A certain American presidential candidate might say of former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, “He was a bad guy ― really bad guy. But you know what? He did well? He wrote pulpy allegorical novels that ham-handedly glorified his own leadership. He did that so well.”
That’s right, in case you missed this important trivia fact about the strongman, Saddam Hussein published several works of fiction prior to his execution in 2006, and for the first time, a U.K. publisher is bringing an English translation of his last known book to the public.
Hesperus, the indie publisher behind the translation, noted that the December 2016 release of the book will mark the 10th anniversary of Hussein’s execution. “It is topical, very ‘de jour,’ with the Chilcot inquiry and the 10th anniversary coming up,” a spokesman told The Guardian.
The book, variously described as a novella, a novel, and “a forgettable piece of pulp” (that’s The New York Times review from 2005), has been published under titles like Get Out, You Damned One, Devil’s Dance and Begone, Devils.
The publisher’s spokesman said the book would be “a mix between ‘Game of Thrones’ and the UK ‘House of Cards’-style fiction,” a bit of a slight toward George R.R. Martin and the “House of Cards” creators, especially given what we already know about Hussein’s writing chops and this novella in particular.
The New York Times review, by Hassan M. Fattah, explained the story thusly:
It opens with a narrator who appears to be modeled on the story of Abraham warning his grandsons of Satan’s hold over Babylon.
The story tells of Ezekiel, a greedy schemer who plots to overthrow the sheik of a tribe with the help of a powerful enemy aiming to conquer and annihilate all Arabs but is ultimately defeated by the sheik’s daughter with the help of an Arab warrior. This is viewed as a metaphor for a Zionist-Christian plot against Arabs and Muslims.
“Only those who refuse his nation and are faithful to God can be victorious,” the narrator warns of Satan, the superpower.
If you prefer a little more romance in your dic-lit, Hussein understood that. Daniel Kalder explored the dictator’s oeuvre for The Guardian in 2011, and pulled out an exceptional unsettling erotic passage from his first novel, Zabiba and the King:
Even an animal respects a man’s desire, if it wants to copulate with him. Doesn’t a female bear try to please a herdsman when she drags him into the mountains as it happens in the North of Iraq? She drags him into her den, so that he, obeying her desire, would copulate with her? Doesn’t she bring him nuts, gathering them from the trees or picking them from the bushes? Doesn’t she climb into the houses of farmers in order to steal some cheese, nuts and even raisins, so that she can feed the man and awake in him the desire to have her?
“Well, no, she doesn’t,” wrote Kalder. True, but only this level of counterfactual creepiness could promise to enliven fiction he otherwise described as “so poorly structured and dull that it has the whiff of dictatorial authenticity.” In other words, Kalder didn’t believe Hussein relied much on ghostwriters.
Of course, anyone looking to buy a novella by one of the most notorious dictators of the past century, if not all time, likely isn’t seeking scorching prose or tightly plotted narrative. It’s human nature to want a glimpse into the darkest side of what we can become.
It’s unclear if the Hesperus translation of Hussein’s last book, the English title of which has not been announced, will be distributed in the U.S.