The Tyrant’s Novel
Thomas Keneally's The Tyrant’s Novel is openly based on an article written by Mark Bowden that appeared in The Atlantic Monthly in 2002. Bowden, the author of Black Hawk Down (1999), in this article offered readers an in-depth and somewhat personal look into Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, life under his regime, and his employment of ghostwriters. It was the exploration of the latter that inspired The Tyrant’s Novel, which, in Keneally's fashion, explores political, historical, and moral issues affecting its characters and readers alike.
Set in an undisclosed detention camp, undocumented refugee Alan Sheriff finds that his new host country will not grant him political asylum, nor will they return him to his homeland for fear that his life would be in danger. As a result, the antihero Sheriff is detained for an indefinite period of time in a double-walled relocation camp with other refugees who find themselves in similar limbos. During his first three years in detention, he develops a relationship with a journalist, Alice, and an unnamed writer, the narrator. Sheriff shares his autobiography with the narrator, which Sheriff admits to be “the saddest and silliest story you have ever heard.”
Sheriff's tale begins in an unnamed country that bares a striking resemblance to Iraq. A one-time Middle Eastern ally turned enemy of the United States, Sheriff's country suffers heavily under U.S. sanctions and a corrupt dictatorship. Keneally is able to illustrate the terror and injustice Sheriff's fellow citizens continuously endure living under their tyrant, who has many titles including Great Uncle. Great Uncle lives in multiple palaces, while his starving citizens, as a result of untreated water and despicable living conditions, die in the streets from cholera and other diseases. Keneally also lets the reader know that there is no saying no to Great Uncle; if the tyrant wants something, he gets it. In The Tyrant’s Novel, it is the writing talent of Sheriff that Great Uncle is after and acquires.
Sheriff's life comes crashing down around him when his young, lovely, and talented wife, Sarah Manners, dies suddenly from a cerebral aneurysm. Prior to her death, Sheriff and Sarah had lived a somewhat privileged life. Sheriff had been a prominent international writer who received critical acclaim for a collection of short stories based on his tour of duty in the wars of Summer Island, where his country fought against an enemy only known as The Others. Nationally loved, Sarah was once a famous television and stage actress. Her career ended when she refused to act any longer as a mouthpiece for the state in her daily soap opera. Although she stated a sudden affliction of migraine headaches as her official reason for leaving the small screen, in truth it was a silent protest against Great Uncle.
At the time of Sarah's death, Sheriff's recently finished first novel was to be published in the United States. The novel told a fictional account of the wars his country had been through, and the unbearable suffering under which his country continues to live as a result of the sanctions imposed by the United States. In an act of despair and mourning, he buried the newly completed manuscript and computer disks with Sarah, as a tribute to her, and threw his laptop into the river. By doing this, the novel belonged to Sarah, and Sarah alone.
Now alone and on the brink of suicide, Sheriff begins to translate and subtitle Western films for the National Broadcasting Network, which his close friend, and Sarah's former producer, Andrew Kennedy has been appointed to run by Great Uncle. It is through his literary work and film translation that Sheriff catches the attention of Great Uncle. While at work one day, Kennedy and Sheriff's friend Matt McBrien (recently appointed commissioner of culture), escort Sheriff to a waiting car, where he is blindfolded and taken to one of the Tyrant’s many palaces. After a thorough decontamination and examination process, Sheriff is taken to meet Great Uncle himself.
It is during this meeting that Sheriff learns...
(The entire section is 1687 words.)