‘The Infernal Library’ review: Daniel Kalder surveys literature written by dicatators, from Lenin to Hitler to Kim Jong Il
THE INFERNAL LIBRARY: On Dictators, the Books They Wrote, and Other Catastrophes of Literacy, by Daniel Kalder. Henry Holt, 379 pp., $32.
“The Infernal Library,” Daniel Kalder’s long march through the writings of 20th century tyrants, is mind-numbing and mortifying in equal measure. Starting with Lenin, “the father of dictator literature,” Kalder surveys a mother lode of tracts, treatises, pamphlets, speeches, autobiographies, quotations, even fiction (Saddam Hussein wrote historical romances) from the 20th century’s age of extremes.
Kalder, a British journalist, has sifted through millions of words by Stalin, Mao, Mussolini and Hitler, who, along with Lenin, form “the dictator’s canon.” He also ponders the theories of sundry Communist and fascist rulers, as well as the words of Moammar Gadhafi and Ayatollah Khomeini. Much of it is unreadable junk, hidebound by orthodoxy. The genre ranges from the bad to the sublimely awful (see Hussein, Saddam, “Zabiba and the King”).
Kalder’s task seems to have driven him over the edge — his book brims with vituperation and strident put-downs. But you would be left in a foul humor, too, if you had to wade through Kim Jong Il’s “Our Socialism Centered on the Masses Shall Not Perish,” a mishmash of Stalinist clichés and “self-referential clusters of jargon and grandiose generalities that could be disassembled and reassembled and placed in a different sequence and still hold the same amount of meaning.” (Kim ruled North Korea from 1994 to 2011, and was the father of No. 1 Trump antagonist Kim Jong Un.)
Kalder is dismissive at nearly every turn. But whatever you think of Marxism-Leninism and how it was put into practice around the world, the author is a little too derisive of a figure such as Lenin, whose writings show “the power of a millenarian fantasy to scramble the critical faculties of a brilliant, acutely analytical mind.” This is fair, up to a point. But Kalder considers Lenin little more than an armchair radical who launched a bloodbath with the Russian Revolution. There is sometimes a crudeness to the author’s charges: Not everything Lenin wrote is illegitimate political writing: “The State and Revolution,” for example, is valuable as a historical document.
Still, it takes resolve to maneuver through this nightmare world. Lenin’s successor, Stalin, wrote some decent poetry as a youth, but once in power, whatever literary talent he possessed crumbled under the deforming pressure of enforcing Communist Party orthodoxy and venerating the legacy of Leninism in a “plodding, relentless, great heaping up of rhetoric.” Lenin could dismiss an opponent with a few cutting words; Stalin needed pages.
Few examples of dictator literature have prompted more scrutiny — and dread — than Hitler’s “Mein Kampf.” Started when Hitler was serving a prison sentence in the early 1920s, the book outlines a terrible vision. As a literary artifact it has no merit: Hitler’s facility was for speaking, not writing, and in “ ‘Mein Kampf’ Hitler exposes himself as a posturing autodidact who seems to have no difficulty believing the utmost drivel.”
However meretricious such drivel is, the examples Kalder surveys have a power that is almost confounding. “This is the danger of dictator books,” Kalder cautions. “They hide in plain sight, and their sheer awfulness makes it impossible to believe in their power to infiltrate and transform brains until it is much too late.”
The age of the dictator has not passed, alas, and demagogues are having their day. But Kalder is measured about the prospects of a dictator emerging in our own country. (He doesn’t even mention the T-word.) He thinks it’s unhelpful to invoke a Hitler or Stalin when talking about the possibilities of tyranny in the United States. Still, to the question “It couldn’t happen here?” Kalder rejoins, “Why not? It happened there.”