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The Exquisite Corpse - A Journal of Letters and Life
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The Book of (Demotic) Revelations and (Common-sense) Epiphanies

Deconstructing Saddam
by Lawrence Millman

Saddam Hussein has always considered himself a man of letters first and a dictator second. "I'd like to be remembered for my novels rather than the number of people I've murdered," he remarks in his autobiography With Pen and Scimitar. That the world continues to think of him as the Butcher of Baghdad, so-called, and largely ignores his fiction, is, in his words, "yet another sign of the barbarous age in which we live."
     Yet it would be wrong to see Saddam as an impassioned humanist sage, a sort of latter-day D. H. Lawrence. Nor is he an exemplar of post-modern absurdity, like, for instance, Samuel Beckett. In his autobiography, he describes himself simply as "an old-fashioned literary man for whom Art and Life are inextricably linked." Which is why (he adds) critics of his work have often ended up in the Euphrates with bricks affixed to their feet: "A bad review of one of my books is the same as plunging a dagger into my heart. What recourse do I have but to punish the felon?"
     Composed toward the beginning of his rule, Saddam's early fiction betrays an author struggling to find his own voice. Master and Tyrant, which documents the victories of an Iraqi gunboat during the Napoleonic Wars, could not have been written without the example of Patrick O'Brian's sea stories. In Warm Blood shows the unexpected influence of Truman Capote, although it does have one purely Saddamesque moment--a French chef, an English ornithologist, and an American proctologist, all members of an International Zionist cabal, mistake a vat of boiling oil for their hotel swimming pool, with dire results.
     Like T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound, Saddam is not especially fond of certain minorities. This is nowhere more apparent than in his novel Kurds Away!,which features a scene where the hero, likewise named Saddam, feeds a wild mushroom risotto to a group of Kurds he's invited to dinner. The mushrooms are, of course, poisonous. Saddam later published the recipe for this dish in a magazine.
     The Iraqi strongman (Saddam can bench-press over 400 pounds) has always had a lapidary interest in his craft. In an email to me, he discussed the evolution of the aforementioned dinner scene: in the novel's first draft, he had the Kurds eating Whoppers laced with arsenic, while in the second draft they ate landmines baked in a souffle. It was only in the final draft that he hit upon the infinitely more subtle idea of using mushrooms. "One must never forget that the 'delete' key is a writer's best friend," he told me.
     Operation Desert Storm was, by Saddam's own admission, the turning point in his literary career. Before, as he puts it, "the first Mr. Bush's attempt to purge me without knowing anything about colonic irrigation," his fiction was more or less trapped in a realistic mode; after Desert Storm, he eschewed realism and began to conceive of the world as a vast allegorical battlefield in which good invariably triumphs over the machinations of evil.
     Consider his epic novel Look Homeward, Devils, for example. Set in remote antiquity, it features a benevolent king named Saddam who almost single handedly routs an invading force of foreign "devils" led by a bellicose general, Norman the Black Headed. There are numerous subplots, all of which show the kingin one guise or another: now as a sensitive lover, now as an expert camel repairman, and now as the creator of Hammurabi's Code. The novel concludes with the devils of the title giving the lie to the old saw that you can't go home again.
     Look Homeward, Devils was a remarkable success, at least in Iraq, where it became more or less a prescribed text. In fact, torture or a lengthy prison sentence awaited anyone who refused to buy a copy. When I questioned Saddam about this method of dealing with the reading public, he said, "Well, I feel an author should do everything within his power to improve sales..."
     At one point Saddam asked me whether I could get him on Oprah ("Kurds Away! would be a perfect novel for her book club, don't you think?"). He also asked me if I would find him a U.S. publisher, for he felt that his work deserved more attention than it could get from the admittedly limited resources of his Iraqi publisher. "Mahfouz, Wole Soyinka, Octavio Paz--it's the same with all of us," he said. "We're tired of being big fish in a small pond."
     Given his poor track record with recalcitrant critics, I foresaw a prolonged dunking in the Euphrates for any publisher who told him that one of his books was not right for their list. But he soon had other matters on his mind than finding, and possibly drowning, a publisher: he had to respond to, in his words, "the second Mr. Bush's deficient knowledge of chemistry."
     If (in Auden's view) "Mad Ireland" hurt Yeats into poetry, so too did a perhaps even madder Iraq hurt Saddam, albeit not so much into poetry as into a more radical type of prose. Like the late period Henry James, he dictated his next novel, Get Out of My Country, Dude; unlike James, he did so at gunpoint, and the scribes who took notes at his dictation were told that they had a week to write the novel. Saddam scholars consider Get Out of My Country, Dude its author's most eminently deconstructible text. Indeed, I couldn't help thinking of Derrida while reading it, so I asked Saddam for his opinion of the French master of Deconstruction. "He's a genius, of course," he said, adding: "All of us Iraqis are fans of 'The Big D.'" For the better part of a year, I didn't hear from Saddam, then at last he sent me an email "from a veritable hole in the ground where I am living like a Beckett character." He said his nerves were so frazzled that all he'd written in the last few months was the opening chapter of a personal memoir tentatively titled Tuesdays With Cheney. He concluded the email with the following cri decoeur: "To think, I could have been a Professor of Creative Writing at an American University, with likeminded colleagues, health benefits, and a throng of students laughing at my witticisms..." The rest is history.




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