ‘overthrown the king and proclaimed the republic’, and his troubled quest for the truth about his origins is at an end. ‘It was no longer very important to me to know if I was a Corsican’s bastard or a brave man’s son. I was my own offspring, my own begetter.’

Khadra has a good sense of pace: the leader’s thoughts turn over at just the right speed; little incidents and set-piece action scenes, including the turkey shoot outside Sirte as Gaddafi’s convoy fails to get away, unfold with edgy concision. Khadra, whose real name is Mohammed Moulessehoul, is a former Algerian army officer; he was a counterinsurgency specialist during the Algerian civil war of the 1990s. After publishing several collections of stories and novels under his own name, he borrowed his wife’s (apparently to avoid the military censor) for a novel that came out in 1990. He has gone on to become a prolific writer, averaging a book a year, all written in French. They have sold well, leaving a long trail of prizes, adaptations and translations in their wake. A formidable character and something of an operator, Khadra ran the Algerian cultural centre in Paris for several years. He was removed in 2014 after denouncing President Boutéflika’s decision to help himself to a fourth term in office. (Khadra himself tried to run for the presidency in the 2014 election, but failed to raise enough signatures for his candidature.)

The advantage of one big man reinventing another is that the dictator’s thoughts and instincts are monumentalised, along with his deeds. The psychology of despotism – by now a cliché – is neatly finessed in a series of sketches that reproduce real events and project them onto the protagonist. In the process he becomes larger than the sum of his thoughts and pronouncements. Though the Brotherly Guide is at moments an Ubuesque figure, he is not an object of ridicule. Everything he has to say, even when it has a comic edge, takes on a sinister grandiosity: we are always measuring the first-person voice against the known facts. Yet the person speaking seems to have left the novel before it began, which must be Khadra’s intention. Being with Gaddafi on his last night is like walking through a set of abandoned apartments. The doors are ajar and the fans are turning; a disembodied voice is howling imprecations, but the story is already at an end. The squalid school in Sirte, where the leader is trapped, is a ghost town, blasted by Nato and about to become an Islamic State ‘colony’ in the Maghreb.

One device in the novel misfires: Gaddafi has an attachment to Van Gogh’s self-portrait with a bandaged ear. Khadra introduces this early on, in order to set up an unsuccessful parting shot: the dying rais remembers his mother telling him, when he was a boy, that he was deaf to reason in one ear, while the other listened only to ‘devils’. Van Gogh’s pictures apart, Western culture is a purely hostile force, offering no glimmer of consolation: on the one hand, a côterie of scheming politicians (Nicolas Sarkozy, president of France at the time of the intervention, gets a name check); on the other, a constant threat from the air over the Brotherly Guide’s dwindling dominions. In a waking dream, he is visited by the ghost of Saddam Hussein, and they exchange bitter words. ‘Let me remind you,’ the apparition tells Gaddafi, ‘that I was hanged by America and its allies, but you will be lynched by your own people.’ It’s a fine distinction.

Khadra, who has a critical view of Arab regimes, wants readers in French and English to make their own judgments about the West’s policies in the Middle East. And though the tone of the embattled leader – ranting, partial, self-extenuating – ought by its nature to allay our doubts about the intervention, we find them quickening as wreckage, death and injury pile up around the school. We worry, too, about the West’s uneven attributions of villainy, and how so much of it ended up directed at Gaddafi. Between 1969, when he took power, and 2009, when the rebellion began, Gaddafi built a massive welfare state – in Khadra’s novel the brave lieutenant-colonel explains to the leader that he has spoiled his people to the point of decadence – and raised literacy from 10 to 90 per cent, offering hospitals that parts of Britain would be proud of, and a bombastic nationalist curriculum, not unlike Michael Gove’s, in schools that were properly funded, staffed and equipped. We can’t tell how many people died in his jails, but we know that he massacred 1270 prisoners in Tripoli in 1996 (‘crazed visionaries’, he calls them here, although they weren’t all Islamists). We know, too, that after the rebellion began, repression took on a new vigour. But we should also accept the likelihood that fewer people were murdered inside Libya during his forty-year dictatorship – or died as a result of the most notorious Libyan-sponsored terrorist acts, Pan Am 103 (Lockerbie) and UTA 772 (Niger), or in the course of his meddlings in Chad and Sudan – than the Coalition killed in Iraq.

After 2003 – when UN sanctions against Libya were lifted – Gaddafi welcomed Europeans to a binge of trade deals and oil concessions, heralded by Blair’s ‘deal in the desert’ in 2004. It was time to ‘move on’, in Blair’s words: presumably beyond the murder of PC Yvonne Fletcher and the two airliner bombings. France, for its part, was so deep in Libya that it was hard to tell which of the two was the client state. Within a couple of years, however, Gaddafi was using unauthorised migration to Europe as a form of blackmail to press for deeper commercial ties, and development assistance from Italy in particular, cracking down on the boats if aid and trade were in the offing, and frogmarching migrants into the water when relations with his European partners cooled. Numbers of migrants in those days were relatively low, but in Italy alarming even so.

In theory Nato’s humanitarian support for the Libyan rebels addressed two of the problems on Europe’s mind in 2011. To the extent that populations were chafing under ancien regimes in the Arab world and jihadism was seen to be a symptom, the removal of Gaddafi made a clunky kind of sense. Yet by 2014, three years after his death, it was clear that the intervention had enabled eastward flows of arms to jihadists in the Levant, and westward flows towards Aqim – al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb – in Mali. Boko Haram in northern Nigeria was also a beneficiary. At the same time unprecedented numbers of migrants and refugees began moving towards a continent already determined to exclude them. By last autumn, according to the UN’s envoy to Libya, there were nearly a quarter of a million people waiting to leave for Europe. In 2015 Libya’s National Salvation Government threatened to release hundreds of thousands of migrants into the water unless Brussels agreed to recognise it as the legitimate representative of the country. In terms of Europe’s policy objectives the intervention didn’t really stack up, although it suited Sarkozy. As the French judiciary weighs the cost of a new investigation of the former president, word is out that he may have collected €50 million from Gaddafi to fund his presidential campaign in 2007. Sarkozy was one of the most outspoken advocates of Gaddafi’s overthrow.

Gaddafi’s death laid bare the cruelties of a new Palmerstonian age, which the West has tried to dissimulate with a combination of half-truths and drone diplomacy. It is impossible to mourn him, but the fact of his death and the manner of it draw our murky intentions into focus. Khadra casts Gaddafi as a religious martyr, manhandled by unbelievers: ‘I let myself drift towards my fate, my head crowned with thorns, my face covered in blood like Isa Ibn Mariam’ – Jesus, son of Mary – ‘bowed under his cross on the path to Golgotha.’ He is punched, scratched, spat on; stabbed in the rectum with a bayonet. He has the sensation of being eaten raw. Young men wave bits of his bloody clothing as he sinks towards death. ‘I see tyre marks on the tarmac, the breeches of weapons glinting in the sun, the rebel banners flapping in the wind, but I do not hear the din of their jubilation or the noise of the volleys as they fire into the air in exultation.’ Yet Gaddafi’s end was less like a martyrdom than a Grand Guignol moment from the history plays or one of the Roman tragedies. The crowd, egged on by sinister forces outside the kingdom, surrounds the protagonist, taking souvenir photos on their mobile phones, and then tears him to pieces. The curtain falls and the audience leaves the theatre in dismay.