Thomas Sutcliffe: Will Saddam's life be played out on stage?

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The Independent Online

How long will it be, I wonder, before Saddam takes his bow on stage? Perhaps some assiduous writer is already at work now, penning the death cell monologue for this year's Edinburgh Fringe or working on the first draft of a screenplay. If The Last King of Scotland, Kevin McDonald's film about another murderous thug, Idi Amin, proves to have box office legs after it opens this week (or picks up an Oscar nomination for Forest Whitaker ) then it might not be a bad time to pitch Baathtime: The Saddam Hussein Story. And when such projects eventually appear we will no doubt have a minor fuss over the ethics of Saddam's representation. But however Saddam's post-humous career goes I doubt he will ever threaten the continuing supremacy of taboo achieved by Adolf Hitler - still able to stir unease in all his fictional appearances.

He's going to have quite a busy month, Hitler, on the bookings front. First of all he's got to appear in Mein Fuehrer: The Truly Truest Truth About Adolf Hitler, a comedy film which opens later this week in Germany - and which imagines him being coached by a Jewish actor to deliver a morale-rousing speech to the German people. Spotting his opportunity the actor puts him through a series of spurious acting exercises, which lead at one point to the Fuhrer being mounted by his Alsatian dog Blondi. Before the month is out he's also slated for a headlining appearance in Norman Mailer's long-awaited new novel, The Castle in the Forest - a work which imagines a battle between Satan and God for the possession of Adolf's soul. Both - in their different ways - propose the notion that some timely therapy might have saved us the Second World War and six million Jews from the gas chamber.

And if that sentence made you wince a little by its reductiveness, then you've got the core of the problem with Hitler as a fictional actor. The crime was so great that reductiveness of any kind is impermissible, and reducing its perpetrator to a human being is very tricky too. Such a reduction, though, is all that a novel or a film has up its sleeve with which to trump history and myth. Those who take on Hitler as a subject soon encounter the catch-22 of Hitler Fiction - if it's any good as art it has to humanise him, and if it humanises him then can it really be any good - all questions of art aside? Asked about the issue a few years ago the American writer Cynthia Ozick put it this way: "When you imaginatively recreate someone the whole complexity of the human being comes into play. Almost inevitably you're going to show a human side. We do know that Hitler loved his dogs, but I don't care if Hitler loved his dogs. Better he had been bitten by one and died."

Hitler didn't much care for novels ("That kind of reading annoys me," he's quoted as saying in his Table Talk). Indeed he didn't care much for any kind of reading that required the reader's submission. In Mein Kampf he mocked cover-to-cover completists: "They lack the art of sifting what is valuable for them in a book from that which is without value ... For reading is no end in itself, but a means to an end". The pathological utilitarianism is telling, but it also pins down the essential injustice we feel when Hitler is fully imagined. If the work is any good an empathy is extended to him that he never extended to others. And if it isn't any good, why bother?

Chapmans bring back memories

I went to see the Chapman Brothers retrospective at Tate Liverpool last week and was struck by the way in which great chunks of their aesthetic DNA had been excluded from the essays about their work. There was lots about Bataille and Deleuze and Bakhtin and influences such as the artists Paul McCarthy, Robert Rauschenberg and, of course, Goya. But not a mention of the commercial enterprises that exist to satisfy all teenagers' appetite for the gross and the morbid. Looking at Great Deeds against the Dead, left, I was reminded - not just of the original Goya etching on which it's based - but the horror-comic construction kits that were popular when I was young. Is Bataille really a bigger influence - or just a good post-rationalisation?

* In an intriguing article in the New York Times, the American novelist Richard Powers enthuses about the speech recognition software which allows him to dictate his works into a word processor. Strictly speaking, he hasn't written a book for years - he's spoken them, a method which, he reminds us, was also employed by Henry James and James Joyce, though in their case with a human amanuensis. "You'd be hard-pressed to invent a greater barrier to cognitive flow," he says of the keyboard. Don't barriers have some uses though? Powers' piece suddenly puts into perspective the arduous experience of reading his massive novel, The Time of Our Singing. At the time I'd put its prolix style and sheer florid excess down to a careful calculation of style. But maybe it's just the work of a man who's learnt to love the sound of his own voice.