Saddam's Career Counselor

Overthrown by your oppressed subjects in a palace coup? Want to talk? Journalist Riccardo Orizio
courtesy of Walker & Company
Riccardo Orizio
Talk of the Devil: Encounters with Seven Dictators
Walker & Company

Is this Saddam's future? Parsing policy papers from musty Soviet archives in a doomed effort to rewrite the history books? Festering with resentment under the suffocating protection of Zimbabwe's strongman Robert Mugabe? Or could Iraq's Most Wanted (the Ace of Spades) land instead in friendly Saudi Arabia, where he might be spotted at fifth-tier hotels taking his daily tea, at boxing gyms cheering on club fighters, or at the customs area of the airport, overseeing the import of delicacies from his homeland while shipping arms to his clan? Such are the fates of Polish General Wojciech Jaruzelski, Ethiopia's Leninist dictator Mengistu Haile-Mariam, and Uganda's clownish cannibal Idi Amin Dada when we meet them in Talk of the Devil: Encounters with Seven Dictators. Mr. Hussein--presuming American bombs haven't sent him off for a dirt nap--might take comfort from learning that being deposed may be an indignity, but exile means never having to say you're sorry.

Author Riccardo Orizio, an Italian foreign correspondent, has a special affection for history's footnotes; his first book, Lost White Tribes: Journeys Among the Forgotten, tracked down the castaways of colonialism. The pariahs he profiles in Talk of the Devil range from the widely forgotten, like the Central African Republic's Jean-Bedel Bokassa, to the half-remembered, such as Haiti's Jean-Claude Duvalier, to those currently under investigation, like Serbia's Mira Markovic (better known as Mrs. Milosevic). In between home, office, and prison visits, Orizio runs down his subjects' rap sheets. These are useful and often comic primers, America's attention to global transgressions being a palimpsest. There are crimes against humanity and offenses against good taste: one count of voodoo-related thuggery, two practitioners of cannibalism, a fantastically wasteful $22-million inauguration in the middle of the jungle (replete with Belgian-trained white horses, a crown of 80-carat diamonds, 60 special-order Mercedeses, and 24,000 bottles of Moët et Chandon), a nationwide pyramid-building campaign, a couple of hilariously indecorous letters to English royalty, and a few million political disappearances and state-sponsored murders. If it's hard to believe that the diminished characters we meet were capable of such wrongs--well, they don't believe it either.

The Toreador of Tikrit may well turn to Talk of the Devil for career advice. But readers who are not charter members of the Axis of Evil will probably pick up this book expecting some broader hypothesis on what makes humans evil and what makes evil humans different from the rest of us. They won't find it here. It's not that Orizio, having charmed his way into these "encounters," proceeds to shy away from asking the damning question. Indeed, he cross-examines Jaruzelski's claim that it was the Soviets who pressed martial law upon his country in response to the Solidarity movement. And he probes Duvalier on why he married an upper-caste mulatto if he were such a champion of Haiti's impoverished blacks, and invites "self-criticism" for having brooked the "excesses" of the paramilitary Tontons Macoute. But the answers he collects are evasive, disingenuous, and on the whole, inadequate. The consensus response--as much as there is one--comes from East Germany's last premier, Egon Krenz, who pronounces, "Anyone in my position would have done the same."

Rather than pretend to have an EKG on the heart of darkness, Orizio somewhat wryly lets us know where evil lives these days, how it dresses, and how it whiles away the afternoon. And so we get a glimpse of Idi Amin's satellite TV ("I do not live cut off from the world," the Ugandan giant boasts). We hear Markovic cooing baby talk to her husband over the cell phone while he stands trial for genocide at The Hague. And we find Albania's glowering widow, Nexhmije Hoxha, in prison, still wearing the austere navy skirt, tight bun, and "sensible shoes" of "revolutionaries." ("Not even the Great Leader and his wife had any truck with luxury," Orizio observes.) We want these people to repent or we want them to remain the abstract monsters of our imagination. For their part, they refuse to comply.

Orizio ultimately may not be a moral judge, but he's a canny enough witness to have noticed that few of us are criminals in our own conscience. When public redemption is impossible, Talk of the Devil suggests, we're always willing and able to forgive ourselves.

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