The week in books
If you admire tender rustic realism in the verse of Thomas Hardy or Edward Thomas, you might enjoy an 1890s poem about "our friend Nininka", once a sturdy countryman who "walked straight on the stubble field/ Wiping the sweat from his face". Now, "His strong shoulders have drooped", as "the old man lay crippled/ Telling stories to his children". Or, if the classical poetry of China appeals, you may relish the painterly grace of "Snow", with its "North country scene:/ A hundred leagues locked in ice,/ A thousand leagues of whirling snow./ Both sides of the Great Wall... The mountains dance like silver snakes/ And the highlands charge like wax-hued elephants/ Vying with heaven in stature."
Between them, the authors of those poems caused the deaths of perhaps 50 million souls. Under his early pseudonym "Soselo", the young Georgian intellectual Josef Dzhugashvili published poetry in the literary reviews of Tbilisi. The man who became "Stalin" forsook his muse soon afterwards; but Mao Zedong went on penning finely- wrought poems through guerrilla warfare and the Long March. Young Stalin could, at his strongest, count as a passable bucolic lyricist. Mao, while no innovator, did much better than that. The same mind can engage in mass-murdering tyranny and a lively interest in literature and other forms of art. And the butchers of the future may show creative promise, or even genuine talent.
Sacha Baron Cohen, the Great Embarrassment himself, pulled the red carpet from under Hollywood's feet at the Oscars on Sunday. His turn as The Dictator - the monster at the heart of his new film - reminded me that its reported source is not so much the life as the "art" of Saddam Hussein. With the assistance of ghost-writers, the Iraqi despot published four heavy-booted allegorical novels. The Dictator, it seems, will draw on Zabibah and the King (2000).
In Saddam's medieval romance, the heroic saviour "Arab" rescues the suffering Zabibah (who represents Iraq) from the clutches of evil rapist Uncle Sam - sorry, her nameless brute of a husband. But Saddam's logic as a fabulist rather deserted him (or his team) when he called the hero's feudal antagonist Nuri Chalabi, who stands for - er, opposition leader Ahmed Chalabi.
Saddam cared enough for the prestige of literature to commission and authorise (if not author) these yarns. Likewise, Stalin and Mao never lost their taste for poetry. Benito Mussolini wrote not only a sympathetic life of the religious reformer Jan Hus but a bodice- ripper romance, The Cardinal's Mistress. As well as the political treatise of his Green Book, the late Muammar Gaddafi also published some short fiction, available as Escape to Hell and other stories.
What should we make of this recurring affinity between absolute power and the dream of authorship? Some critics might see dictatorship as a kind of real-life kitsch or pulp fiction. WH Auden, so often an inspired reader of the will to power, brackets sentimental populism with autocratic cruelty in his 1939 poem "Epitaph on a Tyrant": "Perfection, of a kind, was what he was after,/ And the poetry he invented was easy to understand". But "when he cried the little children died in the streets. …