Not too many years ago it was rare to turn on the TV news without being confronted by images of the Libyan leader Colonel Gaddafi. A controversial figure from the time he seized power, his brand of nationalism, lack of regard for human rights and his financial support of revolutionary militants across the world brought him into conflict with the USA and UK. Even his death in October 2011 was mired with controversy with allegations he was found cowering in a disused pipe, then beaten and tortured by rebel soldiers.
Yasmina Khadra re-creates that final night in The Dictator’s Last Night. Gaddafi is holed up in a disused school in home city of Sirte having been forced to retreat after the fall of Tripoli. His army is in tatters. He’s besieged by NATO aerial attacks and surrounded by rebel troops of the National Transitional Council (NTC). His people have turned against him. He no longer knows who he can trust. Waiting for reinforcements and a convoy that will enable him to break through enemy lines and find refuge in another country, he reflects on his life as “Brotherly Leader” of his nation.
This is a portrait of a man of humble origins who is acutely sensitive to slights about his illegitimate descent from an impoverished Bedouin goat herder. He counters this by associating himself with the prophet Muhammad and with Isa Ibn Maryam, (Jesus Christ in the Koran), neither of whom knew their fathers. Alternately defiant and despondent, he remains supremely assured of his status as the chosen one”, the one who enacts God’s will.
People say I am a megalomaniac. It is not true. I am an exceptional being, providence incarnate, envied by the gods, able to make a faith of his cause.
Feeling betrayed by aides he believes are incompetent, he cannot even find comfort that his legacy will survive. He gave his people justice, replaced slums with sparkling shops and esplanades, built ultra modern hospitals but his crowning achievements are no more. Buildings are desecrated, the city pillaged, his portraits disfigured and his slogans eliminated. In truth he realises his people lied to him when they said they loved him.
I feared treachery inside my palaces but it was creeping up on me unsuspected in the towns and villages. … I should have dealt with them the way I dealt with dissidents, been more severe with them, distrusted them more. … If I had my time again I would exterminate half the nation. Lock them up in camps to show them what real work is, and watch them die in the attempt.
By restricting the action to the span of one night Khadra brings an element of dramatic tension to the novella. The ending is graphic though not gratuitously so. The main issue for me however was that I felt the book lacked depth. I wanted more of an analysis of Gaddafi’s character but every time the novel edged towards an insightful point, it seemed to pull back. I was left with a disappointingly rather predictable portrait of an unstable mind who injects fear into all around him.
Yasmina Khadra is the pen name for Algerian author Mohammed Moulessehoul, and the author of the best-selling The Swallows of Kabul. The Dictator’s Last Night is published by Gallic Books and translated from the French original (La dernière nuit du raïs) by Julian Evans. I received an advance courtesy via NetGalley.