An Interview with Portugal's Expresso Newspaper

Was there anything in Salazar’s writings that impressed/surprised you?

I wouldn't say that anything "impressed" me, beyond that one of his books, Doctrine and Action, was published in the UK by Faber in 1939, the same house that published my first two books 67 and 69 years later respectively--so he and I share something in common.

In the 1930s TS Eliot, the great Anglo-American poet was on Faber's board of directors; he was an arch conservative and was interested in Salazar's Portugal. Meanwhile, books by dictators were fashionable in the late '30s: Mussolini's memoir, Hitler's Mein Kampf, and collections of Stalin's writings were published in mass market editions in the US & UK and beyond. Faber were clearly trying to grab a piece of the action with a volume of Salazar's political thought. It can't have sold very well, however, because sequels were not forthcoming.     

Much of what Salazar wrote passed through me leaving no trace. It was like walking through mist. I can easily remember some of the worst bits of Stalin, Hitler, Lenin, Mao... even Franco. Were you to hand me an edition of the writings of any one of those dictators right now I could quickly find you something outrageous, shocking or radically tedious. But Salazar's books lacked the extremism or outright terribleness of his contemporaries' efforts. They were quiet and restrained. They are forgettable.
I was pleasantly surprised by the brevity of his anthology of aphorisms, Salazar, Prime Minister of Portugal Says. I did not suffer much in reading it. The typeface was inoffensive.  It was much less tedious than "Quotations of Chairman Mao " which also collects the sayings of a dictator, and which sold many more copies.

How does Salazar rank in the dictator’s dullness/boredom world ranking?

He ranks very highly for dullness, and in Salazar's case it is a special kind of dullness. He is by far the most boring right wing dictator. And he is different in a significant way from dull left wing dictators. Communists were extremely boring, but they were also intent on concealing the disaster that was communism by lying all the time and using abstract, theoretical language. Communist prose is avant-garde in how disconnected from reality it becomes. It is inhuman. It is violently, aggressively dull.

Salazar's dullness, by contrast, is very human. He was trying to write sentences that meant something. He was trying to communicate. The problem is that what he had to say just wasn't very interesting. He was boring in the same way The Financial Times is boring, or an economics textbook is boring. He was boring in a modest way. Boring like a pot plant, or a 30 minute report on Euronews, or being stuck in an elevator for a very long time.    

Southern Europe dictators produced books like the naughty The Cardinal’s Mistress (Mussolini), a novel-screenplay like Raza (Franco) or the extremist/lunatic Masonería (Franco, again). Salazar stayed away from this. His books are restrained and cautious – and incredibly boring. Do you think this was because of his seminary/catholic education? Or because he was just a dull economist?

I think Franco and Mussolini were also exposed to a Catholic education, and Mussolini even taught in Italian schools for a brief period. Stalin, too, was a product of a seminary. I suspect it has more to do with what he chose to study--economics. That reveals his true passion. Whereas Mussolini's first career was as a highly offensive opinion journalist, and Franco was a trained warrior intent on killing his enemies, Salazar really, really wanted to balance the books. He boasts about it in Doctrine and Action.

I can also tell you that I have personal experience editing the prose of economists and can confirm that it is 1) terrible 2) extremely boring. Economists are excited by things that few other people care about. One economist I used to edit confessed to me that economists don't know what other people find interesting. Salazar was thus typical of his tribe; the unusual thing is that he was an economist- dictator.

Having said that apparently he wrote a mysterious book of poems in his youth – Ais –, that he decided to destroy in his later life. A few juvenile poems survived. Why did you ignore Salazar’s great poetry?

Alas, Salazar's efforts at suppressing this work were all too successful. I don't speak Portuguese and  was unable to find his poetry in any language that I can read and did not want to speculate as to the greatness of his verse if I could not experience it directly! However, if bilingual English-Portuguese speakers are able to help out, then who knows? Maybe I shall update the book in the future with insights into Salazar's verse...

Who was the best (or least awful) dictator-author?

Mussolini is the most readable, by far. As I said, his first career was as a journalist and he could write vigorous prose. His novel The Cardinal's Mistress is not very good, but his war diary contains some moments when he lets the mask slip and talks openly about his despair and the horrors of combat. There are some really powerful descriptions of the wasteland, of dead bodies, of his comrades in the trenches.

Ho Chi Minh wrote a good poem about losing a tooth when he was in a prison camp, I'll give him that.

And then there's Lenin. He's not a great writer--his stuff is dense and difficult to read. But he was clearly extremely intelligent, and highly capable. It's interesting to watch this giant brain construct arguments to persuade himself that the nonsense he believed was actually true. He put an extraordinary amount of intellectual energy into forcing reality to submit to his will. This is a very dangerous thing, and we should beware of it in others and especially in our leaders.  

The book with the best title?

The original title for Mein Kampf was amazing: A Four-and-a-Half Year Battle Against Lies, Stupidity and Cowardice. Inexplicably, Hitler's publisher changed it.

Gaddafi wrote a book of short stories and essays called "Escape to Hell." It's hard to top that.

How did you survive after reading all these books?

It took a very long time to read these books; well over a decade if you go all the way back to when I first read Saddam Hussein's Zabiba and the King in the early 2000s. A friend of mine teaches at a university and pointed out that had I been an academic I could have got my graduate students to do a lot of the research for me. Instead I did it all myself. Fortunately I have a high tolerance for boredom, and I felt that the story of Dictator Literature was too important not to be told. I was disturbed by how quickly the memory of these dictators and their books could disappear, especially as we enter a new era of populism and authoritarianism. So I was willing to brutalize myself psychologically if it helped me achieve my ends; I conceived of it as an epic journey through time and space via terrible prose, the same way somebody might walk to the north pole or walk across a continent on foot.

Now that I'm done, I am in a long, slow period of recovery. Right now all I want to read are 1970s Conan comics drawn by Barry Windsor-Smith or John Buscema. They are extremely simple, and repetitive: each issue Conan rescues a buxom wench from a hideous monster.

One day I hope to be able to read real literature again.

With the rise of authoritarian regimes (currently 52 countries, according to The Economist Democracy Index) is there hope for the future – I mean, will we ever see a truly great book written by a 21stcentury dictator? 

I'm not at all surprised by the rise of authoritarian regimes. If you look at history, that is pretty much mankind's default setting. Democratic societies are the anomalies, and long may our anomalies thrive. As for dictator  literature, I can reassure you that our current crop of authoritarian leaders are handy with the pen. Xi Jinping has several books to his name; Putin published a judo manual and a collection of his speeches; Erdogan wrote an anti-Semitic play in the 1970s; and the dictators of Central Asia are very prolific. I don't think any of them can hold a candle to Mussolini, though, let alone authors worth reading. Dictator literature still awaits its Shakespeare! 

And finally, what do you think of President Trump’s literary talent – as seen in his ‘autobiographies’ or even in some of his recently published tweet anthologies?

I live in Texas and one of my pastimes is scouring the bargain shelves of my local used bookstore. Recently I was lucky (?) enough to pick up a copy of The Art of the Deal for $1. I haven't read it all but was struck by how well the ghost writer captured Trump's style of simple, direct sentences. There's also a collection entitled The Beautiful Poetry of Donald Trump which takes his Tweets and assorted statements and turns them into poetry. That book is a thing of wonder. None of it is quite as good as Ho Chi Minh's poem about his missing tooth, however.