Can Fiction Truly Capture the Mind of a Tyrant?

Dimitri Nasrallah's new novel tells a timely story about the fall of a strongman dynasty

Feb. 10, 2012. A portrait of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad among the trash in al-Qsair - Flickr/FreedomHouse

For fifty years, the Bleeds have ruled the Republic of Mahbad, a monarchy disguised as a democratic state. The first and most beloved Bleed patriarch, Blanco, negotiated political independence by guaranteeing Western countries continued access to the rich uranium deposits in Mahbad’s Allegory Mountains. In doing so, he entrenched his ethnic people, the Borans, as the nation’s elites, fuelling a predictable backlash from Mahbad’s majority Lezer population, which then led to Blanco’s assassination in 1979. The rule of Blanco’s son Mustafa has been marked by revolutionary terrorism and democratic protest from the Lezers and state violence, election rigging, and ethnic cleansing on the part of their government.

Mahbad isn’t based on a real place but is a composite for a certain kind of post-colonialism, and it’s where Montreal writer Dimitri Nasrallah has staged his latest novel, The Bleeds. While the book is not explicitly about the wave of protests that occurred across North Africa and the Middle East from 2010 to 2012, it is hard not to read it as a commentary on the Arab Spring and the literature it has inspired. In The Bleeds we find all the tropes that protestors railed against (brutal, corrupt leaders disconnected from the lives of their people, resource-fuelled geopolitics, Machiavellian Western meddling), with one significant catch: the story is told not from the perspective of the protestors, but from that of the regime itself.

The novel opens on a particularly fragile moment for the Bleeds. Mustafa has been officially retired from politics for five years, and his race-car-driving son Vadim is nearing the end of his first term as president. Mustafa, who ruled the country with an iron fist for three decades, had hoped that by stepping back and handing leadership over to his son he might provide a smooth transition to the third generation of Bleed power. Vadim, however, is more interested in expensive cars and fashion shoots than the technicalities of government, and he harbours a deep resentment for his father’s overbearing style. When he bothers with politics at all, it is to undermine his father’s established system of client relationships with Western governments in favour of a pivot toward emerging markets in China.

Vadim holds his father’s old ministers, “an entire era of men in twilight,” in contempt. They, on the other hand, believe him to be insufficiently realistic about Mahbad’s geopolitical limitations. “We’ll always be better at being a regional intelligence infrastructure than a nation,” the Bleeds’ general tells Vadim at one point. “We have to put someone out front to play the decision-maker, but when all is said and done, making too many decisions is always bad news for a region like ours. We’re not funded for our bold decisions.” Tensions between the Bleeds grow more pronounced, popular demonstrations fill the city squares, and the government’s violent reprisals do little to reassure the population at home and the Bleeds’ allies abroad that the family is still in control. As the situation grows increasingly dire, Vadim is confronted with an unpleasant question: will he be the last Bleed of Mahbad?

One of the many achievements of The Bleeds is its vivid portrayal of the frustrated impotence of powerful men in a regional backwater. The Bleeds’ political dominance is a product of their patronage networks, and they have no illusions about how long their Western allies will stand by them should their ability to keep resources flowing falter. And, unlike democratically elected leaders, they can hardly look forward to a quiet retirement. If they lose power, they will face exile or execution. The Bleeds’ struggle is an existential one, and Nasrallah uses it to spin a political morality tale that works both as commentary on the shifting international order of the twenty-first century and as a taut little thriller.

Born in Lebanon in 1977, Dimitri Nasrallah first appeared on the Canadian literary scene in 2004, with the publication of his first novel, Blackbodying. Nearly a decade before the Syrian civil war brought the international refugee crisis widespread attention from the West, Blackbodying provided a nuanced portrait of the very different experiences of two Lebanese refugees arriving in Canada. It was also a strikingly experimental novel, one that applied postmodern techniques to realist subject matter. Six years later, Nasrallah covered much of the same ground through a more convention style in Niko, which went on to win the Hugh MacLennan Prize for Fiction and has been translated into four languages.

Seen in light of his previous work, The Bleeds represents a fascinating departure. The Canadian reading public often expects its immigrant and refugee writers to perform as witnesses to their own personal experiences, and the value it assigns novels like Niko is often as much sociological as it is literary. For Nasrallah to produce a novel of such ambition and scope refreshingly complicates this tendency. If his first two novels are about people fleeing failed states, The Bleeds is about the people who caused them to fail in the first place, and Nasrallah brings to his chronicle of the Bleeds the same nuance and sympathy he used in writing about Niko and Antoine Karam. One only wishes he had given himself more room.

To chart the decay and collapse of a dynasty while providing running commentary on the neo-colonial context of global politics is an ambitious project, and at 195 pages, The Bleeds feels like a sketch for a longer, better novel. The pace is at points almost manic, with little room for real character development, and the devices Nasrallah employs to provide fast exposition—news clippings, blog posts, the direct narration of Vadim and Mustafa Bleed—feel rushed and convenient. The result is a novel that expends most of its energies in setting up premises and drawing conclusions. There is little of the lyricism and psychological richness found in Nasrallah’s earlier novels, and in the end, none of the characters approach the complexity and depth of Niko and Antoine.

This would perhaps not matter so much if these questions weren’t so central to the story Nasrallah is telling. Having Vadim and Mustafa speak directly to us allows Nasrallah to cover a lot of historical and cultural territory quickly, but it creates more serious problems. Consider this passage, from a section detailing Mustafa’s memories of his years in power:

I gave myself to my people, every night for 29 years. I never wore the same suit twice. The six states of emergencies I delivered, as tanks rolled into the streets and snipers simultaneously took to the rooftops, are now studied as classics of political drama at Bleed University. If comedy wasn’t my calling card, then I delivered gravitas in spades. I miss those days!

Who is he talking to? There is no audience for these remarks in the world of the novel (Mustafa is not confessing or writing down his thoughts or speaking to a confidante, even though he speaks as though he is), and it eventually becomes clear that both he and his son are telling their stories directly to the reader. As literary techniques go, fair enough—no single way of narrating a story is inherently superior to another. But given that one of the novel’s central preoccupations is how it feels to be on the inside of autocracy, the approach feels somewhat artificial, too folksy and guileless. Open, honest conversation sprinkled with level-headed analysis of the formative traumas that have shaped their lives and policies is the sort of thing dictators don’t usually engage in.

This isn’t merely a stylistic point. As Mustafa frequently notes, successful dictatorship is about projecting an illusion, propagating the belief that the dictator’s destiny and the destiny of the nation are entwined. A dictator’s life is a total performance. How a dictator speaks, what they choose to reveal, and what they choose to spin or hide is an essential part of that performance. their political survival depends on his ability to wake up every morning and convincingly play the role of a nation’s protector and messiah, and it is perhaps unsurprising that people thrust into this role have a tendency to become somewhat divorced from reality. The gap between the dictator as symbol and the dictator as man, the degree to which he comes to believe in his own myth, is one that has a special urgency in the time of Viktor Orbán, Bashar al-Assad, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, and Vladimir Putin. There is much fascinating material here for a novelist to explore, and it is unfortunate that Nasrallah’s narrative choices preclude him from doing so.

Still, The Bleeds is a remarkable book and one well worth reading. For those of us who have grown up in Western democracies, there is something unreal—cartoonish, even—about dictatorship as a political institution. The Bleeds shows in short, economical strokes the grinding rationality of totalitarianism. Dictatorships rely on a series of quid pro quos: the Bleeds provide universities, stadiums, infrastructure, and jobs in exchange for the people’s passive acceptance of the status quo, and the Bleeds, in turn, are protected by their allies in the West in exchange for a steady supply of uranium. If part of the population rejects this arrangement, the delicate balance of power is thrown into question, and the Bleeds must brutally suppress dissent if they want to keep the confidence of their international allies. This, in turn, creates more dissent, which spirals into more draconian measures of control.

Perhaps Nasrallah’s greatest achievement in The Bleeds lies in his delineation of what we might call the paradox of dictatorship; in order to advance an agenda that was, at least originally, mean to liberate, a dictator is drawn into a series of compromises that ultimately leave them with a circular choice: if they relinquish power, they will be brought to justice for the crimes they committed to stay in power, but if they want to stay in power, they will need to commit more and greater crimes. Nasrallah may have set his story in Mahbad, but around it lurk the shades of Castro in Cuba and the Front de Libération Nationale in Algeria, Nasser’s Egypt, Mugabe’s Zimbabwe, and the grand tragedy of the USSR.

In 2018, the political novel and the satirical novel, in particular, are facing something of a crisis. Satire makes its points through exaggeration; at a time when the long merger of politics and television has found its apotheosis in the election of a reality-show host, what exaggeration can be more ridiculous than reality? The Bleeds succeeds as political satire not because it emphasizes Vadim’s absurdity but because it shows that he is responding with a kind of crooked rationality to greater forces in the world and his personal life. The tragedy of the Bleeds of Mahbad is not that they are monsters but that the weight of history and colonialism and neo-liberal globalization makes it impossible for them to survive as anything else.

André Forget
André Forget (@AYForget) is a contributing editor to Canadian Notes & Queries and former editor-in-chief of The Puritan. Based in Toronto, he currently lives in Yoshkar-Ola, Russia.