You cannot be neutral towards this novel, Valentina Viene writes:
By Valentina Viene
The image of Muammar Ghaddafi is still fresh in our minds as we watch Libya experience the aftermath of his downfall. So when you read the latest novel by Yasmina Khadra, The Dictator’s Last Night (Gallic, 2015), you will, because events are so recent, confuse fact with fiction.
Yasmina Khadra was a major in the Algerian army up until 2000, and a candidate in the Algerian presidential elections in 2003. His involvement in military and political life must have offered the backbone for the creation of a character who crosses the boundaries between history and fiction. Whatever the case, whether you believe in this version of Ghaddafi or not, you cannot be neutral towards this novel.
The author imagines his way into the life of Col. Muammar Ghaddafi in his final hours. Thus it is the night of October 19, 2011. We learn that Col. Ghaddafi has resigned from his post, but NATO and the rebels are after him. Ghaddafi is hiding in a disused school in Sirte while havoc reigns outside. The dictator is surrounded by a small team of soldiers who bring him news from the outside. Khadra uses these soldiers to inform Ghaddafi of what people think of him as a ruler. Their answers often spark irrational anger in him, especially when he feels that his soldiers are not grateful enough, not completely sincere or excessively deferential. He is the “Brotherly Guide,” the one chosen to lead his people, after all. Gaddafi was once synonymous with Libya and now Libyans have turned their backs on him.
The officers who come and speak to him, on the other hand, show the utmost reverence and worship him like God made flesh. And yet they fear his reactions like nothing else: You will see them tiptoe around their dictator. Despite all efforts, many of them are dismissed unjustly by the unforgiving ruler.
The wait for news from the outside allows the Colonel to pray and read the Qur’an, but also to look into his own past through a series of flashbacks. The Colonel was once a young and ambitious soldier, a self-made man who worked hard and believed that his craftiness would take him far. As the book shows, life seems gradually to fail him: He is heartbroken when the father of his beloved refuses to give her away because of their social-class differences; he is outraged when his superiors do their best to prevent him from receiving a well-deserved promotion; he feels betrayed by his own uncle who lied about his illegitimacy. All these events are brought together to show that Ghaddafi is a complex figure, not just a caricature, as he was often depicted in the media.
The Colonel knows that his days are numbered. He is vulnerable and has fallen back on the idea that while they can physically annihilate him, they can’t do the same to his soul. He wants to be remembered as the ruler who, like a Mao or a Nasser, freed his people from oppression. He says “I am Muammar Ghaddafi, mythology made flesh.”
If, at a first glance, you feel aversion towards this exalted arrogant man, the tone subsides as you get to know him. He will surprise you by his ability to adapt to extreme living conditions. He has not forgotten his simple origins. “[…] I am a Bedouin, Lord of the meek and the meekest of lords.” Then he justifies his extravagances: “If I have lived in splendour it has been only in order to disdain it.” Ghaddafi tries to harmonize all the contrasting facets of his being which this book succeeds in representing. And still, the idea of hiding in a drainage pipe really bothers him. But God, he says, spares him from being tortured: a bullet saves him from spending the rest of his days as a prisoner.
Despite the differing versions of the real Col. Ghaddafi’s death, Yasmina Khadra prefers to overlook “the who and the how” and concentrates, instead, on the ruler’s last thoughts, which represents some of the crudest and, at the same time, most poetic pages. Ghaddafi surrenders himself to his fate stoically. At the point of death, Ghaddafi’s mother appears for the first time and stretches her hand towards him. The image of Vincent Van Gogh, which has haunted Ghaddafi throughout his life, comes back one last time in the book to finally make sense to the ruler, when it is too late.
One of the merits of this intense story is that it leaves the reader with many questions. One of them is whether Yasmina Khadra is trying to make sense of things, making Gaddafi into a product of circumstances. But then, is he justifying him, or is he simply offering an alternative picture of the dictator? After all, the author has often accused the West of looking at the Arab world through biased lenses.
It is very true that so much has been said of Ghaddafi as an international figure, but what Yasmina Khadra is trying to do is portray the ruler as a human being, stripped to his basics, away from the trappings of power and facing his own mortality. Here is a man looking for approval amongst his subordinates, a man eaten up by paranoia, who has seen the closest betray him. He looks for sincerity in the simple soldier who is forced to report to him. A contradiction in terms. The man who claims to be God reads the Qur’an, fasts, prays and yet, at the same time, he takes drugs, has prostitutes, he does not show a hint of mercy or forgiveness or understanding towards others. He is self-centered and cares for none, except for his son Mutassim, who he loves dearly. He is such a living contradiction that you literally forget that you are reading fiction. And once you manage to remind yourself that the character in this book is Yasmina Khadra’s creation, inspired by history as it may be, you will still be left with the need to reassess your own prejudices and ponder on the nature of power, corruption, tyranny, charisma, and human frailty even in monsters such as Ghaddafi.
The book has received mixed reactions. Writer and journalist Robert Yassin-Kassab has seen some comical elements in the depiction of this fictional character and he also stated that Gaddafi’s personality was so “colourful that it begged to be made in to fiction” (In The Guardian). On the other hand, writer and translator André Naffis-Sahely criticised Khadra for using a style full of clichés and has gone so far as to state that “Khadra’s writing fails to exploit the premise and produce anything more than a superficial, psychotic rant” (In The New Statesman).
Perhaps one aspect that has been overlooked by literary critiques is that the real Ghaddafi was the first to create an image of himself that was built on clichés; he projected it repeatedly on himself and onto others over decades. Ghaddafi built a Bedouin tent in Rome and other European cities and surrounded himself with female Amazonian bodyguards. Only someone who ended up confusing his real self with his invented image could have done such a thing! This is nothing new to mankind: Those personalities who are surrounded by sycophants have often come to believe in their own myth. This is probably why the protagonist, in a moment of disorientation, questions why his life is ending in such a way.
This confusion between the real Ghaddafi, the myth of Ghaddafi, and now the fictional Ghaddafi is at the root of the disagreements expressed on this book, which make it only more intriguing and compelling to the reader, who can only find his own stance after having read it.
Valentina Viene is a translator from Arabic into English and Italian and a literary scout focusing on contemporary Arabic literature. A graduate of the Orientale, Naples, she has translated a number of Arab authors and her articles have appeared in Italian academic journals and blogs. She has lived in and around the MENA region for several years.