Sunday, February 23, 2020

My book report: Words, words, words

Daniel Kalder, The Infernal Library:  On Dictators, the Books They Wrote, and Other Catastrophes of Literacy, New York, Henry Holt and Company, 2018

Books of literary (in the loosest sense) criticism rarely cause laughter and make the reader sorry to reach the end.  This one did.  It also has the snappiest footnotes this side of Terry Pratchett.

Kalder lived in Moscow for ten years, where he apparently spent most of his time reading the brain-numbing works of twentieth century dictators.  Some, like Mein Kampf, enjoy a disturbing afterlife to this day; most, like the novels of Saddam Hussein and Francisco Franco, have faded away.  You can't be a real dictator unless you're in print.  It conveys your philosophy to the masses and often helps to dazzle intellectuals who don't have to live under your rule.   If properly deployed, it can also make you rich.

Revolutions usually generate writings, even our own.  Students in the better high schools used to be exposed to The Federalist and the pamphlets of Thomas Paine.  Franklin's autobiography is a delight, and the letters and speeches of Jefferson are still in print.  Until you read Kalder's account of Lenin's theoretical books or Salazar's Catholic-flavored banalities, you may not appreciate how lucky Americans are.  Perhaps only one twentieth-century revolution, Turkey's, was led by a man who could both write and think, Kemal Ataturk.  Most of these guys were raving nutters.  It seems that even the prospect of absolute power corrupts the prose style absolutely.  Once they gain control of nations and their presses, there's no stopping the flow of verbiage, some of it bathetic (see Gaddafi's explanation of the difference between men and women, page 236), and some outright bonkers (The Rukhnama, the scripture Turkmenistan's loopy dictator Turkmenbashi presented to his countrymen, must be read to be believed).  Mao's pronouncements collected in the Little Red Book drove millions mad and did unspeakable damage to the culture of China before the fever broke and the book was pulped.  Nobody reads Stalin or Hoxha today except brave archeologists like Daniel Kalder.

Americans may feel a thrill of recognition in reading about Leonid Brezhnev, who ran the USSR from 1964 to 1982, lazy and dull but not a fanatic about politics or exercise:  "Brezhnev enjoyed playing dominoes and liked to shoot bears, but couldn't be bothered to actually hunt them.  Instead, he'd sit in a chair and enjoy a glass of vodka while lackeys drove his ursine prey in front of his gun."  When he died, he was so fat that the bottom fell out of the coffin while it was being lifted onto the catafalque.  All four volumes of his memoirs were written by others.  But Russia has seen worse.

Kalder is surprisingly blithe about Vladimir Putin, despite calling him "unpleasant and authoritarian."  He thinks we're too worried about Putin's influence, too quick to grab at analogies with Stalin, Mao and Hitler.  It's true, we know the names of all the dissidents and journalists Putin has murdered, and compared to the last century's big three, he's an amateur.  But murder is murder, and meddling in elections on behalf of useful idiots like Trump and Johnson is still a hostile act.  Putin may not want to restore the USSR, but what is he doing in Ukraine and the Caucasus if not reconstituting imperial Russia?  Kalder seems relieved that Putin is too busy locking down his control of Russian television and posing for bare-chested action pictures to do much writing.  I can't blame him.

Reader, you will enjoy this solidly researched book, and you may close it relieved that Trump is a functional illiterate.  The problem is that the written word matters even less to his followers than it does to him.


Blogger The New York Crank said...

"Putin may not want to restore the USSR, but what is he doing in Ukraine and the Caucasus if not reconstituting imperial Russia?"

That's exactly what he is doing. More than a century after it ended, some Russians have not given up their dreams of an empire, with an emperor at its head. Years ago when I lived at Park and 93rd Street, cars used to be parked in front of the Russian church across the street with bumper stickers — bumper stickers! — that said "Pray for the return of the Czar."

The Czar has returned, and he is Putin. If Trump gets r-elected, expect Putin to overrun Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia, as well as parts of Poland.

Yours crankily,
The New York Crank

12:15 PM  

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