Mark Danner

Portraits in Black: Dictator, Autocrat, Caudillo

Portraits in Black: Dictator, Autocrat, Caudillo

English 190, Spring 2013, Mondays 3-6 pm, Wheeler 305

Mark Danner

Even today, in great swaths of our world, politics revolves around the power of “the Big Man.” Dictator, Supreme Leader, Party Boss, Caudillo: Power is embodied, literally, in the person of one man and emanates from him. In this seminar, we will undertake a study of how autocrats, tyrants and dictators have been depicted and analyzed in literature, from Classical times up to and including that notable contemporary mini-genre of magical realism, the Latin American “dictator novel.” We will seek to assess how personalized political power works, how it originates and evolves, and how writers in widely diverse literary cultures have sought to understand and depict it. Our inquiry will range through history and across national traditions, from Suetonius’, Plutarch’s and Graves’ early Caesars to Mantel’s Henry VIII, from Yourcenar’s Hadrian to Asturias’ el Señor President, from Vargas Llosas’ Trujillo to Kapu?ci?ski’s Haile Selassie. We will be reading, among others, works by Asturias, Fuentes, Graves, Lourie, Mahfouz, Mantel, Kapu?ci?ski, Garcí­a Márquez, Sarmiento, Serge, Valle-Inclán, Vargas Llosa and Yourcenar – and, perhaps, a bit of non-fiction as well.



Main Class Requirements and Grades: This is a seminar — a discussion class – which means the success of the class depends on student participation. Faithful attendance and thorough preparation are paramount. The most important requirements are that students:

  • Attend all class sessions
  • Participate in discussions
  • Do all reading, writing and presentation assignments

A student’s record of attendance and participation in class discussion, together with the thoroughness of his or her preparation as evidenced in class, will determine the success of our class and, together with the final paper, contribute the better part of the grade.

Schedule: All classes will begin promptly on Mondays at 3:10pm and conclude at 6:00. Note that we will not be meeting on February 5 or February 18.

Reading: This seminar is about both history and the here and now. Dictators, “strong men,” caudillos will likely always be with us, and we see unfolding before us the struggle against them — in Syria, most prominently — as well as the power of their legacies — in Egypt, for example, where Mubarak’s great shadow looms over the nascent democratic political scene. These contemporary struggles about personal political power will form the background to our seminar, which means one requirement of the course is to keep up with current news about foreign affairs by reading the New York TimesWashington Post and other current news sources; The Economist and Newsweek are also recommended, as is regular viewing of CNN and Al Jazeera. When you find articles or reports you find of particular interest, we encourage you to distribute them via the class email list to your colleagues.

Our primary reading will be drawn largely from a baker’s dozen of novels, which are listed below. I strongly urge you to obtain these books in your own copies, either from the Cal bookstore, where they are on order, from online suppliers, or from local used bookstores, so that you will be able to highlight and annotate them. Wherever you obtain them, it is important that you read the books in the editions listed in the full syllabus below.

Ryszard Kapu?ci?ski, The Emperor

Richard Lourie, The Autobiography of Joseph Stalin

Bruce Bueno de Mesquita & Alastair Smith, The Dictator’s Handbook

Victor Serge, The Case of Comrade Tulayev

Naguib Mahfouz, Akhenaten: Dweller in Truth

Robert Graves, I, Claudius

Hilary Mantel, Bring up the Bodies

Marguerite Yourcenar, Memoirs of Hadrian

Ramón del Valle-Inclán, Tyrant Banderas

Miguel Angel Asturias, The President

Gabriel Garcí­a Márquez, The Autumn of the Patriarch

Mario Vargas Llosa, The Feast of the Goat

Class Presentation: Students will undertake one class presentation and one final paper. The class presentation will be a ten-minute discussion of “My Favorite Dictator”: each student will chose a dictator, contemporary or historical, and offer a description and analysis of that figure. I will discuss details in class.

Final Paper: Each student will submit a final research paper of twenty pages, taking up the subject of dictatorship and political power as treated in literature. A short paragraph of three to five sentences setting out the subject of your final paper is due in class on April 15. The final paper is due on April 29. To bolster the clarity and vigor of your English prose, I strongly suggest a close reading of two works: George Orwell’s essay, “Politics and the English Language,” easily found on the internet, and Strunk and White’s little manual, The Elements of Style. 

Office Hours: I will hope to meet with each of you individually during the course of the term. We will make these appointments on an ad hoc basis. I am best reached via email, at My writing, speaking and other information can be found at my website,

Final Syllabus and Class Notes

(Notes by Course Assistant Eva Derzic)

Following is an outline of the course and a summary of the discussions pertaining to the readings.

January 28, 2013: Introduction: Dictators, Autocrats, Tyrants & Personalized Political Power

  • Overview of class requirements.
  • In-Class Reading: Carolyn Forché, “The Colonel”


  • What creates a dictator — personality, actions, political necessity?
  • Problematic terms: 1) dictator 2) autocrat 3) tyrant.
  • Totalitarian government vs. authoritarian government. What is the difference?

February 3, 2013: Ryszard Kapu?ci?skiThe Emperor (Vintage, 1989 [1978]), 176


  • Ryzard Kapu?ci?ski (March 4, 1932 — January 23, 2007):
  • known for his fanatical discipline. A dedicated Communist, but known in the West for strong liberal tendencies in the West
  • 1955: publication of a critical article that “brought to light inhuman working conditions” of Soviet laborers, for which he received the Golden Cross of Merit.
  • Kapu?ci?ski himself called his work “literary reportage” and reportage d’auteur. In the English-speaking world, his genre is sometimes characterised as “magic journalism.”
  •  Historical context of The Emperor:
  • The book emerged in 1960s-70s, an era of global decolonialization. Imperial powers were withdrawing their presence en masse from their colonies, and many new nations and countries were created.
  • Literary frame of The Emperor: Structurally, the book bears some similarities to Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. The present tense narrative is used to build suspense and disclose Kapu?ci?ski’s methods of gathering information, setting the stage for the incorporation of his interviews. It also adopts a classical elegaic tone, as if mourning the “old art of government.”
  • The problem of maintaining power: How does Halei Selassie hold on to power? Through Kapu?ci?ski’s reports, what is the image of the power he holds? How does he establish a base of supporters whose loyalty he can trust?
  • Note the concept of the imperial gaze & creation of subject identity on pg. 15.
  • Questions of interpretation…
  • To what degree is Kapu?ci?ski’s reportage in Ethiopia a reflection of the contemporary political situation in Poland?
  • Controversy:
  • There are several factual discrepancies between Kapu?ci?ski’s reportage and actual events — eg., he did not actually introduce cars and airplanes to Ethiopia.
  • The issue of authenticity regarding the interviews:
  • All the incorporated interviews seem to be written in the same voice.
  • Imperial forms of address, eg. “His Royal Majesty,” do not exist in the Amharic language.

for further study:

February 11, 2013: Richard Lourie, The Autobiography of Joseph Stalin (Da Capo, 2000), 272


  • What was Stalin’s guiding philosophy?
  • Dialectical materialism: Man originates History through active consciousness, derived from Hegel and further developed by Marx and Engels.
  • How did Stalin become Stalin?
  • 4 “steps” of becoming Stalin: 1) Dzugashvili, 2) Koba, 3) Soso, 4) Stalin.
  • Georgian mythology: children born on the 21st of December, the day with the longest night, are supposed to be killed. Stalin was born on December 21st and chooses to interpret it as a sign.
  • Oedipal conflict with father. Zaza’s blood runs through his veins, but Stalin sees his father as a nonentity.
  • Why wasn’t Stalin present at his mother’s funeral?
  • Stalin’s heroes: 1) Genghis Khan, 2) Ivan the Terrible
  • On pg. 33, Stalin writes that he admired Ivan the Terribles “scientific interest in terror,” and that he realizes that “cruelty is the cutting edge of history.” What does he mean by this?
  • Stalin was heavily influenced by his encounter with Darwinism, during which he realized there was no God and thus there was no moral law overruling earthly actions.
  • Mathematical equation: Darwinism + Leninism = Stalinism.
  • Form:
  • Why is the book so disturbing?
  • Relation to Benjamin Franklin’s autobiography.
  • Is Stalin a meglomaniacal mass murderer? Did Lourie’s attempt to put a human face on one of the most evil men in history succeed?
  • Incorporation of real historical facts and documents.
  • Suspense is driven by the Stalin/Trotsky conflict. The overarching fear is that Trotsky will discover “that.”
  • agon: the final struggle. Because the book is rooted deeply in Soviet history, as readers we already know the final outcome.
  • What is Stalin’s conception of power?

for further study:

February 18, 2013: Victor Serge, The Case of Comrade Tulayev (NY Review, 2004    [1967]), 406

Bruce Bueno de Mesquita & Alastair Smith, The Dictator’s Handbook: Introduction 


  • The persona of Victor Serge: the ultimate revolutionary. He was born in Belgium to exiled parents — thus, he was very familiar with poverty and revolutionary idealism.
  • Narrative structure of The Case of Comrade Tulayev: A whodunnit plot, inverted.
  • Why does the book begin with the seemingly ordinary characters Kostia and Romachkin?
  • How does the murder happen, and who is to blame for it? Can it be considered a sort of second hand justice?
  • Where does the suspense come in? As readers, we already know who committed the murder, as well as how it happened.
  • What is the value of a confession in light of brutal Soviet methods of interrogation?
  • What is the truth? Who holds a monopoly on the truth?
  • The characters:
  • How do we see their fall from power? Who holds power in the book?
  • Kondratiev challenges Stalin directly. Why is he the one who lives?
  • What is the portrait of power we receive in The Case of Comrade Tulayev?
  • How does Serge’s portrayal of Stalin differ from Lourie’s? Can we draw any conclusive definition of power by juxtaposing the two different portraits?

Presentation: Tham Schwe [by Gabriel Villarreal]

…for further study:

February 25, 2012: Naguib Mahfouz, Akhenaten: Dweller in Truth (Anchor, 2000), 176


  • Historical context:
  • Akhenaten was published in 1985. Sadat was killed in 1982. Can it be read as a veiled account of the fall of Sadat?
  • Naguib Mahfouz (1911-2006):
  • Mahfouz supported the Camp David Accords. He was also an outspoken supporter of Salman Rushie after Khomeini put a fatwa on him. Above all, he believed in freedom of expression. He was the first Nobel Prize winner of Arabic descent in the realm of literature.
  • On form:
  • Narrative similarities to Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, My Name is Red, and Kapu?ci?ski’s The Emperor…all these stories present their narratives from multiple points of view.
  • The preamble of the book shows us with what intent it was written: to find the truth. This also provides the suspense — as leaders, we are motivated to find the truth.
  • Strategies for reading:
  • Whose past is the book trying to recover? Egypt’s? The narrator’s?
  • Can this be read as a coming of age novel?
  • Steps of Akhenaten’s rise to power: 1) Akhenaten receives the truth, 2) Akhenaten proclaims the truth, 3) Akhenaten attempts to enforce the truth, 4) Akhenaten falls.
  • Where does Akhenaten go wrong? Why does he ultimately abolish all other religions?
  • The problem of choice:
  • People follow Akhenaten while he gives them a choice. When he takes away that choice, they start to rebel and become discontent. Did he move too slowly or too quickly with his abolition of religion?
  • Akhenaten’s rule is seen as a sort of Egyptian golden age and cultural revolution.
  • Amarna
  • What was so different about the art from Akhenaten’s period?
  • Bek’s account of Ahkenaten’s rule: showing everything in its honest form. Truth in art?
  • Hierarchy of Egyptian gods: Amun vs. Aten. How does Amenhotep III exploit this hierarchy to stay in power? How exactly was the legitimacy of Egyptian pharoahs derived from religion?

Presentations: Trujillo [by Claire Stringer] & Josip Broz Tito [by Eva Derzic]

…for further study:

  • Rashoman – 1950 Kurosawa film mirroring narrative technique of Akhenaten.
  • The Amarna Letters – online archive of letters to Akhenaten found at Amarna.

March 4, 2013: Robert Graves, I, Claudius (Vintage, 1989 [1934]), 468

Bruce Bueno de Mesquita & Alastair Smith, The Dictator’s Handbook: Chapter 1


  • Robert Graves (1895-1985):
  • scholar/translator/writer specializing in Classical Greece and Rome, and a novelist.
  • I, Claudius, published in 1934, is one of his most commercially successful works. He later professed a dislike for it, claiming it was only written from financial need and on a strict deadline.
  • Overall form of the book: what structure does the narrative take?
  • Claudius is retrospectively writing the story of his life. Despite it being an autobiography, he spends a lot of the book talking about other people.
  • pg. 112: discussion regarding the proper form for historical treatises. Which of the two does Claudius follow more closely?
  • Links to Akhenaten — both books seem to be inspired by a search for truth. Is it the same type of truth?
  • The three rulers:
  • Augustus — military power, symbol of Rome, deified after death.
  • Tiberius — treason trials.
  • Why does he lose the support of the troops he himself commanded during his rule?
  • Caligula — terror, self-deification & theatricality.
  • Games keep the citizens of Rome satisfied for a while, but drain the treasury.
  • used to be a symbol of hope on the battlefield in Germany and put soldiers in good spirits
  • Why do the Germans side with him in the end?

…how much power do they actually hold in light of Livia’s constantly pulling strings?

  • Livia’s sole aspiration is to hold power and become a goddess. She views republican thought as a disease.
  • Religion and prophecy:
  • Prophecy and religion are frequently used to legitimize rule.
  • Religion can be manipulated to keep people pacified. Upon conquering foreign lands, Romans forced their set of gods upon the indigenous people.
  • Roman imperialist policy: warfare is conducted to expand the borders of the empire for ‘the glory of Rome.’ In doing so, Romans gain access to more raw materials and man power.
  • The problem of the Germans — can they be Romanized?
  • What does Romanization entail? At what speed should this process be conducted?
  • Does failure to pacify the Germanic tribes reflect a failure of rule?
  • Fighting the Germans successfully helps bolster the military prowess of the ruler.
  • The tactic of playing with tribal hatreds among the Germans and having themselves is mentioned, but not really implemented. Why not?
  • Humor & rule:
  • Humor poses a threat to the ruler. Livia composes a few satirical songs when she is angry with Tiberius. Humor is used to take respect away from Cassius, who later rebels.
  • Ruling class in relation to the Roman people: Claudius mentions that although the events he mentions are terrible, on the whole, the empire was competently ruled during the reigns of Augustus and Tiberius.
  • pg. 112 — it is the duty of the imperial class to procreate, so there will be future rulers.

for further study: 

  • I, Claudius – BBC television series based on the Graves’ book.
  • Ridicule – 1996 French film about humor in the imperial court.
  • Claudius the God – Graves’ sequel to I, Claudius.

March 11, 2013: Robert Graves, I, Claudius, revisited.

Bruce Bueno de Mesquita & Alastair Smith, The Dictator’s Handbook: Chapter 2

Suetonius, The Twelve Caesars (selections)


  • Form: the narrative structure is based on the ancient histories of Livy, Tacitus, and Suetonius.
  • There is a clear descent into chaos at the book. Initially, all the dirty and malevolent happenings of the court are hidden. As the book progresses, they become increasingly public and prominent, culminating with the death of Caligula.
  • Concept of the Roman Republic: Claudius, as the narrator, has considerable nostalgia for the ideals of the Roman Republic. The tale takes place at the time of the consolidation of the Roman Empire. The elite class is losing its priviliges and transitioning from being a free class of citizens to being subjects of the emperor.
  • Is the Roman Republic an anachronism?
  • Problems of title: Augustus is reluctant to declare himself “king,” because of the word’s association with the ill-fated Tarquin dynasty. As he amasses power, he is essentially king in everything but name.
  • The riddle of Livia’s motivations: Why does she do what she wants to do? Why does she want to be deified? How does she ensure that her crimes will never be traced back to her?
  • key terms: raison d’etat, pax romana
  • pg. 335-36: “Livia’s safety lay in the remoteness of the agency…”
  • Tiberius: the line between personal and political life
  • Tiberius is desperate to avoid all appearances of tyranny. This leads him to introduce a very insincere mode of speech in the Senate that is later parodied by people like Gaius.
  • pg. 228 – the concept of “ruling well.” For all the chaos in Tiberius’s inner court, Claudius claims that he was a fairly competent matter. He compares the Roman Empire to an apple: in the center, it is rotten; at the peripheries, it is good and sweet. How does this metaphor function? What are its implications on the future?
  • How much can we moralize about the actions of rulers? What defines good rule?
  • Why does Tiberius kill so many people?
  • Caligula: How does he come to power?
  • As a ruler, he seems insane. How does the empire manage to withstand him?

Presentation: Saddam Hussein [by Takanori Masui]

March 18, 2013: Hilary Mantel, Bring up the Bodies (Holt, 2012), 432


  • Overpowering message of the book: nobody rules alone.
  • How does Henry VIII bind people to himself and ensure their loyalty?
  • pg. 176 — Cromwell notes that his “only friend is the king.” What does friendship mean in the context of monarchical England?
  • Henry VIII is the main figure of authority, but he is makes very small appearances in the narrative. Cromwell dominates, via the pronoun “HE.” What effect does this have?
  • Family relations:
  • The relationship between man and wife is supposed to be intimate, but in the context of monarchical England it becomes a public affair. This leads to a disintegration of the division between official and private life.
  • The “rise” of the Boleyn family increases their property, office, and income. Their increase in power comes with a proportional increase in danger as they become increasingly bound to the king. All of the benefits bestowed upon them can be taken away at a moments notice.
  • The position of Master Cromwell: how much power does he wield?
  • As the son of a blacksmith, he comes from the common folk. For this reason, he is constantly insulted by the nobility. How does he perceive his own identity? How did he rise to power?
  • Cromwell is accutely aware of the mortality of the king. How does Henry VIII’s fall from his horse affect him?
  • How much is Cromwell able to manipulate the king?
  • England’s succession crisis: who will succeed Henry VIII? Options: Mary, Elizabeth, Richmond.
  • Risk of factions: The “old families of England” resent Henry VIII’s power (pg. 25). Could this lead to civil war?
  • Divine Right of Kings: Is Henry VIII unable to have a male child because God does not will it?
  • Implications of the political/religious situation in 16th century England on choosing Henry VIII’s successor: Anne Boleyn is not regarded as a legitimate queen by several key European powers.
  • Religion:
  • How does Henry VIII’s break with the Vatican serve to strengthen or complicate his rule?
  • Economic aspects of Henry VIII’s presiding over the monasteries: monasteries conduct a lucrative trade of fake relics.
  • The trial of Anne Boleyn: when is her fate sealed?
  • What is the truth? Does it matter if she was actually guilty if the charges brought against her?
  • Public attitudes towards Anne are overwhelmingly negative.

Presentations: General Pinochet [by Rocco Rivetti] & Adolf Hitler [by Sarah Covington]

for further study:

  • Elizabeth – 1998 film starring Kate Blanchett as Queen Elizabeth.
  • Wolf Hall – Part I of Hilary Mantel’s trilogy.

March 25, 2013: NO CLASS — SPRING BREAK.

April 1, 2013: Marguerite Yourcenar, Memoirs of Hadrian (Farrar Straus, 2005 [1951]), 408


  • Hadrian is known for establishing the borders of the Roman Empire. He built Hadrian’s Wall to mark the borders of the empire. Establishing firm borders for the Roman Empire enabled him to focus on improving the internal conditions of the empire.
  • What should the point of power be? Why does Hadrian crave power?
  • Hadrian is obsessed with questions regarding the soul and immortality. Why?
  • Why does Hadrian fear routine?
  • Hadrian is a humanist. His fundamental goal is to improve the human condition. How does he go about doing this? Is democracy or absolute power more conducive to him reaching his goal?
  • To some extent, Hadrian sees democracy as a sentence of mediocrity. The compromise necessary to maintain a democracy results in nobody ever fulfilling their goals completely.
  • How would Hadrian perceive contemporary society?
  • Antinuous: What about him caused Hadrian to love him so much?

Presentation: Khomeini [by Adonis Voulgaris]

…for further study:

April 8, 2013: Miguel Angel Asturias, Ramón del Valle-Inclán, Tyrant Banderas (New York Review, 2012 [1926]), 200


  • 1926-1980s: self conscious movement in Latin America to depict despots.
  • What makes a genre?
  • Magical realism: genre where magic elements are a natural part in an otherwise mundane, realistic environment. Can this novel be considered proto-magical realist?
  • Narrative framing: The book takes place over a span of three days. What is gained by this compressed time period?
  • Power:
  • What sort of image of power do we get from Tyrant Banderas? Who exactly holds power in the novel?
  • Kid Santos is repeatedly mentioned as being akin to a mummy and having a bald pate. Do we get the sense that he is somehow inhumane, above or below life? We also get the notion that the dictator never sleeps
  • Kid Santos deals with all trouble and opposition by simply executing people. What are the consequences of this?
  • Prevalence of foreign interests:  How are countries such as Spain and Britain depicted in the novel?
  • What event sets off the revolution in the first place?
  • Mention is made that the revolution began when the colonel broke Lupita’s glasses. Is there a sense of fatality from this?
  • Imagery:
  • Perhaps the most powerful image in the book is that of the glutted sharks. This is symbolic of excess.
  • What role do masks play in the novel?
  • How does the Valle-Inclán’s use of occult imagery contribute to the image of Terra Firma as a crazy, dark, impenetrable world?

Presentation: Napoleon III [by Josh Escobar]

April 15, 2013: Miguel Angel Asturias, The President (Waveland Press, 1997 [1946]), 287


  • Miguel Asturias (1899-1974)
  • In 1904, Miguel’s father clashed directly with Cabreras. This led to the family moving to the town of Salama, where Miguel was exposed to a lot of indigenous folklore. The event remained in Miguel’s memory — from an early age he realized the imortance of being in the good favor of a dictator.
  • As a college student, he was a staunch activist. He founded two student organizations, aided in the establishment of the Popular University in 1922, and participated in the revolt that led to the overthrow of the Guatemalan dictator Cabreras.
  • In 1923, Asturias went to Paris to study anthropology. There he met Andre Masson, one of the leaders of the surrealist movement.
  • Manuel Estrada Cabrera (in power 1898-1920)
  •  Guatemalan dictator who forcibly took presidency after the assassination  of Jose Maria Reina. He dominated the country through force and violence, creating an atmosphere of darkness, paranoia, and fear. He is generally thought to be “The President” of Miguel Asturias’s novel.


  • The President is perhaps the most famous dictator novel. The atmosphere of the book is characteristically pervaded by mystery, irrationality, strangeness, and darkness.
  • The book was finished in 1933, but not published until 1948. It did not appear in print in Guatemala until the 1950s. What is the point of writing literature that one knows one cannot publish?
  • Form:
  • Why does the book begin with a murder? Note the similarities to The Case of Comrade Tulayev.
  • Density of description: the book is full of dreams, mythic apparitions, altered states of consciousness, manifestations of the grotesque, and folkloric references. (note images such as the spectre above the cradle and the constant allusions to Satan)
  • The protagonist: Angel Face.
    • He is described as being a devil with an angel’s face (“beautiful as Satan and just as cruel”) — insofar that the woodcutter mistakes him for being an angel. His love interest, Camila, is described as gazing at herself in the mirror as though she saw a devil. How does this affect their relationship?
    • When and how does Angel Face become the enemy in the book?
    • Why and how does he become obsessed with Camila? Is this a moral awakening, or is he upset because he cannot reap the so-called spoils of war?
      • Can his care for her be interpretted as a rebellion against the paternal figure of the president?
      • The image of power:
  • There is pervasive corruption throughout the book, which leads to a destruction of causality. (ie, in the case of Zany, “the fact that he was innocent made no difference.”) This creates a tension that is absent in democracies. The chief concern of the average citizen is staying in favor of the President. Because of their paranoia, all the citizens of his regime become informers.
  • The power of The President is completely penetrating. It impacts the emotional lives of all of his subjects and leads to their engagement in an incredibly paranoid and irrational way of thinking. His power is strong enough to break down the boundary of the SKULL — he can get within the heads of people and torment them without being physically present.
    • The power of the president destroys ties as intimate as those of families. For example, when Canales falls out of favor, his family makes elaborate excuses and constructs a bunch of lies to deny any relation to him.
    • The idea of “exquisite cruelty:” death is not painful enough. Sinister machinations are deployed to make the last minutes of the condemned’s life inordinately painful.

Presentation: Ivan the Terrible [by Jenifer Carter]

…for further study:

  • Men of Maize – another work of fiction by Miguel Asturias.

**Summary of Final Project Due.

April 22, 2013: Gabriel Garcí­a Márquez, The Autumn of the Patriarch (Harper, 2006 [1975]), 280


  • The book was written in the late 60s and was finally published in 1975, when Garcí­a Márquez was living in Barcelona.
  • Francisco Franco (ruled 1936-1975) was in power in Spain. He came to power during the Spanish Civil War. In the 1960s and 70s, it was common place to make jokes about his age, as he seemed to have been in power forever.
  • Juan Vincente Gomez (ruled 1922-1929) was a particularly brutal dictator in Venezuala. He was elected president on three occasions during his stint in office, and ruled as an unelected military strongman for the rest of the era.
  • In 1967 during a meeting with various authors (including Cortazar, Garcí­a Márquez, and Vargas Llosa), Carlos Fuentes launched a project consisting of a series of biographies depicting Latin American dictators, which was to be called Los Padres de la Patria (The Fathers of the Fatherland)


    • Garcí­a Márquez read the literature of dictators extensively, then made a conscious effort to forget it all. The dictator figure in Autumn of the Patriarch is an obvious amalgamation of various dictators, which gives Garcí­a Márquez to work with deeper themes than simply presenting a figure at surface value.
    • Form:
  • The writing style of Autumn of the Patriarch is distinctive, featuring long sentences and multiple perspectives. In this sense, it may be comparable to Faulkner’s style of writing, or Joyce’s Ulysses.
    • Why is the novel written in this form, and what does Garcí­a Márquez accomplish with it?
    • Many of Garcí­a Márquez’s friends, as well as several members of the class, felt that the form made the book impossible to put down.
  • Idea of the chorus: it feels like the novel is being told by a body of people, rather than an individual. The fact that the dictator is able to enter into the thoughts of the collective emphasizes his penetrating power and impermeable presence.
  • At times, it feels like there is a veritable zoo in the dictator’s household. What is accomplished by incorportating all of these animals? Does it suggest that the dictator is perhaps unhuman, or that he has no control over nature?
  • The book discusses the beauty queen, the dictator’s wife, mother, and prostitutes extensively. Why is there so much focus on the love life of the dictator?
  • Does the potrayal of Leticia infantilize the sexuality of the patriarch?
  • What are the consequences of the dictator’s refusal to name a successor?
  • What is power in the book, exactly?
  • Note that sometimes the dictator himself does not know what is actually going on in the country because everybody is so eager to please him. At times, he emerges paranoid in his obsession with self-preservation. A sense of isolation emerges from this. Garcí­a Márquez himself described the book as a “poem on the solitude of power.”
  • Note the image of the dictator’s timeless, elephantine feet. What is achieved by the ambiguity of his age?

Presentation: Juan Perón [by Dorian Caswell]

for further study:

April 29, 2013: Mario Vargas Llosa, The Feast of the Goat (Picador, 2002), 416


  • Form:
  • How many realist elements does Feast of the Goat include? Can it be classified as a realist novel?
  • The book contains 3 major plot lines that intersect at various points: 1) Urania’s visit 2) Trujillo, solidly grounded in history 3) the assassins.
    • Why is the purely fictional plotline of Urania’s visit incorporated, and what is its effect? Is it successful?
  • Because of the historical nature of the story, we already know that Trujillo is destined to be assassinated. What drives the suspense in the narrative?
  • The temporality of the book is complex and constantly moves back and forth. Vargas Llosa makes frequent use of flashbacks, and incorporates flashbacks within flashbacks. What is the effect of this?
  • The image of dictatorial power: debilitating, scarring, and disfiguring.
  • What kind of power does Trujillo hold? What is it like to be in his presence?
  • Why does Pupo “freeze” when he is called on to help assassinate Trujillo? At best, his involvement in the assassination would be passive, and he knows that his refusal to become complicit in the plot will result in his brutal torture and death.
  • Trujillo is nicknamed “the Goat” — a sexual reference. Feast of the Goat emphasizes the sexuality of dictatorial power and has been called “an aria of machismo.” It casts Trujillo as an alpha-male figure. It discusses the love life and prostate trouble of Trujillo extensively.
  • How are Trujillo’s amorous conquests related to his political power? Why does he sleep with the wives of all of his men?
  • What kind of loyalty to the men have towards Trujillo? Is it driven by fear? He constantly humiliates them, so it cannot be love for him. The relationships they have to him are often more intimate than their relationships with their own wives.
  • The book does not end with Trujillo’s assassination. This reinforces the point that a dictatorship does not end with the death of the dictator. A dictatorship is related to, but not coterminal with, a dictator. A dictatorship lasts and imprints itself in the consciousness of the present day. When does a dictatorship actually end, and what is necessary to change the political and social structure of a country?
  • On the problem of modernizing a country…
  • pg. 79 – “Not only because of the highways, bridges, and industries…” – Although it cost a lot in blood and lives, Trujillo actually accomplished a lot during his rule. This recalls the previous statement we read in Lourie’s book that “cruelty is the cutting edge of history.” How true is this? Are force and violence necessary to modernize a country? Is there a more humanitarian path to modernity?

Presentation: Francois Duvalier [by Jordana Cohen]

…for further study:

**Final Paper Due.

May 6, 2013: A Gathering of Conclusions: On the Writing of Dictatorship and Personalized Political Power

Bruce Bueno de Mesquita & Alastair Smith, The Dictator’s Handbook: Chpts. 3, 8-10


  • What is to be done? How can one remove a dictator from power?
  • Transitional justice — how can one go about rebuilding a society from a dictatorship? What are the pros and cons of trying an old regime for past crimes?

Other Dictators (As Yet Unread)

A happenstance list of dictators novels and other books that we could have read had time not run out on us: Tyrants for the future.

Julia Alvarez, The Time of the Butterflies

Roberto Bolano, By Night in Chile

Alejo Carpentier, Reasons of State 

Alejo Carpentier, The Kingdom of This World

Edwige Danticat, The Farming of Bones

Junot Diaz, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

Tomas Eloy Martinez, The Peron Novel

Nuruddin Farah, Sardines

Gamal al-Ghitani, Zayni Barakat 

Giles Foden, The Last King of Scotland

Carlos Fuentes, The Death of Artemio Cruz

Robert Graves, Claudius the God

Adam Johnson, The Orphan Master’s Son

Ismail Kadare, The Successor

Franz Kafka, The Castle

Thomas Keneally, The Tyrant’s Novel

  1. Kourouma,Waiting for the Wild Beasts to Vote

Milan Kundera, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

Sinclair Lewis, It Can Happen Here

Jack London, The Sea Wolf

Naghib Mahfouz, Children of the Alley

Maaza Mengiste, Beneath the Lion’s Gaze

Herta Muller, The Land of Green Plums

Vladimir Nabokov, Bend Sinister

  1. S. Naipaul,A Bend in the River 

Augusto Roa Bastos, I, The Supreme 

Salman Rushdie, Shame

Nawal el Saadawi, The Fall of the Imam 

Victor Serge, Conquered City

Ngugi wa Thiongo, Wizard of the Crow

Leo Tolstoy, Hadji Murad

Anthony Trollope, The Prime Minister

Luisa Valenzuela, The Lizard’s Tail

Gore Vidal, Burr

Robert Penn Warren, All the King’s Men