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Sunday, May 25, 2003 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Book Review

'Dictators' is best when unrepentant ex-leaders verbally hang themselves

Special to The Seattle Times

There's an odd note in the preface to "Talk of the Devil," Italian journalist Riccardo Orizio's encounters with seven deposed dictators, which fortuitously arrives in U.S. bookstores just as America has deposed dictators — and, well, "American Idol" — on the brain.

"I deliberately chose those who had fallen from power in disgrace," Orizio writes, "because those who fall on their feet tend not to examine their own conscience." Yet very few dictatorial consciences are actually examined in these pages. Just the opposite.

"Talk of the Devil: Encounters With Seven Dictators"


by Riccardo Orizio, translated by Avril Bardoni
Walker & Co., $22
Asked if he feels any remorse about his time in power, when approximately 300,000 people were murdered, Uganda's Idi Amin Dada responds, "No. Only nostalgia." Jean-Bedel Bokassa, former self-declared emperor of the Central African Republic, fixates, not on the students killed during his reign, nor on rumors of his cannibalism, but on French and female betrayals. He clings to a heavy silver cross given to him, he says, by Pope Paul VI "when he secretly nominated me thirteenth apostle of Holy Mother Church."

Nexhmije Hoxha, the Black Widow of Albania, who, with her husband, Enver, forced citizens to write annual reports denouncing their neighbors or themselves and presided over a system of labor camps and torture, still feels that Marx was right and democracy is a curse. Meanwhile, Mira Markovic, wife of Slobodan Milosevic, equates the Serbian ethnic-cleansing of Muslims in Bosnia with the U.S. war on Islamic terrorists. "We were the first to stand up to them," she says with bitter, twisted logic. "What a pity that the leader of this resistance should now be in prison in the Hague. ... "

Not exactly mea culpas.

The best chapters are those in which the former dictators verbally hang themselves, the worst when Orizio attempts to do it for them. Poland's Wojciech Jaruzelski, who suppressed the Solidarity movement in the early '80s, argues that he imposed martial law to prevent a Soviet invasion — even though evidence suggests he might have encouraged such an invasion. But in the face of Jaruzelski's plodding defense, Orizio resorts to a sarcastic offense that diminishes the chapter.

There are other faults. Some of the interviews occurred nearly a decade ago, yet no dates are affixed to chapters. The book is slim and could've used more interviews — although the chapters on Idi Amin (in which Orizio is given the run-around in Saudi Arabia) and Albania (where Orizio is arrested after interviewing Hoxha in prison) demonstrate the difficulties inherent in his project.

Ultimately, these despots have little to say. The talk of the devil turns out to be full of excuses, accusations and dreams of a glorious return — either physically (they will regain power) or historically (history will prove them right).

But the book is invaluable in other ways. When Haiti's henpecked president-for-life, Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier, fell from power, he was flown by the U.S. Air Force to France, where he was given a week's visa. That was 17 years ago. He still resides there, bankrolled by mysterious benefactors. Idi Amin was rescued from his own people by Libya, and resides under the protection and largesse of the Saudi government. In 1991, Ethiopia's Mengistu Haile-Mariam was saved by "an aeroplane hurriedly sent by the American government, which," Orizio writes, "seems to have a knack for efficiently extricating falling dictators."

All of these rescue operations raise questions, and encourage a different kind of "us vs. them" mentality. During the Cold War, the world was divided by ideology; post-Sept. 11, it's religion. But in "Talk of the Devil," "they" always seem to look out for each other, perhaps because there's a whole lot of "us."

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