The Tyrant’s Novel

ISBN: 1740932811
ISBN 13: 9781740932813
By: Thomas Keneally Paul English

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About this book

The author of Schindler's List examines a more contemporary instance of people trying to survive in the ethical quagmire of totalitarianism. The protagonist is Alan Sheriff, a writer living in a nameless desert country ruled by a despot who styles himself the "Great Uncle" and who bears an uncanny resemblance to a certain recently deposed dictator. A member of the Westernized cultural elite with a fat book contract from Random House, Alan feels himself immune from the political pressures and poverty surrounding him. Then one day he is whisked off to receive a commission from the tyrant himself: to ghostwrite a novel for Great Uncle that will undermine support for sanctions in the West—on a quite literal one-month deadline. Fearing for himself and his friends, torn between remaining in his gilded cage or striking out for a precarious existence abroad, Alan must make agonizing compromises with the truth and his art.

Reader's Thoughts

Mike Finn

Excellent novel about living in a Middle East tyranny.

Denise Drespling

Minus whatever political agenda it may have, for me, this book was a tale of a man who has suffered, been faced with extreme decisions, and suffered some more. It is an emotional journey, captivating and brought forth by a writer with great skill. Keneally has a way of showing deep emotion without making it overly dramatic. Instead, his characters suffer quietly, but realistically. I can imagine that people in other countries, not so lucky as ours to be free, face situations like this. I can't wait to read Schindler's Ark (List) next!


Keneally writes a novel which is all about the fate of intellectuals and artists in Iraq in the UN sanctions period. He then saddles himself with two very awkward conventions which do the book no favours at all. First, I guess if you're writing about a contemporary government, you cloak the country's real name and change all the names of the towns and rivers and so forth. Maybe this is to avoid the lawyers or an icepick in the back of the head. The ghost of Salman Rushdie must appear to writers at this point. So Saddam Hussain is called Great Uncle throughout. But furthermore, Keneally gives all his Iraqis Western names, such as Peter Collins, Matt McCloud, Sarah, Bernie, Alan Sheriff, and so on. This is because he wants to remove the otherness from his characters. "I would very much like to be the man you meet in the street. A man with a name like Alan. If we all had good Anglo-Saxon names...or if we were not, God help us, Said and Osmaa and Saleh. If we had Mac instead of Ibn." Thus says the narrator right at the beginning. This device, well-intentioned as it may be, unfortunately turns out to have the opposite effect. The Western reader is alienated even more from the peculiar situations and melodramatic twists and turns because stuff like this doesn't remotely happen in Western countries. (Stuff like visiting your country's supreme leader who could at any moment pull out a revolver and shoot you, and being forced to dress in a sterile surgeon's suit for the interview because of Great Uncle's health paranoia). So this naming convention saps a lot of the reality out of the whole thing. But even so, this novel reads like a cerebral exercise anyway, all about a guy who is given (by Saddam) an impossible deadline to write a novel exposing the Western sanctions as pointless and inhumane, and whilst the guy agrees with this argument he hates Saddam (naturally) and wants nothing to do with helping him, and conflicted loyalties and artistic compromise and blah blah blah. Oh, and the most beautiful woman in Iraq being the narrator's wife, and the second most beautiful woman in Iraq proposing to the narrator once the other one dies. And blah blah blah. I mean, really.


great story-within-a-story that humanises the forgotten faces behind asylum-seeker statistics without resorting to sentimentality or two-dimensional characters, not an easy task.


Couldn't finish.

Greta Roussos

Reading about Tyrant's sweetens my enjoyment of freedom. As always, Keneally writes an interesting, unusual story with strong emotional impact. Near perfect.


Interesting premise

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