Blood on his hands, lurve in his heart

By Joan Smith
Sunday 09 March 2003 01:00

You might think that they've got quite enough to do, what with trying to prevent a war and deceive weapons inspectors and all that, but you would be wrong. The Pope and Saddam Hussein have both been scribbling away, and in one of those coincidences that drive publishers to apoplexy, their latest efforts have just appeared in the same week. John Paul II has been taking time out from his day job at the Vatican to write poetry, while Saddam has turned to autobiography. The first volume, Men and the City, proceeds at a leisurely pace, breaking off at the age of 22 and – I hope Washington is aware of this – promising several more volumes to come.

It may be that Saddam has embarked on this new career to give him something to do when he is exiled to a modest four-room bungalow in an unidentified foreign country, but I doubt it. Unlike the Pope, who has been meditating on the subject of his own death, Saddam's new book climaxes with his failed attempt to secure someone else's: his part in the assault on the life of the then Iraqi president, Abdul Karim Qassem, in al-Rashid Street in Baghdad in 1959. Saddam is nothing if not modest because this fiasco, which apparently ended with his being shot in the leg by one of his co-conspirators, also appears on the book's cover and demonstrates that the future mass murderer had a lot to learn.

This is not Saddam's first venture into print, for he is also the author of two hugely acclaimed – in Iraq, at any rate – romantic novels. I don't think Hitler ever attempted the genre but Mussolini did, and was reviewed for his pains by Dorothy Parker. (She didn't like it. Too slushy, I think.) So what is it about fascists and romantic fiction? The answer may be that they are gross sentimentalists with a taste for kitsch, which also accounts for the fact that Saddam's first bodice-ripper was made into a six-hour musical. (Audiences welcomed it as a more sophisticated form of torture than the Butcher of Baghdad usually goes in for.)

I have to say it is something of an irritation, to novelists and biographers, to see tyrants trying to muscle in on our trade like this. I don't go around organising coups, building chemical weapons in my back garden or invading Kuwait when I've finished writing a thousand words in the morning, and I wish they would show me the same courtesy. But it isn't just dictators we have to compete with for reviewers' attention. Plenty of politicians have authorial ambitions, even if they don't have a despotic – or, more importantly, a literary – bone in their bodies. Look at Ann Widdecombe, who has produced a load of old cobblers – sorry, novels – and Edwina Currie, who defied the known rules of fiction and put John Major, of all people, into one of hers. And please, please, don't get me on to the subject of the fiction of Roy Hattersley.

It's not that politicians are necessarily disqualified from being writers. Disraeli was a successful novelist and some 20th-century politicians – notably Roy Jenkins and Michael Foot, both fine biographers – have been very good at it. Indeed it could be argued that they have special insights into their subjects, precisely because they have experienced power themselves. But Saddam is not quietly writing political biography – George Bush, Man of Destiny, by S H al-Tikriti, soon to be available at all good Iraqi bookshops – during the lonely evenings he spends in those vast palaces.

He is currently trying, like our own beloved Prime Minister, to secure his place in history. (Don't do it, Tony! Close that laptop at once!) Saddam also seems to be on a quest to find his inner child, eulogising his mother and describing how she told him stories "while her loving hands played with my hair". (This kind of recollection is fairly common among serial killers, I believe.) So far, like the Pope, he has had respectful reviews, even though he is more retiring than His Holiness and publishes his books anonymously. This means he can sit back and enjoy critics' apparently spontaneous praise ("Spine-tingling. His best so far", Baghdad Review of Books) while dreaming up tearjerking plots for his next novel. He may have blood on his hands, but no one can say there isn't lurve in that old dictator's heart.

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