There are several other examples of the sort of narrative Paul William Roberts offers us in The Demonic Comedy. I'll mention just a few: Orwell's Homage to Catalonia, under-fire war reportage (Orwell at least got shot, a feat Roberts avoids); James Fenton's All the Wrong Places, dispatches from revolutionary fronts, just after wars or during interregnums (like Fenton, Roberts seeks out the most terrifying countries to write about-dangerous places, where one could get shot, or worse; places you have to be out of your mind to visit-let alone to relish doing so); and peripherally, Hunter Thompson's booze-and-speed-addled ratchetings about with or without Ralph Steadman (Roberts's early carouses in Iraq compare palely with Thompson's accounts of his wilder days, but they do compare: these two bad boys do play in the same league-especially witness Roberts's telling of his chat with Saddam Hussein while wrecked on Ecstasy; of which story, more later).
Let's look at the foundation, framing, and finishing of the Comedy. Roberts initially visits Iraq in 1990 with the Egyptian delegation to an Arab summit held in Baghdad. The eight-year war with Iran, which ended in 1988, has exhausted the country. Roberts's stay is packed with close encounters of the sleaziest kind: a visit to a grotesque national monument; attempts to help an Egyptian friend get back his stolen savings. It culminates in that interview with Saddam.
Roberts rationalizes his practice of writing Iraqi English phonetically; it is less ridiculous, he claims, to report conversations in this way than to try the reverse, a translation of his awful-and others' native-Arabic. Granted. But he does set down most interviewees' speech for comic effect, often to score points with the reader and against those whom he despises or just wants to have fun with. Later in the book he talks secretly with people he respects, and most of the funny pronunciations and spellings fall away, leaving, in weird word order perhaps, the clear message, the cry of the oppressed.
Saddam understands English, speaks it a little, will even answer a few questions about matters of taste. Roberts talks to the interpreter (aka the Court Scribe): "`What does he read? Does he read? Well, obviously he does read. But for pleasure...?' I felt I'd asked how frequently he masturbated, judging by the response. `And movies? What about movies? Does he-'
"`I enjoy verr mudge Godfader moofy,' Saddam suddenly announced, in a sort of eminently reasonable voice.
"`Marlon Brando, er...that one?'
"`Yejd, Marclon Brundo. Verr fine agtor.'
"Maybe I should let Marlon know...
"`I heard the President's wife works as the vice-principal of a school, and wh -'
"`Prizipal,' Saddam butted in, somewhat indignantly. `She wass promoded to prizipal on hair own merde-'
"`Merit,' the Scribe hastily added...
"Saddam muttered something, his voice like crumpling cellophane.
"`The President would prefer it if you asked him about political matters only. His personal life is very precious to him.'
"`Does he...er, does he see himself as the second Nasser?'
"Saddam jumped in angrily. `No! I am first Saddam!'"
The first or "Paradise" section of The Demonic Comedy also summarizes modern Middle Eastern political history, in a brisk fifteen-page primer about oil-fuelled mandates and international machinations. And Roberts (D.Phil., Oxon.) treats his audience somewhat donnishly to a critical summary of an official biography of Saddam. This thin volume is such a pile of lies and illogical pomp that the reason for Roberts's wasting the time to mention it at all is a puzzler. The point of this exercise seems to be one more implication that Saddam is not too bright-if he allows this stuff to be published about him. Perhaps he is not, but low animal cunning can go a long way for a dictator.
Part two of the book, the "Purgation", takes place during the Gulf War. Armed with chutzpah, a bag of medical supplies, and a lot of hard cash, Roberts gets himself smuggled from Jordan into Iraq by Bedouins at precisely the worst time. But first, because there isn't enough of a thrill in a narrative of being bombed to fill one third of the book, a little sidebar Zionist history is provided, with a plausible explanation for one of the many instances of fractiousness in the Middle East, the Israeli-Palestinian feud. Roberts has a nice understanding of this spat. "You get nowhere in the Middle East by taking sides...work it out, for crissakes!"
(The same could perhaps be said for the Americans and Saddam, except for the difficulties of finding a mediator brave, wise, and patient enough to sit between a psychopathic bully and a herd of oil-greedy, hypocritical liars-assuming these two sides could be brought together. Kofi Annan, if the deal he works out holds, deserves this year's Nobel Prize for Peace.)
Roberts of course gets bombed, both on the way to Baghdad and in the city itself. He loses the use of an ear but nothing else worth mentioning save some of his innocence, and doctors a lot of Iraqis put to a brutal tutorial by the smart bombs. "If you've only seen this kind of thing in movies before, it will shock you to the core. It's horrible," he observes of a blasted village.
Roberts's description of his nights under fire possess an agreeable modesty he prefers to call surgical. Before being smuggled up to Turkey, he's arrested and stripped, dungeoned and finally rescued by his guides-his first-aid activities have set him in a good light-just in time to be bombed and to play doctor, again. "A little later, Muhie and some of the soldiers showed me an obliterated hi-tech death-factory cunningly arranged to look as if it had been an elementary school. Scraps of kids' art projects fluttered beneath crumbling concrete slabs and twisted metal rods. A little exercise book lay stained by fire and rain, with the universal language of children's art and words etched in rudimentary English that were just too apt and too heartbreaking to be ever repeated." And that is the mid-point of Roberts's parodic vortex. The man is not without subtlety. One usually thinks of hell as being hot. Iraq during Desert Storm was fiercely cold, a bit like Dante's inmost circle, but with a lot more sound and light.
The third section, "Inferno", is set after the war, in 1995, when Roberts is invited to an exuberantly tacky "International Babylon Festival". This last trip is an eerie snapshot of the damned country and its inhabitants. They are enslaved by a tyrant (himself besieged), having been bombed nearly into two dimensions, having to make do daily with a grotesquely inflated currency that anyway can find few or no local or imported foodstuffs or other commodities to buy.
Again, to his credit, Roberts admits to not having seen it all. "I was shocked to the core. [Roberts's editor should have been set to write many apologetic lines on the blackboard after school for letting these "cores" be exposed in public print.]...For over twenty years, what has been happening to Iraq amounts to a psychological holocaust, an atrocity that almost no one in the west seems to grasp in all its awful scope and complexity...."
Two broad hints at the scope of the atrocity are dropped to end the book. Roberts talks to a pair of desperate informants (whose identities he fictionalizes), who brim and spill over with rage and sorrow concerning the nation's bondage (and their own). In the main, they tell stories of mass murder by powerful government officials, with small, heartbreaking asides about daily privations. The tale almost ends there, depressingly enough. Roberts and a photographer friend sneak back to Jordan, perhaps just before they might have been driven somewhere else by an official chauffeur and disappeared.
So there I sat, fixed to CNN by its clips of fighters being flung off carriers; of grim-looking boys and codgers drilling in Baghdad dust; of Saddam striding purposefully somewhere, attended by solemn moustaches; of a retired American general sombrely assuring the news hostess of his "every confidence" that, though some collateral damage would occur during the bombing-which also was likely to happen within days-if Saddam truly had no weapons of mass destruction, then his population would not be harmed (and if he was concealing these weapons, then the Iraqi people's safety was in his hands). I was a ghoul waiting to watch a public execution.
The means to the end probably haven't changed much in the seven winters since the Gulf War, nor has the end-to bomb weapons, stored or in use (and whatever or whoever happens to be nearby), and to leave Saddam posturing in place. (Saddam's son, Roberts's informants claim, is more of an enthusiastic sadist than the old brute himself.) In his last visit to Iraq, Roberts notices a great split between the public and private opinions of the Iraqi citizens he encounters. We see nothing of that dichotomy in the wealthy American media. CNN reporters pop in and out of Iraq frequently and tell the news-hungry CNN audience that Iraqis, being isolated from the family of nations, build Saddam his huge empty palaces as acts of desperate civic piety. (He may be a son of a bitch, but he's our son of a bitch, as one corollary of the Big Lie has it.) See what we can do on our own, under the yoke of sanctions. We are told that they reject, or at least disapprove of the conditions of the oil-for-food bargain, because they feel, as citizens of an ancient civilization, demeaned by these strictures.
Perhaps this is true. But Roberts's interview among the ruins and beneath the bombs with a nameless imam who speaks good English cuts much closer to the quick. "...the old imam made it very clear that neither he nor God wanted anything to do with Saddam Hussein.
"`His piety is a sham,' he said. `...he was and is an atheist. This war is not a holy war, it is a war of selfishness, ignorance, power, greed...'
"The imam had memorized the entire Koran, he informed me modestly, adding, `the holy book has much to say on war, for peace comes from war. Yet the war about which Islam teaches is a war in the human soul, not...that abomination of guns and blood for the sake of mere oil and money.'"
I have not heard such statements broadcast on CNN from inside Iraq. Either opinions have changed in that country-which I doubt-or CNN reporters don't talk to the right people; or they may have too close a tail on them to get to the right people. This too is possible; they're pretty well known, whereas Roberts is a cipher, by contrast. Or CNN reporters may just choose not to report what they hear because they want to avoid having on their consciences the blood of those whose tenuous safety they compromise. Or perhaps CNN simply wants to retain the opportunity of letting us all take in the exciting fireworks show from the Baghdad Hilton, if and when that happens again.
A note on style. Roberts has a respectable range. In presenting scenes of slapstick foolery (whether cloaking menace or not), he narrates in easy, sarcastic, slanging demotic. Here he is, blitzed, being driven by some thug to meet Saddam:
"The back seat of al-Jazzar's Toyota Ideologue Sedan-or whatever his locomotive of a car was named-felt unnaturally springy. So did I...I was quite perky, in fact...I was in supernaturally fine shape...
"`Put the radio on, al...Jazzar's a cool name, isn't it? No, really. Not Iraqi, is it? Where'd you get it? I wouldn't mind picking up one for myself-'
"Maybe I should shut up, I suddenly decided. Baghdad might break with all this good cheer in one happy little bundle. It looked quite cheerful already, though. Actually, it was quite an attractive city. Flowers, trees, cars-cheerful cars: lots of stickers and furry dangling dice. The people looked great, too. The women, oh man! The women looked fabulous!
"It was then I recalled deciding that the women looked like shit, but the men looked fabulous. Maybe there were a totally different batch of people out today? Or maybe I was someone else. I felt much more like someone else, now I dwelt on it."
For moments of intense pathos or horror, as we've noted, his language grows quieter, more elevated in tone. He even lets slip here and there an unattributed tag from the English classics. Roberts manipulates these linguistic extremes with considerable skill, warping and woofing them into the pattern of the text among the strands of historical narrative. These last are at times pedestrianly phrased, but even they often take on a caustic sprightliness:
"King Ibn Saud had to be talked out of bringing a herd of sheep, a barge of vegetables, and several hundred retainers on board, eventually settling for a few dozen retainers and just enough sheep to feed himself and his entourage (custom required him to feed everyone else too, and it wasn't easy to tell him that this was unnecessary). Even then he had his tent erected on the deck [of the destroyer the USS Quincy] to sleep in, and the crew had to regularly swab a poop deck awash with poop, gore, blood, and sheep entrails before the captain saw it and went berserk. Roosevelt, a dedicated smoker, even had to haul himself into the ship's elevator every time he needed a burn, because Ibn Saud's religious principles didn't permit him to be around smokers (at another meeting, Churchill had rudely informed Ibn Saud that his own religious principles did not permit him to go more than ten minutes without a slug of cognac and never at all without a huge tobacco turd stuck in his face)."
This anti-totalitarian polemic is better than most. Its chief value is its immediacy, but its interest is also autobiographical. Roberts is a brave and intelligent man. He is not foolish enough to go back to Iraq now (on the Internet, for Microsoft's Live Expedition page-www.mungopark.com-he retraced recently the journey of the Magi and remarked, skirting Iraq, "Travelling lowers your tolerance for dictatorships."). In an ideal world, he would be denied a visa to the States, given his willingness to implicate the American government in the oppression of the Iraqi people. He realizes that Saddam at least feels threatened: by Kurds in the north; Shiites in the south; the heavies who guard the heavies who guard him and who have, by encouraging others on his behalf for thirty years, touched as much pitch as he has and have been to the same extent defiled. (Czeslaw Milosz says in The Captive Mind that "naked fear is unlikely ever to be inclined to abdicate." Saddam is stuck. Where would he go to consider himself any safer? How would he deal with the boredom of not having a country to savage? By the way, reading Roberts, one is introduced to a set of Iraqis very different from the cultured, reasonable public speakers that maintain Saddam's governmental phenomena in response to American war preparations. These men-Tariq Aziz and co.-may be patriots, prey to the delusion that, if they do not collaborate and perhaps glue a veneer of civilization to the Iraqi persona, things would be much worse than they already are. Alternatively, they may simply be goons with good English grammar. It will be instructive to remark their fate when Saddam is eventually replaced, or before that inevitability.)
One usually travels when it's at least partially enjoyable to do so. Therefore in the usual sense, this is not a travel book. It is a belly-of-the-beast book, a perverse book, a book about perversion written by a straight observer. Roberts grows older and becomes less foolhardy throughout his story-offstage perhaps, but truly more sensible, nonetheless, and more rueful-though he remains, as he calls himself elsewhere, a bit of an "adrenaline junkie". In parts two and three, gone are many of the traces of Gonzo junior that zest the first visit. Roberts closes The Demonic Comedy with a pair of snippets from Dante and Rumi, both little optimistic hymns to light and the opening out of hope. There would seem to be nowhere else to look but up.
Ted Whittaker, a frequent reviewer of books, lives and works in Toronto.