Talk of the Devil

Riccardo Orizio

Read April 2005

Dictators are morbidly fascinating. Given their outlook, however, they carefully cultivate their images and usually work hard to install their legacies or at least to protect themselves from it (witness Pinochet). But what of the dictators who aren't as ``lucky''? How did the ones who were deposed and disgraced make out? Perhaps by studying them, we can understanding of dictators ``in the raw''. How do they perceive themselves? Are they repentant? Are they vain? Do they think they were set up? And so on.

This book is a series of interviews with such people: Bokassa, Jaruzelski, Nexhmije Hoxha, and so on. The book is much less and yet more than it promises. Each chapter includes an account of trying to locate the person, followed by a brief and sometimes perfunctory interview. The depth of the interviews leave a lot to be desired, and the details of the search may seem a distraction in an already too-slim volume. And yet, and yet. The searches have their own power: The book opens (pg. 2) with a beautiful portrait of obsessive journalism; this is the kind of work that earns the fourth estate its reputation as a guardian of democracy. The current situation of these (mostly) men is often an important part of the story, and the author's direct transcription of their often raving, often deluded, sometimes insane responses and digressions offer a raw texture tha a more sober description would have lacked. We would question the dispassion of anyone portrayed these people as they are seen here, but when they choose to portray themselves.... And the way they pore over documents, generating briefs, letters and complaints, these same people who trampled legal systems trying to obsess over minutae of the law—the irony is hard to miss. The interviews are uneven, but given the subjects, it's remarkable that they happened at all. The one annoyance is that the author never provides dates, and some of the conversations definitely need to be placed in a temporal context.

While this is no great book, it's a useful addition to a sparse library on an important question. Hopefully a better writer will one day develop this theme more fully.