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A despot's captive ghost

The Tyrant's Novel A Novel Thomas Keneally Nan A. Talese/Doubleday: 242 pp., $25

June 13, 2004|Brigitte Frase | Brigitte Frase is a reviewer and contributing editor to the journals Speakeasy and Ruminator Review.

In an Atlantic Monthly article two years ago, "Tales of the Tyrant," Mark Bowden drew a profile of Saddam Hussein, based on interviews with Iraqi exiles who knew him. It is a stunning portrait of a grotesquely naive and barbaric man trapped in ever-escalating delusions of grandeur and the invincible greatness that was Hussein. He would have made an exquisitely comic figure were he not so horrifyingly real. He loved the "Godfather" movies and Hemingway's "The Old Man and the Sea." He met with people only after they had been thoroughly probed, disinfected and then perfumed with his favorite scent, Tommy Hilfiger cologne. He even wrote a novel, a romantic fable about a lonely but noble king.

How can a novel incorporate such an outsized life, so richly absurd and frightening? Thomas Keneally, who successfully novelized the story of Oskar Schindler, was inspired by Bowden's article and used many of his anecdotes in "The Tyrant's Novel." His Hussein, referred to as Great Uncle, is not the official protagonist. But like his real-life model, he is both an imminent threat -- one never knows when the long black limousine of his Overguards will pull up to warn, chastise or whisk someone away -- and a living myth, an all-pervasive presence and a poisonous atmosphere in which his subjects struggle to breathe.

To get some purchase on such a monstrous figure, Keneally binds him in layers of narrative, books within books. The first is a framing narrative by a visitor to a detention camp in an unnamed country, perhaps Australia. There he meets a refugee from an Arab country who tells him his "saddest and silliest" of stories. The prisoner is a writer, still celebrated around the world for a debut book of short stories. In the course of his narrative about his life and reasons for escape, he also recounts the plots of three other fictions he has written. And in flatly off-key counterpoint to these, we also get pieces of the hagiographic life of the tyrant, written by the dictator himself.

The detainee calls himself Alan Sheriff. "It's a good name, isn't it? ... It's the name of a man you'd meet on the street. I would very much like to be the man you meet in the street. A man with a name like Alan. If we all had good Anglo-Saxon names ... or if we were not, God help us, Said and Osama and Saleh." In Alan's account, all his compatriots wear Anglo-Saxon names. The effect is to make his story rub uncomfortably against the reader's mind. We are forced to universalize, to wonder if the climate of intimidation and fear he describes can grow outside of desert nations, in places like Keneally's Australia or the United States. The detention camp itself, where Alan and hundreds of others live with no promise of release, nudges us to compare it with Guantanamo Bay.

Three years earlier, Alan had been a fairly lucky inhabitant of his homeland. He had money from his first book and an advance from an American publisher for his second. He was married to a beautiful actress. Their friends were other successful creative people who met for drinks and civilized conversation, though the talk was laced with bitterly sophisticated jokes about the careful dance they had to perform for Great Uncle's Cultural Commission.

But then Alan's world comes apart. His wife dies suddenly of an aneurysm, and he replaces writing with drinking. He finds some solace in a new job, providing Arabic subtitles for American movies. He's doing "On the Waterfront" when an Overguard limousine arrives to take him to the Boss. Blindfolded, he's hustled into one of the many palaces, then stripped, fumigated and sanitized for his great encounter.

What Great Uncle asks for is a novel. The tyrant wants to galvanize world opinion against the American-led sanctions that have imposed such suffering on his people. Alan will ghostwrite a gritty, realistic and shattering story that Uncle will publish under his own name to universal acclaim. Alan has exactly one month to deliver the goods; Great Uncle is a stickler for deadlines. Alan has already written this novel, which he considers his best work. It's about the capital city's underclass, who scrape a bare living from various black markets.

But in his furious and drunken bereavement, he buried both hard copy and disks in his wife's coffin, then pitched his laptop into the river, lest he be tempted to retrieve his work from the hard drive. Alan wants to commit suicide but somehow can't. He refuses to write but somehow churns out large portions of a patriotic potboiler that make him gag. This drunken, stuporous writing/resisting portion of the novel goes on too long. Alan's ironic disgust becomes rather a boring slog for the reader. Keneally injects some energy with a terrible war memory that Alan feels compelled to write, along with a half-hearted romance and murder that could easily have been excised.

"The Tyrant's Novel," though, remains a timely and deeply honest book. There's no salvation, no "punch line," Alan says, to his story. It's sad and silly because his life was hijacked from him by a tyrant's whim. He is not a hero; we witness not only his physical disintegration but his sodden, unspectacular stumbling away from his conscience and his deepest love. Sadder and sillier still, when he is smuggled out in an oil barrel and requests asylum, the bureaucrats of free nations see only a dark-skinned man without papers. It does not matter that he managed to bring along the dust jacket from the American edition of his first book. *

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