An edited version of this review appeared in the Guardian.
Colonel Gaddafi – “the Brotherly Guide, the miracle boy who became the infallible visionary” – possessed a character so colourful it begged entry into fiction. Yasmina Khadra – pseudonym for Algerian ex-military man and bestselling writer Mohammed Moulessehoul – obliges here in “The Dictator’s Last Night”, a title to be fitted alongside such great dictator novels as Marquez’s “The Autumn of the Patriarch” or Vargas Llosa’s “The Feast of the Goat” (the latter set in the last hours of the Dominican strongman Trujillo). Although Khadra matches neither the epic scale nor the experimental virtuosity of those two, his writing here is compulsive, funny, powerfully emotional, and often sinuously intelligent.
For his last night, the “untameable jealous tiger that urinates on international conventions to mark his territory” is confined to a disused school in Sirte, the sky aflame with NATO bombs and rebel bullets, his generals either fleeing or collapsing from exhaustion.
Like Hitler in the bunker he rails against his people’s betrayal – “Libya owes me everything!” – against the West which so recently feted him and, with no irony at all, against his fellow Arab autocrats, those “pleasure-seeking gluttons.”
Khadra’s imagining of him is probably pretty accurate: bullying, mercurial, grandiose, containing an egomaniac’s contradictions – self-obsessed but craving approval, ruthless but oversensitive. It’s “my full moon, nobody else’s,” he declares, and “Everything I did worked.”
Gaddafi remembers his poor Beduin beginnings, fatherless and disturbed, and his struggles against “the barriers of prejudice”. He was spurned when, as a young officer, he proposed marriage to a social superior. The reader sympathises with the humiliation – until shown the nature of the dictator’s later response. Gaddafi’s voice careers from sentimentality to brutality and back, and at first the reader’s heart follows.
To read is to switch between extremes, for Gaddafi is “One day the predator, the next the prey,” and because that’s the way his mind works anyway. His massacres and sordid revenge dramas are interweaved with his romanticism, by the poetry of desert life. His belief in himself as “mythology made flesh” alternates with a fatalism in which he merely plays a role written by a forgetful God.
After his nightly heroin injection, Gaddafi remembers “the women I have graced with my manhood”. He evokes the “sublime illness called love” even as he recounts his rapes, his conquests “inert at my feet”. The writer chooses (perhaps judiciously) not to make too much of this aspect of the dictator’s personality. The facts recounted in Annick Cojean’s book “Gaddafi’s Harem” are far more lurid than Khadra is here.
As amusing as it is disturbing, the novel plays on the tyrant’s comic inconsistencies, the comedy of his real-life language, with lightness and sureness of touch. The Brotherly Guide is full of sentences like this: “Everyone understands how vulnerable I am, everyone knows I am extremely sensitive to comments which, when they are disobliging, make me so furious that I could drink the blood of him who is ill-mannered enough to make them.”
There’s plenty of megalomaniac diction and some glorious speechifying. Sometimes the language becomes sub-scriptural, because “Everything I say is gospel, everything I think is a portent.”
Sadly, this is more of a balanced portrayal than a parody. Gaddafi was a man who, despite learning entirely the wrong lessons from his experience of injustice, was convinced of his function as a salutary font of practical and mystical wisdom – “such a phenomenon that I only had to pick up any old pebble for it to become the philosopher’s stone.” Added to his wildly inconsistent Green Book – studied by schoolchildren and broadcast on state TV – the colonel wrote science fiction stories.
Khadra’s novel attempts to match the size of its subject’s imagination, through unhinged rants, memories and reflections, and particularly in dream sequences. One stars a dead Saddam Hussain; a recurring nightmare features Vincent van Gogh. “Power is hallucinogenic,” muses Gaddafi in one of his more lucid stretches, a matter of “murderous daydreams”. On the final page we learn the sound logic behind van Gogh’s haunting of the leader.
As the logistical-military drama of the last hours drives the book towards its conclusion, a conversation between Gaddafi and his officers enacts, at various levels of irony – ironic because it’s Gaddafi speaking, and because, behind him, the ex-officer writing is so closely associated with a neighbouring police state – a debate on revolution and the responsibility for its ugly aftermath.
Those who remain at the centre of Libya’s drama, those who’ll have to finally pick some order out of the current chaos, are the Libyan people. Hisham Matar’s English-language novels offer sober insight into the tyrant’s rule from their perspective. But to see from the dictator’s imagined height, Yasmina’s Khadra’s perceptive and confident novel (translated from the French by Julian Evans) is an unmissable entertainment.