The title of the book is “How to Feed a Dictator” but the question implied is, “Why would you feed a dictator?” and the answer, over and over again, is a version of, “So I didn’t get shot in the face.”
Witold Szablowski, whose last book was the startling “Dancing Bears,” spoke with chefs of the despots named in his subtitle, “Saddam Hussein, Idi Amin, Enver Hoxha, Fidel Castro and Pol Pot Through the Eyes of Their Cooks.”
Nearly all the chefs in “Dictator” feared their employers. Most did not apply for the job, but were simply told they had been chosen to supply one of the most hated men in history with three squares a day. As Hussein’s chef, Abu Ali, puts it, “Could I have refused Saddam? I don’t know, but I preferred not to try.”
More than half of the book consists of their words (set off by double-rule lines, it’s not clear if the first-person accounts are direct quotations or artfully edited summaries). Szablowski lets them tell their own stories, only interrupting to provide historical context or background for the interviews, one of which was conducted under the condition that Szablowski not reveal Hoxha’s cook’s name, even though the Albanian mass murderer ate his last meal 35 years ago.
Szablowski answers the obvious questions: Did Idi Amin really eat human flesh? Probably not, and the persistence of the rumor may owe more to racism than cannibalism. What do dictators eat? Nothing fancy, and only after a taster samples it. How did it feel to dine in relative luxury while their people starved? The despots didn’t care or, maybe, notice.
As in “Dancing Bears,” which used captive animals as a metaphor for people who lived under and still missed tyrannous regimes, Szablowski is most interested in the confounding contradictions that make us human. This becomes clear in the section about one of Pol Pot’s cooks, Yong Moeun, who consistently defends the genocidal warlord and almost certainly was in love with him.
Much more than in the other chapters, Szablowski does step in here, delicately, to shed light on the impossible dilemma of the cooks. In an interview with a Cambodian official, he learns that Cambodia’s “Khmer Rouge used hunger as a political instrument,” not only to fatten up dictators but also to deliberately starve their subjects, assuring that they’d live in fear.
The cooks, of course, were among those in fear. Szablowski explains that that’s why he allows their contradictions to stand in the quoted sections.
“We simply have to trust the cooks,” Szablowski writes, with the kind of analysis the book could use more of. “Just as we would trust them if we met them and they cooked for us. We must allow them to tell their stories — and remember them just as they wish to be remembered.”
Even the book’s structure nods to the precarious existence of the cooks, as well as the relationship of food and power. Its chapters are titled “Breakfast,” “Lunch,” “Snack,” etc.
That seems logical in a book about food until you arrive at the last chapter and discover that the titles don’t refer to courses. Those seeming antidotes to hunger are the names of the waves of bombs the U.S. dropped on Cambodia in 1969, secretly trying to carpet-bomb it into submission.
How to Feed a Dictator
By: Witold Szablowski, translated from the Polish by Antonia Lloyd-Jones.
Publisher: Penguin Books, 268 pages, $17.