There was a time when despots were content to be despots rather than philosopher-kings. The military dictator General Mariano Melgarejo, for example, is supposed to have once explained his title to the office: I’m going to rule in Bolivia as long as I like, and if anyone tries to stop me I’ll have him hanged from the nearest tree. As he was reputed personally to have shot his predecessor, General Belzu, immediately afterwards asking the crowd that had just acclaimed Belzu as a hero whom they were shouting for now, his threat was taken seriously. He was not a man to be trifled with.
Latin American literature would have been much the poorer without despots (at least three Nobel laureates have been inspired by them), but this is not the kind of dictator literature that Daniel Kalder examines in The Infernal Library. Instead, books by rather than about despots are his subject, and by its end one is full of admiration for a man who, over a period of many years and with dogged perseverance, has plowed through whole shelvesful of what must be among the dullest prose ever written. I am no enthusiast for the concept of the banality of evil, but if it has application anywhere, it is here, in books by dictators, especially totalitarian dictators. It is a sobering thought that men who consigned millions to their deaths usually expressed themselves in print with mind-numbing woodenness, waging war on imagination and triumphing in the struggle. Whether they were below average in natural literary ability is a question that cannot be answered without a scientific trial controlled for upbringing, intelligence, level of education, and so forth, but it is clear that they had little regard for the welfare of the reader and it is even possible in some cases that they desired nothing more than to drive him mad with boredom while also compelling him to read and memorize what they had written (or had had written at their behest, for not all dictators actually wrote what appeared under their names). Here, indeed, was something to satisfy the most refined sadist: to torture people with banality piled on cliché piled on falsehood.