What does it really mean to have a tyrannical father?

Disappointingly, we are none the wiser for reading Jay Nordlinger’s ‘inquiry’ into the children of 20 dictators — except that Castro’s ten-year-old had plenty to say about the banning of Christmas in Cuba

24 October 2015

9:00 AM

24 October 2015

9:00 AM

Children of Monsters: An Inquiry into the Sons and Daughters of Dictators Jay Nordlinger

Encounter Books, pp.336, £17.99, ISBN: 9781594038150

What was it like, asks Jay Nordlinger, to have Mao as your father, or Pol Pot, or Papa Doc? The answer is that while all happy families are alike, the children of monsters are unhappy in their own way. Some dictatorial offspring are fairly normal while others are psychos. Nicu Ceausescu, son of the rulers of Romania, was from the age of 14 a figure of ‘comic-book evil’ whose hobbies included raping women. His brother, Valentin, is bookish and quiet, has a close circle of decent friends and works at the Institute of Atomic Physics outside Bucharest.

For Svetlana Alliluyeva, being Stalin’s daughter was like being, as she put it, ‘already dead’. We can surmise that Kim Jong-il, the eldest son and successor of North Korea’s Kim Il-sung, felt differently (fans of Team America will recall his heartfelt strain, ‘I’m so ronery, so ronery, so ronery and sadly alone’). Colonel Gaddafi apparently raised his seven sons, all ‘gruesome’ and ‘goonishly handsome’, to be sadists.

Hitler had no official offspring, but a certain Frenchman, Jean-Marie Loret, was told by his mother when he reached the age of 30 that ‘ton père s’appelait Hitler’. As a result of this bombshell, Loret grew a Hitler moustache and adorned his home with pictures of his dad. When Alina Fernández discovered, aged ten, that her father was Fidel Castro, she implored her mother to ‘ask him to come here right away! I have so many things I want to tell him!’ He needed to know about shortages of clothes and meat, and, she writes in her memoir, Castro’s Daughter: ‘I also wanted to ask him to give our Christmas back’ (between 1969 and 1998, Castro banned Christmas). Alina later defected to America: ‘Fidel has ruined Cuba,’ she said in a radio broadcast. ‘And for what? I don’t think he even knows.’

Children of Monsters is a collection of 20 Wikipedia-style entries. Why 20, you may ask? ‘I drew up a list of dictators I thought I should survey,’ explains Nordlinger, a senior editor of the American magazine National Review, ‘and it came to 20.’ His information, which comes from biographies, memoirs and interviews, rarely strays beyond the remits of jaunty anecdote. ‘Here’s something that may amuse you,’ he writes. ‘For months on end, I borrowed books about dictators — psychopaths, mass-murderers — from the local library. I was worried that the librarians would have concerns about such a borrower.’ Is this guy for real?

In his introduction, Nordlinger describes his book as ‘peculiar’, meaning that the subject is an unusual one. But it’s not as peculiar as all that: an excellent biography of Stalin’s daughter by Rosemany Sullivan appeared earlier this year, and since Peter York (of the Sloane Ranger Handbook) explored the décor of the world’s despots in his lavish Dictator’s Homes (2005), books about the domestic lives of dictators have taken on a coffee-table quality.

The only peculiar aspect of Children of Monsters is its prose style. It reads as though it were written in ‘how-you-say’ broken English. Thus Ceausescu’s daughter, Zoia, ‘was — how to put this? — a party girl’. Nordlinger’s discussion of Franco’s daughter Carmen (now in her 90th year) ‘leads me to an aside (and a somewhat rude one at that): much plastic surgery has been conducted on Dona Carmen’. When Svetlana Alliluyeva defects from Russia to America, Nordlinger pauses to ask: ‘But wait a second. Didn’t she have two children back in the Soviet Union? She did.’

What children are like depends partly on how their parents treat them, and in the case of dictators’ families there is precious little to go on, and most of it is hearsay. Castro’s private life is so guarded that the CIA is left wondering whether he even has a wife, and we only know that Kim Jong-un (current Supreme Leader of the People’s Democratic Party of Korea) has a daughter called Kim Ju-ae because the former basketball star Dennis Rodman, who is friends with Kim Jung-un, says so. From Mao’s doctor, Li Zhisui, we learn that the Chairman was ‘devoid of human feeling, incapable of love, friendship, or warmth’, while Mao’s wife described her husband as having been ‘utterly democratic at home’.

Here’s another anecdote. When Nordlinger was writing his book he had lunch with his friend Tom Greisha, a judge in New York. Hearing what Nordlinger’s subject was, Greisha ‘had just one comment — simple yet oddly profound. “People are interesting”.’

Nordlinger’s achievement — no mean feat — is to make the children of monsters less interesting than they initially seemed. ‘This book is, in part,’ he grumpily concedes, ‘a psychological study, I suppose.’ But he steers away from anything that comes close to an analysis of the effects of being sired by a maniac.

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  • Fred Collier


  • Jackthesmilingblack

    “What does it really mean to have a tyrannical father?”
    Why not have a word with Prince Chuck?

  • Jay Nordlinger’s prose style — somewhat precious, like a diarist that has been reading his diary to uncritical family members for years — is an acquired taste. I haven’t acquired it.

    • pedestrianblogger

      The world is full of acquired tastes. Rap “music”, for one.

      • Yes, and thanks for your other reply! : )

  • RobinHMasters
  • James

    Did the reviewer even read the book? I did, and this review is bunk.