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Short stories humanize tyrants

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ONE reads this clever and convincing collection of historical short stories knowing that history has already passed judgment on the six dictators whose youths are portrayed at crucial moments in their development.

Idi Amin, Pol Pot, Mao Zedong, Josef Stalin, Rafael Trujillo, and Adolf Hitler have, of course, all been condemned in the world court of public opinion for their respective crimes against humanity in the 20th century.

Yet, to his creative credit, Toronto-based author Anton Piatigorsky -- a writer of plays, librettos and fiction -- manages to present this sextet of future tyrants in fiction as deeply flawed people and not just stereotypes.

He humanizes, but doesn't glamorize, them. The stories, which all seem plausible, provide us with some real insight into the protagonists' manipulative minds, thus providing perspective into their adult actions as murderous psychopaths.

So, for example, in Bottle Cap, Piatigorsky paints the conceited young telegraph operator Rafael Trujillo, whose Dominican dictatorship of almost 30 years is considered one of the bloodiest in the Americas, as an obsessive-compulsive personality.

He has a fetish for collecting beer bottle caps and is a believer in superstitions, such as spreading orange seeds on the ground and throwing dead snakes at those who wrong him.

In Tea Is Better Than Pepsi, Idi Amin comes off as a brazen, bullying and boisterous young cook in the King's African Rifles in Uganda.

The camaraderie of these soldiers--heavy drinking and informal soccer -- "that's Idi's idea of utopia," Piatigorsky writes. "Someday they will call him Bwana Amin. He will coat himself in leadership."

Saloth Sar, who became the bloody despot Pol Pot, is a smooth-skinned 14-year-old boy with a face that "could grace the cover of any travel brochure for Indochina" in A Plaything for the King's Superfluous Wives.

In The Consummation, a young Mao is portrayed as a fiercely stubborn son who refuses, at first, to participate in an arranged marriage -- a hint of the rebellious and conniving person to come.

Meanwhile, in Lado's Disciple, the future Stalin is a poor seminary student who, despite his uncompromising tendencies, writes poetry and reads Darwin and Marx.

It's known from the historical record that the young Hitler was a bitter, malcontented child, antagonistic towards his strict father and strongly attached to his indulgent mother.

In his story Incensed, Piatigorsky paints an adolescent Hitler as a histrionic, humourless dandy with delusions of grandeur, repressed sexual desires and an obsession with opera -- especially those composed by Wagner.

At one point, young "Adi" steps onto an "iron bridge," a symbol of his misguided mission to change the world.

"The child is father of the man," the poet William Wordsworth once wrote.

The stories in this collection show it to be so.


Martin Zeilig is a Winnipeg freelance journalist and a longtime contributor to the Free Press.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 24, 2012 J8


Updated on Saturday, November 24, 2012 at 10:23 AM CST: fixes headline, adds fact box

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