The Infernal Library is a book with an excellent premise and middling execution. Daniel Kalder offers readers a tour of various entries in the canon of “dictator literature,” that is, written works produced by various despots of the twentieth and twenty-first century. We hear from Lenin, Stalin, Mussolini, Hitler, Mao, and a coterie of lesser known or more recent entries in the dictatorial canon. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Kalder notes that beyond being ethically pernicious, many of their works are dry, lengthy, and poorly composed.
The pitch here is a solid one: what if we took a close look at these many books penned by powerful, authoritarian figures? We could learn something about their psychology, the relation of the written word to dictatorial power, and have some laughs at their terrible prose along the way. The novelty of the premise alone goes a long way toward sustaining interest in the book, but Kalder struggles to make good on the strength of that premise.
There are three basic components to the book – history, literary analysis, and comedy – and the execution of each is spotty. Much of the book consists of truncated biographies of the despots being discussed, with an appropriate focus on their literary output. As Kalder covers about two dozen dictators in about 350 pages, these biographical elements cannot be comprehensive, all that should be expected is that he provide the requisite context for discussing their texts. Yet, it is arguable whether he accomplishes this. There is too much focus on events unrelated to the texts, and he does not go into detail in the right places.
Finding the right balance when it came to presenting the history surrounding these texts would have been one of the harder things to accomplish though. Missing the mark is then forgivable. So, what about the literary analysis Kalder provides of the works themselves? This is where the book is the most disappointing. Kalder does not bring much in the way of literary criticism to bear on the dictatorial canon. He observes that certain of the books are long and dry, others are surprisingly well-written, and he summarizes their contents. The criticism never goes too far beyond providing historical context, applying adjectives, and describing the gist of the work. This is disappointing because I had hoped that a tour of these “catastrophes of literature” would have something insightful to say about them.
All of this is forgivable if the book is funny. Kalder’s approach to the works is irreverent, and you’re never going to feel bad laughing at a dictator. If it’s open season on anyone it’s presumably the people who’ve inflicted the some of the most suffering in recent history. Given that these were books people were coerced into revering an irreverent approach is an appropriate one. Kalder’s primary comedic approach is a kind of detached, above-it-all sarcasm. This works best in the latter portion of the book, as the dictators become more cartoonish and thus lower hanging fruit for jokes. Earlier on, it sometimes grates.
I did enjoy this book, and it does come recommended if the premise sounds interesting. The idea of examining so-called dictator literature is a good one, even if I came into the book hoping for something else in the execution.