Fiction – paperback; Gallic Books; 190 pages; 2015. Translated from the French by Julian Evans. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.
The Dictator’s Last Night by Yasmina Khadra puts us in the shoes of Colonel Gaddafi at the height of the Libyan civil war in 2011 shortly before his capture and execution by the NATO-backed rebel forces of the time. It’s a fictionalised account, of course, but it has a ring of authenticity about it. Unsurprisingly, it’s quite a dark and sombre novella, seeing as it provides a fascinating glimpse into the mindset of one of modern history’s most controversial and divisive figures, yet there’s a certain delicacy of touch, which makes it a fast and compelling read.
When it opens, Gaddafi is holed up in a disused school — his troops’ secret headquarters — waiting for his son to join him so that they can move on to another, safer, location. It is the night of 19 October 2011 and the city of Sirte is raging all around him, as NATO attacks from the air and rebel forces attack from the ground.
Over the course of the next 24 hours, Gaddafi recalls his life story — a Bedouin who grew up believing he was the Ghous clan’s “chosen one” yet forever remembering the childhood curses and slights against him even as he rose to become one of the Middle East’s most powerful and influential men, albeit one with a messiah complex — while confronting his own fears for the future. He is largely resolute in defeat, knowing that his time has come, but he’s also angry and bitter at what he perceives to be the ingratitude of the Libyan people and he has short shrift for those in his immediate employ who he treats with disdain and cruelty.
But despite his circumstances, trapped in a situation with seemingly no safe way out, he still wears his megalomania on his sleeve:
I am Muammar Gaddafi, mythology made flesh. And if there are fewer stars in the sky over Sirte this evening, and my moon looks no fatter than a nail clipping, it is so that I should remain the one constellation that matters. They can fire all the missiles they have at me, I shall see only fireworks celebrating me.
Portrait of a complex man
Of course, we know how the book ends, but as Gaddafi moves towards his final hour the author expertly charts the fallen dictator’s ever-shifting moods — from acceptance to anger, from fear to fury.
It’s not a sympathetic portrait by any stretch of the imagination — Gaddafi is delusional, sociopathic, unrelenting in his inability to forgive, or trust, anyone — but neither is it a caricature of the embittered “kooky” tyrant the Western media often portrayed him as. Indeed, the book’s greatest achievement is in the way it gives voice to a proud man who set out to liberate his people but got corrupted by the taste of power along the way:
Pride is invaluable to reason. When you have ruled over peoples, you sit on your cloud and forget reality. But what exactly have you ruled over? To what purpose? In the final analysis, power is a misunderstanding: you think you know, then you realise you have made a thumping mistake. Instead of going back and redoing it properly, you dig in your heels and see things the way you would like them to be. You deal with the unthinkable as best you can and cling to your fancies, convinced that if you were to let go all hell would break loose. And now, paradoxically, all hell has broken loose because I did not let go.
Yasmina Khadra is the pen name of Mohammed Moulessehoul, an award-winning author from Algeria, and this is his latest novel to be translated into English.
I read this as part of #DiverseDecember.