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Book Review September 4, 2003
Smut for the Pious
By John Dolan Browse author Email

The idea for this book was so good you wouldn't think anybody could mess it up: go around the world interviewing fallen dictators like Idi Amin and Jean-Bedel Bokassa to see what they have to say now that their word is no longer law.

"Talk of the Devil: Encounters with Seven Dictators" by Riccardo Orizio. Walker & Company 2003

"Talk of the Devil: Encounters with Seven Dictators" by Riccardo Orizio. Walker & Company 2003

The wire services always describe these people as "living in disgrace" in exile. Nobody's actually gone and talked to them to find out if they feel "disgrace" or not. It's the juiciest material anyone could want, and Riccardo Orizio has set it up in a clear, simple structure: seven ex-tyrants get a chapter apiece.

The quality of despot varies wildly, from superstars like Amin and Bokassa to the drab military bureaucrat Wojciech Jaruzelski, who was to tyranny what Ivan Lendl was to tennis. Filling out the list is the big ass of Jean-Claude Duvalier, soft son of a terrifying father. Then there's Nexhmije, widow of Enver Hoxha, and Mengistu Haile-Mariam. It's not the optimal menu, but it contains enough gore, wit and cunning to make a dozen great books.

Amin in particular was an extraordinary talent. He will be remembered as one of the major figures in late-twentieth-century art and ideology. This was the man who had himself carried in a sedan chair by four expat British businessmen. (If Yeltsin had just had the sense to bribe four broad-shouldered Ernst & Young accountants to carry him into the Kremlin, the Church would be canonizing him now.)

Amin's verbal gifts matched his dramaturgy; he had himself announced as "Lord of all the fishes in the sea and all the beasts of the earth and conqueror of the British Empire in Africa" and once sent a note to Queen Elizabeth II asking if he should bring his own food for a state visit, because he had heard there was famine in Britain. Amin was also a genuinely talented heavyweight boxer, several times Ugandan champion, who took on and beat, a la Commodius, all the Ugandan contenders for Olympic heavyweight boxing. And he did his killing with real flair, cultivating a reputation for feeding those who displeased him to the crocs, or serving filet of Dissident at state dinners. (Ever the comic aesthete, he claimed that human flesh was overrated -- "too salty.")

Amin deserves all the press he's gotten and more. It's a damn shame, the way a million grad students are lionizing that overrated ham Oscar Wilde and ignoring Amin, a much funnier man, who lionized people in a very real sense

People have no taste. And that's what the problem with this book is: no taste. Not salty enough by a long shot. Orizio is an Italian Christian -- whatever that is -- and in the Christian manner, he does his best to turn comic gore into pious claptrap. Luckily, he can't quite ruin material this good. When Orizio quotes Amin or Bokassa directly, the book is delightful, but his commentaries are flat, sanctimonious and dimwitted. Worst of all is the disgusting hypocrisy with which Orizio writes. He's a liar who glories in gore and decadence but won't admit it, insisting that he only wallows in these scenes because they teach us moral lessons.

And God, what dull lessons they are. Here's a typical insight into the complex problem of historical responsibility, as seen by Riccardo Orizio: "The fallen dictators, it would seem, are not the cause of all the ills that befell their countries, but only of some." Got that? Some, not all. Clears things right up, doesn't it.

Worst of all is Orizio's take on the old drivel that mass murderers are people just like us. Orizio quotes Ian McKellar, the hack who played Gandalf: "...people who do terrible things...are all too human." Thank you, Sir Ian. Orizio passes on his own epiphany derived from interviews with Amin and Bokassa: "Both impressed me as being sane and insane at one and the same time." Sane yet insane, all too human except bloodier...does that all sound familiar?

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