In the preface to this short, gripping book, Riccardo Orizio quotes Ian McKellen, a man who has played many villains: "One of the few lessons I have learned from studying people who do terrible things is that they are all too human. And that we are all too capable of doing almost anything."
Orizio, the London correspondent for La Repubblica, has pursued seven of these vile charmers and this book is the record of those pursuits. He could not actually meet Enver Hoxha, the Albanian tyrant, and Slobodan Milosevic, because the first is dead, and the second imprisoned. But he meets their horrible wives and, in both cases, this turns out to be just as good. Nexhmije Hoxha ("the Black Widow") and Mira Milosevic should, between them, destroy forever the sentimental feminist illusion that a world run by women would be any better than one run by men.
Orizio does not indulge in theory or psychology, he merely reports the meetings and the surrounding circumstances in the hope that "the exercise will help us to reach a greater understanding of ourselves". Not one of his subjects is repentant. Indeed, all see themselves as victims of circumstance. Mengistu's Red Terror in Ethiopia in the late 1970s left 500,000 dead. But, sitting comfortably in Harare, the old swine just shrugs. "It was a battle. All I did was fight it." The cold grip of General Jaruzelski on Poland is just the way it had to be - "Ask yourself what you would have done if you were in my shoes." Idi Amin, now safe in Jeddah, feels no remorse for the carnage he left behind in Uganda, "only nostalgia", and Baby Doc Duvalier knows voodoo justified the killers of the Tonton Macoute in Haiti just as that terrible religion will, one day, deify him. They all did what they had to do, the mass suffering was just a by-product.
The consoling thought would be that they were all mad. There is, in some cases, plenty of evidence. Amin, who called himself "the last king of Scotland", was - and is - plainly an evil clown. Or there is the preposterous Jean-Bedel Bokassa, who insists that Pope Paul VI nominated him as the "13th apostle of the Holy Mother Church" and who solemnly announced to his subjects in the Central African Empire that he had awarded himself the title "Grand Master of the International Brotherhood of Knights Collectors of Postage Stamps".
There are also less florid symptoms of simple, cold psychosis. The revolting Mrs Hoxha dismisses torture and murder as "trifles not worth mentioning". Jaruzelski delights in taking refuge in the necessity of history. Mrs Milosevic (she prefers to be called Professor Mira Markovic, so I'll stick to Mrs Milosevic) speaks of Serbian security and the war on terrorism to justify ethnic cleansing. She also calls her appalling son Marko "my poor, sweet puppy". By any recognisable standards, these people are, indeed, psychotics. For them, the feelings and sufferings of others simply do not exist.
But madness is no real consolation. They all had plenty of followers to do their dirty work, followers who saw the derangement of their leaders as evidence of a higher sanity. Furthermore, you only have to look closely at the vicissitudes of daily life to see that their symptoms are not, in fact, that extreme. Petty Bokassas, Duvaliers and Jaruzelskis are to be found on every street and in every pub - it's only midday and I've encountered half a dozen already today.
All that is different about the dictators is that some malign confluence of history and psychology gave them the chance to act out their villainous self-belief on a larger stage.
The problem with that, of course, is that it leads to the obvious delusion that, once you get rid of the systems, then all will be well. This is plainly not so. Neither Robert Mugabe nor Kim Jong-Il can still seriously be categorised as post-colonial and post-communist psychos. And the emergence of Osama Bin Laden demonstrates that, when the state is no longer available as an instrument of evil, then something more elusive will be found to replace it. Evil, one way or another, will out.
He approached his subject using a journalistic ploy I know well. He said he was writing a book about forgotten individuals who had been blamed for the problems of their country. He rightly judged that this would hook them, apparently offering an opportunity for self-justification. But at least one refused - Panama's General Noriega. Orizio wittily reproduces Noriega's reply without comment on the last page. The general will not cooperate 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".
Se Pinochet è sempre potentissimo e Imelda Marcos è tornata a Manila e ha creato una collezione di scarpe griffate, Bokassa non c’è più ma la sua storia resta simile a quella di Amin: entrambi accusati di cannibalismo, entrambi convertiti all’Islam per far piacere al colonnello Gheddafi e ricevere i suoi petrodollari, entrambi scalzati dal potere nel ’79. Giudicare questi Diavoli si può? E’ possibile capire per esempio la Banalità del Male di una Milosevic, la moglie, la Strega Rossa, che dopo aver reso la Serbia un inferno col suo complice processato ora all’Aja, trascorre i pomeriggi a parlare al telefono con il marito detenuto cinguettando come in un disegno di Peynet: «Amorinoooo...»?