Talk of the Devil
Parola del diavolo.

12 January 2003
"So much has been said to about the Tontons Macoute. So many lies told to discredit them. [But] if the people had a problem they were the ones who solved it. If a family was destitute, the Tontons Macoute gave them money. If a mother needed funds to send her child to school, she turned to them. If a man was unemployed, he turned to them. They acted as mediators in the absence of institutions. I call them...artisans of the social revolution."

So, at least, runs Jean-Claude 'Baby Doc' Duvalier's interpretation of the role of the feared secret police force that cast a shadow of terror over Haiti between the 1960s and 1980s. Perhaps this revisionist view is acceptible as, after all, Duvalier was President-for-Life of the republic between 1971 and 1986 and as such the only person exempt from the nightime raids of the Tontons Macoute, though these days the remembrances of days past are proclaimed from the environs of a nondescript Parisian cafe - France being his new home following a rather hasty retreat from the Carribean some 16 years ago.

The image of the insoucient dictator, refusing to ackowledge their rule as anything other than enlightened despite the weight of evidence against them, runs throughout Riccardo Orizio's new book Talk of the Devil. The author has travelled far and wide to interview his subjects and whilst he found some urbane and others unpleasant all have ingrained within them a hubristic arrogance that cannot accomadate their being removed from office. Idi Amin continues to plot his Ugandan comeback from a luxury Saudi villa; Bokassa sees his elevation to Emperor as the crowning point of post-independence Africa's history; Nexhmije Hoxha still feels she and her husband Enver will be judged as heroes by history and even the former President of Panama thinks that "[God] has not written the last word on Manuel A Noriega" (is he perhaps hoping someone will spring him from jail?)

The theme of bitterness that binds these former autocrats together could become tiresome in its omniprescence but the author manages to wrest some occasional moments of self deprecation and even moments of with from the interviewees. Amin, as one might expect, brings so much bonhomie to the page as he gleefully shows off his satellite TV that it is easy to forget the tortures and privation that visited Uganda under his rule. Bokassa revels in his Papal appointment as the thirteenth apostle while Haile Mariam Menghistu, the man behind the Red Terror campaign that left half a million Ethiopians dead and once all-powerful in East Africa now scuttles around his house closing doors after him so as to allow Orizio no glipmse whatsoever of his private life.

Compared to their African brothers the European tyrants are a far more morose bunch, but no less entertaining. Both Mrs Milosevic and Mrs Hoxha conduct the interviews from behind baleful grimaces and Jaruzelski seems unable to deliver a smile even if his life depended on it. In fact it is Jaruzelski's golden years that make for the most entertaining chapter. Maybe not as outwardly fun as some of the other chapters (in fact the interview is pretty bone dry) but you just cannot help but love the cumudgenly general who feels slighted by everyone around him, rushing in and out of various Polish courts to uphold the honour of his office.

The British MP Enoch Powell once remarke that 'every political career ends in failure' so it seems fitting that all of these once so very powerful figures are to live their remaining days in ignominy, maintaining their dignity only through gross self-delusion and having to scrape or beg for a living as the memory of their heinous rules slowly fades from the countries they once governed so completely.