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Dictators' memoirs: not known for their happy endings

  • @johnhenrywalsh

Is there a market for Saddam Hussein's autobiography? His eldest daughter Raghad thinks so. Now living in exile in Jordan, she's hawking the handwritten manuscript around publishers. Details of their contents or composition are unknown, but Raghad's lawyer, Haitham Nabil al-Harsh, told an Arab news channel: "These are the only real memoirs Saddam Hussein wrote by hand, and they will be released as soon as we find a publishing house."

It's hard to assess the likelihood of them becoming a bestseller in Baghdad. Locals will no longer feel any need to buy a copy, as they might have felt impelled to buy the four novels Hussein published while in power. He finished the last one, feelingly entitled Begone, Demons the day before the US army invaded. It described a Zionist-Christian conspiracy to destroy Muslims which inspired an Arab invasion of an (unnamed) enemy's land in which two massive towers are knocked down. Unsurprisingly, it was never snapped up by the Iraqi Faber. After Saddam's death, the enterprising Raghad tried to have it published in Jordan, but the government nixed it.

Books about political monsters sell in millions – check out the massive Hitler and Stalin mini-industries. Books by the families or close associates of monsters do less well. When Stalin's daughter Svetlana defected to America in 1967 and planned to publish her memoirs, the Soviet government threatened to bring out an unauthorised "spoiler" version full of untruths.

When Mao's doctor, Li Zhisui, published The Private Life of Chairman Mao in 1994, revealing the great dictator to be a philandering hypocrite with pus-oozing gums, the Chinese authorities banned it and confiscated Li's house.

Books written by monsters themselves seldom get anywhere. Witness the row over the publication of Radovan Karadzic's poetry, the chequered history of Mein Kampf and the wholesale disappearance of Pol Pot's writings.

Publishers tend to dislike war criminals' memoirs because they fear the authors will manipulate truth or stitch themselves into national mythology. And of course they won't be available for signings, readings, radio quiz shows...