The Dictator’s Last Night by Yasmina Khadra,
Translated by: Julian Evans
Publisher: Gallic Books
Released: October 2015
Reviewed by Kate Vane
I had such hopes for this novel. I read the news but there’s so much I don’t know about Libya and its former leader, Muammar Gaddafi. I thought this first-person account of the last few hours of his life would give me insights into the politics, economics and culture of the country which he ruled, and the factors that led to his downfall. And Gaddafi, with his vanity and guile and bizarre behavior, would make the ultimate unreliable narrator.
The novel begins with Gaddafi in hiding in a disused building, with just a few loyalists around him, contemplating what he sees as the failure of his allies and the treachery of his people. We are taken through a series of conversations, interspersed with his memories and thoughts on key events in his life, ending with his attempt to flee and his violent death at the hands of a militia.
The structure should make for great drama, so what went wrong? I think the key difficulty is the voice. Of course, any narrative, particularly a first person one, is a device, but it’s not clear who is speaking here. Are we reading Gaddafi’s innermost thoughts? Or is he, even now, trying to live up to his public persona? It’s not quite either. The prose at best is functional and there doesn’t seem to be a fully developed character animating the words.
What we get instead are some clunky exchanges of dialogue, and reminiscences which don’t really take you beyond the headlines.
I didn’t feel I’d got a deeper sense of who Gaddafi was. How did he rise up from nothing? What was his appeal? What drove him?
There is some odd phrasing too. I’m not sure whether this is due to the original or the translation. But who, under any circumstances, never mind when lying in a drain facing imminent death, would muse, “A guide, though entrusted with a messianic mission, when he has official responsibility for a country, does not turn the other cheek”?
The book feels like one of those dramatised reconstructions you get in TV documentaries, where underemployed actors struggle valiantly to give life to chunks of exposition. Disappointing.
Kate Vane writes crime and literary fiction. Her latest novel is Not the End.