Saddam Hussein has always considered himself a man of letters first
and a dictator second. "I'd like to be remembered for my novels rather
than the number of people I've murdered," he remarks in his autobiography
With Pen and Scimitar. That the world continues to think
of him as the Butcher of Baghdad, so-called, and largely ignores his
fiction, is, in his words, "yet another sign of the barbarous age
in which we live."
Yet it would be wrong to see Saddam
as an impassioned humanist sage, a sort of latter-day D. H. Lawrence.
Nor is he an exemplar of post-modern absurdity, like, for instance,
Samuel Beckett. In his autobiography, he describes himself simply
as "an old-fashioned literary man for whom Art and Life are inextricably
linked." Which is why (he adds) critics of his work have often ended
up in the Euphrates with bricks affixed to their feet: "A bad review
of one of my books is the same as plunging a dagger into my heart.
What recourse do I have but to punish the felon?"
Composed toward the beginning of his
rule, Saddam's early fiction betrays an author struggling to find
his own voice. Master and Tyrant, which documents the victories of
an Iraqi gunboat during the Napoleonic Wars, could not have been written
without the example of Patrick O'Brian's sea stories. In Warm
Blood shows the unexpected influence of Truman Capote, although
it does have one purely Saddamesque moment--a French chef, an
English ornithologist, and an American proctologist, all members of
an International Zionist cabal, mistake a vat of boiling oil for their
hotel swimming pool, with dire results.
Like T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound, Saddam
is not especially fond of certain minorities. This is nowhere more
apparent than in his novel Kurds Away!,which features a scene
where the hero, likewise named Saddam, feeds a wild mushroom risotto
to a group of Kurds he's invited to dinner. The mushrooms are, of
course, poisonous. Saddam later published the recipe for this dish
in a magazine.
The Iraqi strongman (Saddam can bench-press
over 400 pounds) has always had a lapidary interest in his craft.
In an email to me, he discussed the evolution of the aforementioned
dinner scene: in the novel's first draft, he had the Kurds eating
Whoppers laced with arsenic, while in the second draft they ate landmines
baked in a souffle. It was only in the final draft that he hit upon
the infinitely more subtle idea of using mushrooms. "One must never
forget that the 'delete' key is a writer's best friend," he told me.
Operation Desert Storm was, by Saddam's
own admission, the turning point in his literary career. Before, as
he puts it, "the first Mr. Bush's attempt to purge me without knowing
anything about colonic irrigation," his fiction was more or less trapped
in a realistic mode; after Desert Storm, he eschewed realism and began
to conceive of the world as a vast allegorical battlefield in which
good invariably triumphs over the machinations of evil.
Consider his epic novel Look Homeward,
Devils, for example. Set in remote antiquity, it features a benevolent
king named Saddam who almost single handedly routs an invading force
of foreign "devils" led by a bellicose general, Norman the Black Headed.
There are numerous subplots, all of which show the kingin one guise
or another: now as a sensitive lover, now as an expert camel repairman,
and now as the creator of Hammurabi's Code. The novel concludes with
the devils of the title giving the lie to the old saw that you can't
go home again.
Look Homeward, Devils was a
remarkable success, at least in Iraq, where it became more or less
a prescribed text. In fact, torture or a lengthy prison sentence awaited
anyone who refused to buy a copy. When I questioned Saddam about this
method of dealing with the reading public, he said, "Well, I feel
an author should do everything within his power to improve sales..."
At one point Saddam asked me whether
I could get him on Oprah ("Kurds Away! would be a perfect
novel for her book club, don't you think?"). He also asked me if I
would find him a U.S. publisher, for he felt that his work deserved
more attention than it could get from the admittedly limited resources
of his Iraqi publisher. "Mahfouz, Wole Soyinka, Octavio Paz--it's
the same with all of us," he said. "We're tired of being big fish
in a small pond."
Given his poor track record with recalcitrant
critics, I foresaw a prolonged dunking in the Euphrates for any publisher
who told him that one of his books was not right for their list. But
he soon had other matters on his mind than finding, and possibly drowning,
a publisher: he had to respond to, in his words, "the second Mr. Bush's
deficient knowledge of chemistry."
If (in Auden's view) "Mad Ireland" hurt
Yeats into poetry, so too did a perhaps even madder Iraq hurt Saddam,
albeit not so much into poetry as into a more radical type of prose.
Like the late period Henry James, he dictated his next novel, Get
Out of My Country, Dude; unlike James, he did so at gunpoint,
and the scribes who took notes at his dictation were told that they
had a week to write the novel. Saddam scholars consider Get Out
of My Country, Dude its author's most eminently deconstructible
text. Indeed, I couldn't help thinking of Derrida while reading it,
so I asked Saddam for his opinion of the French master of Deconstruction.
"He's a genius, of course," he said, adding: "All of us Iraqis are
fans of 'The Big D.'" For the better part of a year, I didn't hear
from Saddam, then at last he sent me an email "from a veritable hole
in the ground where I am living like a Beckett character." He said
his nerves were so frazzled that all he'd written in the last few
months was the opening chapter of a personal memoir tentatively titled
Tuesdays With Cheney. He concluded the email with the following
cri decoeur: "To think, I could have been a Professor of
Creative Writing at an American University, with likeminded colleagues,
health benefits, and a throng of students laughing at my witticisms..."
The rest is history.