Of Tyrants and Trillions, Part I

by Theodore Dalrymple (August 2015)

Tyranny is quite wrong, of course, on that we are all agreed, but neither can anyone deny that tyrants fascinate us. Indeed, where would Latin American literature have been without them? The most famous book of only the second Latin American author to win the Nobel Prize, Miguel Ángel Asturias, was El Señor Presidente, a denunciation in fiction of the Guatemalan dictator Cabrera. Gabriel García Márquez, another winner of the Nobel Prize, wrote The Autumn of the Patriarch, whose protagonist exhibited features of both Rojas Pinilla of Colombia and Goméz of Venezuela. A third winner of the Nobel Prize, Mario Vargas Llosa, wrote a novel, La fiesta del chivo, about the assassinated dictator of the Dominican Republic, Trujillo. And by far the most famous book by the eminent Paraguayan writer, Roa Bastos, was Yo, el Supremo, about the early nineteenth century Paraguayan dictator, Dr José Gaspar Rodríguez de Francia, who remains perhaps the most interesting of the many interesting Latin American despots, for whom Thomas Carlyle was something of an apologist. Many are the stories told of Latin American dictators, no doubt some of them apocryphal but all of them nonetheless believable, which no doubt says something about the region’s political culture. Two of my favourites concern Justo Rufino Barrios of Guatemala, who was once allegedly seen to take a copy of the Guatemalan constitution, fold it in four, put it on a chair and sit on it, and General Mariano Melgarejo of Bolivia, who said ‘I am going to rule in Bolivia as long as I like, and I’ll hang anyone who disagrees from the nearest tree.’ He was also reputed to have marched his troops over the balcony of the presidential palace to demonstrate their loyalty to him to a visiting dignitary. When Prussia invaded France in 1870, he wanted to send the Bolivian army to help France, dispatching it (as he thought) overland across the Atlantic. As this suggests, good anecdotes do not necessarily mean good governance.

If revenge is a dish best eaten cold, tyranny is a phenomenon best enjoyed from a distance. The other day I was walking in a district of London best known for its low pleasures and its second-hand bookshops (the former in the ascent and the latter in decline) when I passed a shop that specialised in the sale of banknotes: not foreign exchange, but banknotes as objects of interest in themselves.

I have always liked banknotes, finding them both fascinating and (often) beautiful. In the window of the shop was a little collection, not very expensive, called The Tyrant Collection. The tyrants portrayed on banknotes were—in no particular order of ferocity—Idi Amin of Uganda, Mao of China, Saddam Hussein of Iraq, the Ayatollah Khomeini of Iran, Kim Il Sung of North Korea, and Separmurat Niyazov of Turkmenistan. I couldn’t resist: I entered the shop.

Of course, there are serious and learned collectors of banknotes, just as there are serious and learned bibliophiles, numismatists and philatelists, and no doubt the owners of the shop preferred to deal with serious customers rather than with ignorant casual ones such as I: for no one could run such a shop without being impassioned by its stock-in-trade, or by being motivated only by the desire to make money (no pun intended). Rather sheepishly, therefore, I asked for the Tyrant Collection, fearing to reveal thereby the frivolity of my custom.

The gentleman at the counter turned to a woman behind him (I forget her name, but will make up one for her) and said, ‘Jane, pass me a Tyrant.’ There were little packs of these banknotes already made up, and she duly passed him a Tyrant.

‘Anything else?’ he asked.

There was: I had seen in the window also the last banknote struck before the downfall of Colonel Gaddafi, of a rather handsome blue design, with the smiling colonel himself with what appears like a very large bath towel wrapped around his head (the colonel made up his folkloric costumes as he went along). It was slightly more expensive, but I thought it would go very well with the Tyrant which, oddly enough, was somewhat lacking in blue as a colour.

After I left the shop, the words ‘Pass me a Tyrant’ remained in my mind. Somehow they seemed to me a concise and elegant way of expressing the absurdity and transience of power and its pretensions. The characters portrayed on the banknotes once made millions tremble at their command, and even the mere utterance of their name must have caused millions of hearts skip a beat in fear: and yet, only a relatively short time after their deaths, these self-appointed deciders of millions of destinies were mockingly consigned to a collective appellation. I thought of Shelley’s great poem on this theme:

I met a traveller from an antique land

Who said: “Two vast and trunkless legs of stone

Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,

Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,

And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,

Tell that its sculptor well those passions read

Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,

The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed:

And on the pedestal these words appear:

‘My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:

Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!’

Nothing beside remains. Round the decay

Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare

The lone and level sands stretch far away.

One should always remember, I suppose, that this Olympian detachment, this ironic view of the matter, is not possible for those unfortunate enough to have lived through tyrannies of the thoroughness of Niyazof or Kim Il Sung; and also that it is not only the pretensions of tyranny that will suffer the fate of Ozymandias, but all the things that we non-tyrants think are important.

Be that as it may, I was happy with my tyrants and bore them triumphantly home. Then I had the happy idea of having them framed, one on top of the other in gradually increasing size, and took them the following day to the local framer. He was delighted with them too, in fact he cooed with delight. Mostly he has to frame banal wedding photographs or the like, and so an original commission pleased him enormously. In fact he was so taken with my tyrants that he asked me whether, when next I was in London, I could buy him some as a present for his brother, a man who had everything (except for Tyrants). I said that I would.

We spent a few happy moments, the framer and I, choosing the right mount and frame for the tyrants, and a few days later I received a text message: ‘Tyrants ready for collection.’ When I returned to his shop, he was still smiling irrepressibly. I must say that the tyrants looked extremely fine in their frame with a black mount and a slender gilt lining to the frame: a gradient from the smallest of the notes at the top to the largest at the bottom, all most tastefully shaded as to colour. The framer was proud of his handiwork, as well he might be.

At the top was Mao, dressed in his pseudo-proletarian jacket expressly designed to give the impression of humility and equality with the humblest of his fellow countrymen, though he was in fact as unbridled in the satisfaction of his appetites as any divine-right monarch of Louis XIV’s time: and, of course, with infinitely less refinement and taste. It is given to modern tyrannies to build sometimes on a gigantic scale but to leave nothing behind of any aesthetic value, things worthy only of demolition.

Below Mao comes Idi Amin, all in a kind of faeculent brown. He wears the uniform of a British senior officer, a general at least (he pronounced himself a Field Marshal). His entirely British uniform is symbolic of his ambivalent relationship to the formerly colonising power and its culture. On the one hand he was humiliated by the subordinate and even lowly status it accorded him and would have continued to accord him had the colonial regime remained. On the other hand, he admired it and wished to emulate it. He resolved this contradiction by dressing himself up in a uniform that conferred on him one of the highest ranks within its hierarchy, revenging himself on it and taking part in it at the same time.

Then comes Gaddafi, as mentioned already with his strange bath-towel turban. His pose is that of a thinker: the back of one hand supports the elbow of his other arm as he caresses the left side of his face with the palm of the hand, while gazing smilingly but shrewdly. He always wanted to be known as a thinker, of course and hoped that his own book, The Green Book, would rival Mao’s Little Red Book in influence. His search, or perhaps thirst would be a better word, for originality led him to dress in bizarre ways never seen before or since, and unique to himself. His desire for originality, however, was in itself a manifestation of the influence of romantic individualism that reached even the backwater of Tripoli.

Below Gaddafi comes Niyazov, whose inner klepto- and megalomaniac was released by the collapse of the Soviet Union. Until then a faithful, dutiful and successful communist, he decided that the future belonged to nationalism. A dictator’s dictator, he decreed after his heart surgery not only that he, but everyone else, should give up smoking, and banned smoking in public places: a policy for which the British Medical Association, spiritual heir to Niyazov, is now actively lobbying.

Then comes the Ayatollah. His banknote is one of the two that does not have a single letter or figure in the Latin alphabet or western numeration, the other being that of his sworn enemy, Saddam Hussein. The portrait of the Ayatollah, a good one, shows him peering to his right, his expression not that of a spiritual leaders but of a shrewd, worldly and ruthless man of politics. There is not much in the way of compromise, forgiveness or kindness in that face, never mind spirituality: it is the face of a man who, if he worshipped anything, worshipped himself.

Below him is the only one of the tyrants on whom I personally ever clapped eyes: Kim Il Sung. On this banknote he appears in the Stalino-Mao costume that he then favoured, rather than the light grey western suit with grey shoes (no gentleman wears grey shoes) that he favoured when I saw him. Oddly enough, the Albanian leader, Enver Hoxha, favoured suits of the same cloth as Kim Il Sung’s, and it is a fair bet that they were the only people in their respective countries permitted to wear a suit made of it. The roundel in which Kim Il Sung stares full-face on from the banknote is surrounded by flowers, probably the variety known in North Korea as the Kimilsungia. In North Korea they managed to make even flowers sinister.

Last but not least comes Saddam Hussein. In the background is a mediaeval battle, presumably with Saladin in the lead. The latter, of course, was a Kurd, a nation whom Saddam had a tendency to gas; but one of the first victims of tyranny is irony. That is not to say that no one regrets the demise of the Saddam regime: the Christians of Iraq, for example. It is a tribute to the infinite ingenuity of Man that the downfall of a monstrous government can result in a worse life for quite large numbers of people.

Saddam has something in common with Idi Amin: the uniform that he wears is of purely British design, down to the general’s flashes on the collar. Who would not be proud of so deep a legacy in so disparate a pair of countries as Iraq and Uganda (both creations of the British, incidentally)? Every time I look on my collection of tyrants, my heart will swell with patriotic pride.

I should have mentioned that, while buying my tyrants, I also bought a Zimbawean banknote of fifty trillion Zimbabwean dollars: that is to say 50,000,000,000,000. I have a small collection too of hyperinflation banknotes, of which more in part II.



Theodore Dalrymple’s latest book is Out Into the Beautiful World from New English Review Press.

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