Talk of the Devil should be required reading for all who now hold power or worship it

Nostalgia - from Greek nostos, return home - is a kind of homesickness. But if Amin, who still plots a return to Kampala, after 23 years of cushioned exile, pines for home, Uganda yet suffers

from the sickness of its brutish homeboy. Ubi sunt - Where are they now? Applied to faded movie stars and arthritic athletes, the question is nostalgic, a wistful reminder of the brevity of glory and the fickleness of fame. Applied to psychotic former despots, the question arouses thoughts about the arrogance of temporal power and the uncertainty of justice.

Orizio set out to learn what life is like for those who once held an entire nation hostage to their own cruel whims. Fired tyrants are not ordinary retirees. Napoleon at Elba was not exactly a cashiered accountant golfing into the dusk at Sun City. Orizio found seven former dictators willing to speak for publication, and a few who were not. Valentine Strasser, who seized power in Sierra Leone at 26 and lost it five years later, was homeless and penniless in London when Orizio spoke with him off the record. Writing from a Florida prison, a caged Panamanian strongman declined an interview, "because God, the great Creator of the universe, He who writes straight albeit with occasionally crooked lines, has not yet written the last word on MANUEL A. NORIEGA!"

Orizio got inside a cell, in Tirana, to interview Nexhmije Hoxha, who with her husband, Enver, looted and terrorized Albania for almost 50 years. "I'm innocent," she tells him. "They are mistaken. I wanted nothing but the well-being of my country." When officials in the current regime found out about his visit with Hoxha, Orizio found himself assigned his own prison cell, and then spirited out of Albania.

Like Hoxha, Mengistu Haile-Mariam, the Ethiopian colonel responsible, during the Red Terror of 1977-78, for 500,000 deaths, claims to be misunderstood. Sheltered in Harare as long as his benefactor, Robert Mugabe, clings to power in Zimbabwe, Mengistu insists: "I did what I did because my country had to be saved from tribalism and feudalism." A similar rationalization is echoed by 78-year-old Wojciech Jaruzelski, Poland's last Communist leader. Now a private citizen in Warsaw, he escaped punishment for ordering troops to fire on demonstrators in Gdansk and Gdynia in 1970 and for excesses of martial law he imposed in 1980. Blaming the demands of realpolitik, Jaruzelski declares: "Ask yourself what you would have done if you were in my shoes. No, in my military boots." Serving six-and-a-half years for ordering border guards to shoot fleeing refugees, Egon Krenz, the last Communist ruler of East Germany, contends: "Anyone in my position would have done the same."

Talk of the Devil is a printed freak show, a spectacle of the mighty brought low - most not low enough. It is a reminder that atrocities are perpetrated not by supernatural

TALK OF THE DEVIL: Encounters with Seven Dictators
By Riccardo Orizio
Translated by Avril Bardoni
Walker & Company
$22, 200 pages
ISBN: 0802714161
ogres but human mediocrities. Yet to accept their self-serving cant that anyone would have acted as they did is to make a mockery of morality. In Jaruzelski's military boots, I would not have gotten kicks out of killing fellow Poles. "God has absolved me. The people of Central Africa have absolved me, too," claims Jean-Bedel Bokassa, who massacred children protesting school uniforms he required them to buy. Readers will find nothing to mitigate his crimes, except continuing insanity.

Orizio's quest takes him to a Belgrade villa, where Mira Marcovic, wife of imprisoned Slobodan Milosevic, denies all Serbian atrocities: "Mass graves? An invention." He meets Jean-Claude Duvalier in a Paris cafe; once president-for-life of Haiti, "Baby Doc" now spends his life in France studying solar panels. A panel that included Cambodia's Pol Pot, Peru's Alberto Fujimori, Argentina's Leopoldo Galtieri, Congo's Mobutu Sese Seko, Paraguay's Alfredo Stroessner, Indonesia's Suharto, and Chile's Augusto Pinochet might have subbed for the seven ethical dwarves whom Orizio stalked. Talk of the Devil should be required reading for all who now hold power or worship it. •

Scroll to read more Arts Stories & Interviews articles
Join the San Antonio Current Press Club

Local journalism is information. Information is power. And we believe everyone deserves access to accurate independent coverage of their community and state.
Help us keep this coverage going with a one-time donation or an ongoing membership pledge.


Join SA Current Newsletters

Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.