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the Complete Review
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Talk of the Devil

Riccardo Orizio

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To purchase Talk of the Devil

Title: Talk of the Devil
Author: Riccardo Orizio
Genre: Non-fiction
Written: 2002
Length: 199 pages
Original in: Italian
Availability: Talk of the Devil - US
Talk of the Devil - UK
Talk of the Devil - Canada
Allein mit dem Teufel - Deutschland
  • Encounters With Seven Dictators
  • Italian title: Parola del diavolo
  • Translated by Avril Bardoni

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Our Assessment:

B+ : unsettling glimpses of dictatorships and their aftermaths

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Daily Telegraph . 18/1/2003 Jon Ronson
The Guardian . 18/1/2003 Jad Adams
New Statesman . 24/2/2003 Mick Hume
The New Yorker . 28/7/2003 Louis Menand
Salon . 24/4/2003 Laura Miller
San Francisco Chronicle . 4/5/2003 Andrea Behr
The Spectator . 11/1/2003 Anthony Daniels
Sunday Telegraph . 19/1/2003 Noel Malcolm
TLS . 28/2/2003 Adam Hochschild
USA Today . 1/12/2003 Tom Squitieri
The Washington Post . 4/5/2003 Chandrahas Choudhury

  Review Consensus:

  Unsure about it -- though generally find it well written and, on some level, enjoyable

  From the Reviews:
  • "Perhaps Orizio discovered that these demons are beyond de-demonising, for rarely does he successfully narrow the gap between "us" and "them. Instead -- from the title onwards -- this is a book of horrified gawping, albeit elegantly written horrified gawping. (...) When I picked this book up to re-read it, I found that I didn't want to. All that monstrousness was just wearying." - Jon Ronson, Daily Telegraph

  • "Talk of the Devil is first a book of working journalism; the best story here is Orizio's own. His pursuit of clues and clandestine appointments with shadowy figures is at least as interesting as what the former tyrants have to say, sometimes more so. (...) The result is fascinating as a resource but curiously lightweight, despite the colourful cast of historical figures." - Jad Adams, The Guardian

  • "By removing its subjects from any wider historical/international context, Talk of the Devil leaves the impression that the personalities and foibles of these tinpot tyrants can explain events." - Mick Hume, New Statesman

  • "Several years ago, Riccardo Orizio, an Italian journalist, began to track down former dictators who are now living in disgrace and largely forgotten, and to interview them. The result (...) is fascinating." - Louis Menand, The New Yorker

  • "Orizio had the interesting idea of tracking down all the disgraced former dictators he could find and interviewing them. The result is by turns eerily comical, horrifying, ridiculous, depressing and just plain strange." - Andrea Behr, San Francisco Chronicle

  • "Insofar as any abstract point emerges from this book of the kind that might interest a political scientist, it is the banality of power and it holders. (...) One reads this book with a slightly shamefaced absorption." - Anthony Daniels, The Spectator

  • "And so what Orizio's book really illustrates is the banality of denial. (...) But the heart of the matter remains the evil these men first committed and then denied; and on that subject, the heart of darkness of most of these stories, this elegant and entertaining book has little light to shed." - Noel Malcolm, Sunday Telegraph

  • "But a question less frequently posed, and more suggested by this slight but enjoyable book is why, for people lucky enough not to live under dictatorships, are dictators almost pornographically fascinating ? In form and style, Orizio's artfully constructed chapters resemble nothing so much as the celebrity profile." - Adam Hochschild, Times Literary Supplement

  • "(M)any of these despots seemed calm and reasonable in their talks with Orizio. And that is the most chilling point that Orizio makes. He lets them talk and then recounts what went on in their countries under their orders. Chapters of this book should be mandatory reading in high school history classes. They show what evils people can unleash and that the horrors of a Hitler or Stalin are not just in the past. Although uneven, the tales of these tyrants punch through in vivid ways." - Tom Squitieri, USA Today

  • "This might be darkly interesting, but Orizio's actual "encounters" are often brief and padded out by lengthy how-I-managed-to-get-to-the-dictator preambles. (...) Tracking fallen tyrants down to the remote locations where they see out their lives, he finds himself only joining the ranks of those to whom these men and women have dictated." - Chandrahas Choudhury, The Washington Post

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       On the last Pink Floyd album, Roger Waters' 1983 "requiem for the post war dream", The Final Cut, the song "the fletcher memorial home" suggests:

take all your overgrown infants away somewhere

and build them a home
a little place of their own
the fletcher memorial
home for incurable tyrants and kings

and they can appear to themselves every day
on closed circuit t.v.
to make sure they're still real
it's the only connection they feel
       The international community hasn't organised such a retirement resort yet (though with the tribunals in the Hague there's some hope ...); instead, while deposed and overthrown tyrants and dictators do often manage to get themselves killed when their time is up, quite a few inconveniently impose on friends and enemies and get shuffled around from country to country before settling, generally, in some sort of exile, often still enjoying the spoils they managed to embezzle from back home.
       Talk of the Devil chronicles Riccardo Orizio's encounters with some of the really bad guys (and gals) who have managed to hang on -- at least to their lives (and have, generally, not properly been held accountable for their misdeeds). What a roll-call it is:
  • the buffoon Idi Amin Dada, who in a few short years managed to almost completely destroy Uganda
  • self-installed (and -deluded) Central African "emperor" Jean-Bedel Bokassa
  • Soviet lackey and imposer of martial law in Poland, Wojciech Jaruzelski
  • Nexhmije Hoxha, widow of the über-Stalinist Albanian dictator Enver
  • Haitian buffoon Bay Doc Duvalier
  • Ethiopian colonel Mengistu Haile-Mariam
  • Mira Milosevic, that slob Slobo's wife
       And there's a letter from incarcerated Panamanian "general" Manual Noriega.
       So: not the cream of the crop but the scum at the bottom of the barrel. Orizio reminds readers who aren't familiar with all these folks' misdeeds of many of them, but the extent of suffering and misery that these so-called leaders imposed on the people they ruled over is pretty hard to comprehend. Volumes could (and, in part, have been) filled. And it still wouldn't do justice to the injustice of what they perpetrated.
       On the one hand one admires Orizio's remarkable restraint: we can't imagine how anyone could come fact-to-face with these miserable excuses for human beings and not physically attack them. (Our copy of this book is already a mess of spit on and torn out and up pages and pictures.) Orizio approaches his subjects like a journalist apparently should: at least pretending to be neutral, trying to elicit information and comments, trying to form a picture of what has become of these people and what led them to do all the horrible things they did.
       It makes for an odd, disturbing read. Talk of the Devil is full of that now proverbial 'banality of evil': these pathetic people feel misunderstood and justified in practically everything they did, and seem to have no comprehension of their roles in destroying vast numbers of lives. They are petty, pathetic souls (without souls) -- i.e. like most people -- but since they wielded such incredible power they were able to do incredible harm. (Thank god most of us will never be in such positions of power !)
       Talk of the Devil is a voyeuristic exercise. There's always that pleasure of reading about the fall of the mighty. There's the touch of the exotic -- rumours of cannibalism ! or: did Mengistu himself strangle Haile Selassie ? -- and the always intriguing excesses. But the refusal of the subjects to accept any responsibility, and their refusal to acknowledge that what they did was not merely bad (in all senses of the word) but often literally devastating make for a disconnect from reality that makes all this seem less serious: if even these participants can delude themselves into seeing it differently -- and it is they who get most of the say, not their victims (though Orizio does include a few) -- then perhaps it wasn't all that bad anyway .....
       It appears that Orizio doesn't let them get away with it: he describes many of the horrific and stupid and criminal things they did, but since the people he presents the reader with -- the dictators he encounters -- are so very different (or, at the very least, so very deluded) in their post-dictatorial lives from the men and women who committed these atrocities it allows their past misdeeds to be seen in a more hazy and possibly even more forgiving light. Anyway, it's over and done with and all in the past now, right ? (Wrong ! wrong ! wrong!)

       Orizio chose to focus on dictators who had fallen on (relatively) hard times -- i.e. not the Pinochets and Imelda Marcoss of the world. The Hoxha widow was actually in prison when he met her, and some of the others were, if not under house arrest, certainly limited in their movements.
       Part of the fun of the book is the encounters themselves, especially how they come about: deposed dictators are often elusive, not easy to find or get to. In some cases Orizio devotes considerable space to the hunt because the actual encounters are very brief -- so with Idi Amin, for example.
       The locales are also interesting, as the dictators are often hiding in strange places: Islamic convert (and doesn't that speak well for that religion) Idi Amin has found refuge in Saudi Arabia, while Mengistu lives in relative comfort in the country of a man who is slowly trying to rival him in how to destroy the homeland: that lout Robert Mugabe's Zimbabwe (with Orizio offering a good explanation for why Mugabe gave Mengistu sanctuary).
       The figures vary in how they've adapted to their new lifestyles. Saddest of the lot is the Bokassa, who actually returned to the Central African Republic (Orizio met him in 1994, and he died in 1996). Others, like Milosevic's wife, remain active (largely in his defence) and lead relatively normal lives.
       Some try to make excuses -- Jaruzelski, especially, claiming to have been between a rock and a hard place -- but most don't have many regrets or feel they did much wrong. Predictably, when they do they get that wrong too: all of Albania's resources were wasted and the country driven to economic (and all other sorts of) ruin and the only thing Enver Hoxha's widow can think of is that: "Perhaps the abolition of religion was excessive". A surprising number of these dictators had audiences with the Pope (and doesn't that speak well for that religion -- as does the fact that Mother Theresa was a Hoxha-fan). And despite not acknowledging their wrong-doings most of them obviously do not have great PR-firms helping them out -- who certainly wouldn't have let, for example, Mengistu say:
(T)he men I most admire and respect are the North Korean leader Kim Il Sung and Cuba's Fidel Castro. (...) As for North Korea, it's a wonderful country, it's almost incredible to think what they've done in such a short time. Despite the gloomy image that he had in the international press, Kim Il Sung was the liveliest of men
       With idols like that ..... (It's a wonder he didn't find words of praise for Saddam Hussein.)

       Talk of the Devil doesn't provide a great deal of insight into the workings (if on can call it that) of the minds of these ridiculous people, but it does serve as a useful reminder of the sad stories of what happened to the countries they ruled. Bokassa's CAR and Mengistu's Ethiopia, among others, have been too readily forgotten, and the book does recount much of what went on there (and from which these two countries, in particular, have not yet recovered).
       The most interesting story of Orizio's dictatorial encounters actually comes in the book's preface, where he devotes a bit more than a page to Valentine Strasser (who spoke with Orizio, but wouldn't allow him to quote him and thus didn't rate a chapter of his own). One-time dictator of Sierra Leone (he came to power when he was twenty-six, and was deposed five years later), he hadn't put aside any cash for a rainy day and led a peripatetic exile existence before returning home (where he lives with mom and apparently aspires to becoming a marketing manager). It's almost typical -- and, along with the rest of the encounters -- can serve as a warning: power is a dangerous thing. Allow someone -- anyone -- too wield it and chances are they'll wind up doing very bad things. And: the more power, the worse. Ridiculous little men like George jr. Bush are limited in the harm they can do by a system that prevents too much power resting in one man's hands (though arguably he is still able to inflict too much harm -- if, possibly, not on the people of his own nation then certainly on citizens of others) -- thank god for the semblance of democracy !
       These dictators are remarkably ordinary folk, but they were once in positions that allowed them to do terrible, terrible things -- and, disturbingly, they all took advantage of that power, ruining the lives of, between them, tens of millions. (This book is certainly proof, once again, that anyone who believes people are fundamentally good is deluding themselves: these dictators aren't aberrant monsters, they're average Joes (and Janes) who happen to have come into some power and done with it exactly what everybody in power does: made life hell for everyone except a favoured few.)
       The book should also serve as another sort of warning; there are a lot more like them out there, similarly pathetic people who still cling to power and are doing terrible things. Saddam Hussein was the dictatorial poster-boy, but there are enough to take his place now that he's out of the way: from numerous central and western African tyrants to the new Stalinists of the Central Asian republics to the SLORC-crew in Burma (or, as they prefer it: Myanmar) bad dictators continue to thrive. And, rest assured, they'll be unrepentant even after they're put out of business.

       So: Talk of the Devil is a maddening book, perversely entertaining and perhaps not morally indignant enough. The pieces are like glossy magazine pieces, and one has to (or at least should) wonder whether this subject should be treated in this manner.
       As to the writing itself: occasionally, Orizio also succumbs to melodrama, as in the presentation of the Hoxha piece: he opens the door to her cell and says hello -- then cuts, with the next scene beginning: "They came to arrest me three days later", only slowly then returning to what happened in the prison cell, a narrative trick that a third-rate novelist would be embarrassed to employ. And -- while the writing is generally solid -- there are some horrific moments, none worse than:
     During that period Paganini was not playing his violin. Instead, he was in uniform and strumming a Kalashnikov. Composing a song called 'ethnic cleansing'.
       (That passage comes in the book's last pages; if we had found it at the beginning of the book we would have tossed it aside right then and there. Fortunately, Orizio stays on much more solid footing throughout most of the book.)

       Overall: an interesting read -- but one hopes that readers will not leave it at this and explore in greater depth the actual depth of the outrages these criminals perpetrated.

       P.S. Our solution to the retired dictator problem ? A dictator-zoo, in which they're kept penned up in tiny cages -- within spitting distance of the visitors. Inhumane ? Perhaps, but despite being so very human (as this book demonstrates) they've -- as clearly as anyone -- forfeited any right to humane treatment and deserve nothing but our undying contempt and relentless and very public censure.

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Talk of the Devil: Reviews: Riccardo Orizio: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Italian journalist Riccardo Orizio was born in 1961.

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© 2003-2008 the complete review

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