In all, this is a mesmerizing study of books by despots great and small, from the familiar to the largely unknown ... Kalder’s survey of the bizarre library of dictator literature might easily leave a reader shaken, even dejected. The badness of these books, and their effects, is almost impossible to fathom ... Luckily, Kalder maintains a skeptical sense of humor throughout.
The Infernal Library, Daniel Kalder’s long march through the writings of 20th century tyrants, is mind-numbing and mortifying in equal measure ... Kalder’s task seems to have driven him over the edge — his book brims with vituperation and strident put-downs ... There is sometimes a crudeness to the author’s charges ... However meretricious such drivel is, the examples Kalder surveys have a power that is almost confounding.
To say this was a tall task would be an understatement but Kalder delivers with this entertaining and highly informative book. It helps that he keeps his sense of humor ... 'Dictators usually live lives that are rich in experience,' he deadpans early on, and the quips are sprinkled throughout (including a shot at everyman author Bill Bryson). Given the subject matter, they are never unwelcome.
...it’s important work in these perilous times. With fascism and authoritarianism once again on the rise, it’s more vital to do more than simply denounce something like Mein Kampf, and work instead to understand why so many readers found it appealing ... Kalder waits until the very end, past sometimes perfunctory synopses of other writers and regimes, to get to Turkmenistan, where his prose becomes suddenly luminous, elegiac, and even moving...Catching the regime at the perfect moment when its demise was evident but not yet realized, Kalder’s observations of Turkmenistan are among the most poignant and acute moments in the book ... one is reminded of how much is kept out of view in The Infernal Library—which is exactly the opposite way one should feel after finishing a book about writing and power. (It’s quite possible this was an editor or publisher’s decision, rather than Kalder’s, but it’s still not a good precedent.)
Kalder begins with the dusty volumes he saw cluttering Russian bookshelves. He argues, semi-persuasively, that Lenin should be viewed as the father of dictatorial literature. (And it’s worth noting here that although Kalder is adept at phrasemaking, he manages to resist the coinage, dic-lit. Would that I were so restrained) ... Kalder likes these anachronistic tropes – but while funny, I’m not sure they serve him well. They made me insistently aware that the minds who produced these works – whether incendiary or enervating – were in fact radically different from my own; and that their authors were responding to radically different circumstances. Which is by no means to justify the papery solecisms of Lenin et al – or the horrors they justified or covered up. But ultimately cracking wise doesn’t quite cut it when it comes to either preventing tyranny, or providing nuance ... Perhaps the critical verdict on the dictators described in these pages – variously lynched, shot and otherwise extemporised to death – should make us a little more sanguine about their literary efforts. After all, it’s one thing for your books to be remaindered – quite another to have your body pulped ... True, all writers do indeed have dictatorial inclinations – how else can we rule effectively over our papery realms? But as he points out, all good writing depends on accepting the inherently chancy nature of the world – whereas all despotic governance, like all bad writing, is predicated on the exact opposite: a near-psychotic need to enforce hard-backed conformity.
For the most part, dictators are not particularly good writers. Often, Kalder says, the dictator-to-be’s efforts are ponderous, abstract, sometimes painfully personal, a screed of pain that becomes, for instance, the basis of a national movement, as in the case of Germany’s Adolf Hitler ... I’d put Kalder’s analysis of 'dictator books' with others out today that warn of the decline of Western liberal democracy. We should learn from the grave mistakes of the 20th century.