Review of Jay Nordlinger’s Children of Monsters: An Inquiry into the Sons and Daughters of Dictators (Encounter Books, 336 pages, $25.99)
Is it possible to over-dwell on dictators and their children? Has the book on them, so to speak, already been written?
If this were so, National Review senior editor Jay Nordlinger could hardly have found it necessary to scavenge yellowed newspapers and buried publications for “every scrap or remark or hint” as “excavator—even garbageman” in bringing us his peerless Children of Monsters: An Inquiry into the Sons and Daughters of Dictators (Encounter Books, September 22, 2015).
“Sons and daughters” is no poetic moniker for generations born under fascist, communist, Baathist, and other totalitarian regimes. Nordlinger has fixated on the actual offspring of Mussolini, Mao, Khomeini, and 17 other dictators whose murderous wake swallowed countless children, including their own.
In so doing, he has rescued a curious dimension of truth and terror from the ashes of millions slaughtered by the 20th century’s most lethal dictators. This dimension is their fatherhood. In exposing it, Nordlinger’s achievement is threefold.
First, writing in an era of short attention spans and shorter memories, Nordlinger has found an innovative, clever vehicle for surveying the last century’s worst tyrants and human rights violators. These were murderers, torturers, rapists, and thieves—all of whom were at one point revered by a majority (or sizeable plurality) of the citizens suffering under them.
True, the author overwhelmingly focuses on these dictators’ legitimate, wildly sown, and (in Hitler’s case) imagined offspring. But in the periphery one detects his subtler objective: tracing the leviathan shadows in which these children live (or lived), that we may more accurately behold the shape of the monster.
Inevitably, tracking the cubs leads to the she-wolf. Nordlinger’s caption for Svetlana Stalin (a comparatively bright light to whom the author frequently returns) is, “Her father was the great and haunting theme of her life.” This statement applies equally to most children in the book, as well as to most citizens their fathers ruled. It is both tragic and appropriate that we interpret their lives (as they themselves do) via the megalomaniacs whom millions could not escape.
Indeed (and secondly), like a good tragedian, Nordlinger infuses Children of Monsters with catharsis. Nearly each of his 20 chapters culminates in a release of tension, evoking pity (the star-crossed children’s chances of redemption are always thin) and fear (lest we somehow imitate them).
Each child we meet carries the possibility of rejecting his or her father’s legacy (or, if you prefer, vacuum). Few fully do. The worst sons partook—or are now partaking—in their fathers’ sadism and tyranny, such as North Korea’s reigning Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un, Syria’s sitting Bashar Assad, and (most deplorably) Iraq’s Uday Hussein.
Many others, like Uganda’s Jaffar Amin and Libya’s Saif Qaddafi, after discovering and even contributing facts to the historical records of their fathers, have nonetheless defended their fathers’ perverted idealism—sometimes with arms.
Loyally rationalistic, such sons affirm their raging fathers for not going “gentle into that good night.” But being blind themselves, they fail to distinguish night from darkness.
It is not always the allure of power, privileges of kleptocracy, or old-fashioned filial piety that binds such sons and daughters to their fathers. Many are trapped in what Lawrence Wright has termed (in his 2011 study damning Scientology) “the prison of belief.” Each curtain that Nordlinger drops on a dictator’s family scene warns us that otherwise rational people (like us?) can grow to believe the absurd, so that even victims ooze zeal for their tormenters.
Thirdly, behind this cautionary scrim lies Children of Monsters most surprising achievement: without humanizing the dictators, Nordlinger’s study of their children reveals their fathers’ humanity. But the ironic effect is not that Stalin, Mao, and Castro seem less evil, or that Bokassa (CAR), Duvalier (Haiti), and Pol Pot (Cambodia) appear more human. Instead they appear more monstrous, in the sense that a true monster is not an imaginary non-human, but a human imperfectly and unnaturally transfigured into something humanoid.
Nordlinger proves these fathers lovable (if only technically) using the words of the offspring who actually loved them, though these children be accomplices, outcasts, or both. Again, a warning surfaces: these men were extraordinarily evil, but like all monsters—and all men—their nature sprang from the same root as mankind’s first, fallen parents.
A creative, cathartic survey of some of history’s worst monsters, through their children: strong drink, to be sure. But Nordlinger is a gracious host. He appears to have contrived his style specifically to counterbalance such heavy fare.
A self-conscious storyteller, Nordlinger constantly slips between his roles as hardened kangaroo court chronicler and ever approachable frame narrator. He relays harrowing truths between As you knows, As I mentioneds, and Obviouslys, as he might drop at a pub in (say) Albania, among patrons enjoying freedom from the iron fist of Enver Hoxha. If the author appears to over-clarify, he routinely compensates with concision and directness.
Wry wit, gallows humor, and occasional informalities keep the reader from growing morose. (I counted one usage of “’Round midnight,” but as this laid the setting of a striptease for a Qaddafi son, even this was well played.) The author’s device of choice is understatement: “It is said that Lenin liked children…. There must have been limits to his liking, however: He sent children to concentration camps.”
All is calculated to thread the needle between educating and overwhelming the reader. Following one grisly report on the Hussein boys, our narrator interrupts himself: “I mention these things—which maybe I should not—not because they are extraordinary or sensational, but because they were routine.”
Thus Nordlinger not only holds our attention, he gains our consent.
That heroes and redemptive themes can arise from Children of Monsters testifies to the lens through which Nordlinger views his subjects. But it speaks louder to humankind’s inborn gravitation toward greatness amid ruin, and redemption amid suffering.
On one hand—to the (short) extent to which we may compartmentalize these dictators’ crimes—we might almost call some good fathers.
True, most ignored their children by virtue of having too many, and being too busy with the affairs of state. Many doted on their children until the day that a Capulet-like fit of rage forever altered their relationships. A few were the picture of love to their toddlers, who learned later that their fathers were sadists. And in some cases, dad was the softie: “We might pause to imagine a household in which Stalin is the more loving parent.”
Truly praiseworthy, however, is the scant archipelago of children who broke with their parents’ monstrosities—beginning with Stalin’s daughter Svetlana. The author admires her: “She followed the Solzhenitsyn maxim of ‘Live not by lies.’ This is why we might say … that in Svetlana lay a greatness.” Turning from one communist regime to another, he finds the same virtue in Castro’s daughter Alina Fernández: “She would speak the truth, whether people wanted to hear it or not. Incidentally, she is as unsparing about herself as she is about Fidel Castro.”
Deception being the choice tool of dictatorial powers, living not by lies is indeed the best hope for people who would gain freedom, and no less for those who would keep it.