The Infernal Library

Recommendation: Truly not worth the bother

Where to read: Worst holiday reading imaginable (and my other choice was about WWIII)

Read with: Meerea Park ‘Hell Hole’ Semillon

In brief: Written by a non-historian, The Infernal Library is too busy being glib and snarky to say anything particularly perceptive or profound about dictator literature as a genre and is insufficiently moored in history to offer any real insight into their various transgressions.

This is one of those books that should have been fascinating – a study of dictator literature in the twentieth century, ranging from the volumes pumped out by Stalin and Lenin to Mussolini’s romantic novel (The Cardinal’s Mistress, which boasts an impressive 2.8/5 on Goodreads) to Mao’s Quotations from Chairman Mao Tse-tung (aka the “Little Red Book“), examining both the historical and ideological influences and their impact (or how they help us understand the impact of their authors). In practice, however, Kalder’s doorstop is too absorbed in making bitchy comments about the literary merit of its subjects to have much merit of its own.

The problems here are twofold. The first, and perhaps the most serious, is that Kalder’s ambition is not matched by either his skills in literary analysis or his historical learning. The general theme of all his analysis is ‘this is awful and boring and I am reading it so you don’t have to’, which is fine as far as it goes, but falls pretty flat when you consider that actual historians who read these works find actually useful insights. I point, for example, to Timothy Snyder’s discussion about Hitler’s understanding of political economy and how that played out in the German approach to the Eastern Front in WWII. The most interesting parts of each chapter are, to my mind, the discussion of publication history and popular reception. The Little Red Book was a gradual completion process, for example, first as a brief and somewhat random collection of “handy quotes” for soldiers in the PLA, then an expanded version for military leaders and then, ultimately, an even larger tome for broader distribution. Mein Kampf was written, in Kalder’s telling, to defray Hitler’s post-putsch legal bills (a task at which it decidedly failed). Stalin’s collected works were best sellers while he was in power but vanished into the ether (or indeed the shredder) almost immediately once he died. It’s all interesting trivia, but I’m not sure it excuses the general vacuity.

The second problem, which flows from the first, is that Kalder does not appear to have all that much to say. Setting aside the, admittedly significant, entertainment value of abusing some of the twentieth century’s worst people, his most profound point seems to be that the various Communist leaders felt obliged to establish themselves as intellectual leaders as well as political ones (he argues, I suspect correctly, that the two were in fact linked) and so spewed out volume after volume of turgid “literature” and “collected speeches”. This is, I grant you, a genuinely interesting idea. From this lens, for example, the emergency of ‘Xi Jinping Thought’ takes on additional significance as a claim, in line with a long tradition, to dictatorial authority and historical significance. The book may also prompt interested readers to look into, for example, the significance of Ayatollah Khomeini’s theological writings in establishing his temporal authority or the extent to which Muammar Gaddafi’s The Green Book is actually relevant to his governance of Libya. These questions are not, however, satisfactorily dealt with in the actual book.

There are, as I say, some interesting insights here, and Kalder deserves praise for an undoubted genius for tracking down mouldering copies of mostly pulped and politically unacceptable volumes. On the whole, however, The Infernal Library feels rather like an exercise in masochism that got rather out of hand. I have a certain amount of sympathy with this position, considering I finished it, but not enough to save it from the op shop bin.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s