The Tyrant's Novel, by Thomas Keneally

Life under the great dictator

Ian Thomson
Friday 05 March 2004 01:00 GMT

Thomas Keneally's 26th work of fiction, The Tyrant's Novel, is set in a Middle Eastern republic clearly intended to represent Saddam Hussein's Iraq. A moustachioed dictator known as Great Uncle has plundered the state coffers and put his numerous family in power. He likes to be photographed holding an AK-47, and has built 20 palaces for himself. At first glance, this slender novel seems to be in narrative disarray, the plot moving backwards and forwards. To forestall confusion over Muslim-sounding names, Keneally has chosen to give his Arabic characters Anglo-Saxon ones.

The Tyrant's Novel quickly gets under way, however, and focuses on the dictator's scheme to force an eminent Middle Eastern author, Alan Sheriff, into ghost-writing a work of fiction that will glorify the dictatorship. Sheriff is given 30 days to complete the task and begins to drink heavily under the pressure. The moral consequences of his collaboration with Great Uncle are dire. Sheriff is required to mask the truth and contrive a work of low propaganda. Desperate for international approval, Great Uncle wants his novel to impress liberal New York literary circles. Sucked into the dictator's corrupting influence, Sheriff contemplates suicide.

Keneally's best known novel, Schindler's Ark, had also investigated the compromise of political allegiances under dictatorship. Great Uncle's regime does not sanctify its victims; rather, it converts them to its methods. This is the terrible truth at the heart of The Tyrant's Novel. Sheriff, a good man degraded into collaboration, finds that his novel will not proceed fast enough.

Sheriff's turmoil has another cause: his wife Sarah, a TV actress, has died recently, leaving him bereft and directionless. After much soul-searching, Sheriff decides to recover the unfinished novel he had buried with Sarah. The novel is preserved on disk in Sarah's coffin: perhaps it could serve as the framework for the book demanded by Great Uncle?

Having exhumed his work-in-progress, Sheriff sets to work on Great Uncle's novel with renewed confidence, and swiftly completes it. The dictator declares himself delighted, and Sheriff is gratefully reprieved. However, his self-disgust is such that he determines to flee the country. He stows away on board a ship and is detained in a refugee camp in Keneally's native Australia. Sheriff, once a great Arabic novelist, has become a wretchedly disaffected asylum-seeker.

With its blend of invention and documentary sources, The Tyrant's Novel is clearly influenced by the Latin American "dictator novel". Like Saddam, Great Uncle is a dictator in the megalomaniac tradition of Tamburlaine, a baroque composite of Vargas Llosa's Trujillo and a tinpot Caesar from Marquez.

Keneally's narrative, fortified by flashes of acerbic humour, exudes sympathy for the Arabic oppressed as well as a rage at the West's apparent maltreatment of asylum-seekers. His prose occasionally shows signs of hasty composition (as in the Graham Greenean "I had ceased to believe in the mystery of human affection"). Ultimately, The Tyrant's Novel reads like a preliminary sketch, not the "Orwellian fable" the author claims. Nevertheless, the book lingers in the mind as a forceful essay on the corrupting tendency of power.

Ian Thomson's biography of Primo Levi is published by Vintage

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