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The Tyrant’s Novel – by Thomas Keneally

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Keneally, the foremost modern Australian novelist, wrote this short novel after reading a piece by Mark Bowden in the May 2002 issue of the Atlantic, and his novel was in print by 2004. The story takes the form of the disclosure, by a refugee in a camp in Australia, of his story to a volunteer visitor. It is clear that the refugee is from Iraq, although everything is left fictional. The refugee is a gifted and acclaimed writer. At one time, he studied Chekhov, and Keneally achieves that tone of self-deprecation and detachment and the same hard-edged observations and insights. Keneally deliberately takes his story out of its foreign setting by giving everyone in the story common Scots and Irish derived names – like the majority of modern white Australians.

The narrator calls himself Alan Sheriff. He was an urbane intellectual in a country terrorized by a primitive tribal thug and his loyal clansmen. He was conscripted in Iraq’s war with Iran and witnessed the death of friends due to a friendly fire episode with nerve gas. He comes home, marries, and lives his life until his wife dies of a cerebrovascular accident. Among his circle of friends, there are whispered tales of the regime’s retribution against the friends of people who leave for the west, with everyone who might leave being held by the idea of friends and loved ones as hostages. The atrocities of the war, the insane excesses of the dictator and his family and clan are well-known, but the most affluent and mobile are held captive.

One day Sheriff is summoned to see the Great Uncle – the dictator – and commanded to produce a novel that will be published in the Great Uncle’s name. The Great Uncle turns out to be fan of melodramatic Western cinema and provides bizarre, narcissitic, autobiographical notes to aid in the work. Sheriff starts to collapse under the terror of his command performance superimposed on his grief and the absurdity of life under tyranny, but he pulls it off, and then buys passage out of the country hidden in a drum on a barge smuggling oil past the blockade. And he ends up in detention in an Australian camp, after telling one of the saddest stories in the world.

It is a story of self-possession and heroism by a man who does not think he has the resources to go on, a man who is coerced into a collaboration with evil, but who never gives up his spirit.

Keneally lightly touches, in one or two scenes, on whether Iraqis had hoped for armed outside intervention in Iraq. While he does not offer any strong answers, he suggests in several scenes that U.N sanctions were useless in undermining the tyrant’s command of the military and police powers of the state. Mainly, his moral broadside is delivered against Australian refugee policy, which holds refugees in indeterminate detention, as if they had committed crimes against humanity.

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