A Portrait of the Dictator as a Young Man
Anton Piatigorsky’s new short story collection, “The Iron Bridge,” takes a fascinating concept, and produces six extraordinarily crafted tales. The idea is a simple one. Piatigorsky creates a seminal adolescent moment in the lives of six young men, each of whom would become one of the world’s most-feared dictators.
When I first read the idea for this collection, I was envisioning more of a comedic approach: a teenaged Hitler playing beach volleyball and frolicking in the surf. Something far more pedestrian and simple than what the author presents here.
These stories’ protagonists are all big hitters in the dictatorial world: Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, Mao, Trujillo, Idi Amin. They take different tacks, though.
In “Tea is Better than Pepsi,” we find Idi Amin as a dishwasher slaving in a British-led African military base. Amin finds himself unhappy with his lot, until a situation arises during a soccer game. Amin finds himself ready to display the power and leadership he’d come to know was inside him.
Adolf Hitler’s story strikes true, showing “Adi” as a self-important, daydreaming young dandy, coddled by his mother, beaten by his father. His visions are grandiose, and full of changes he would one day affect upon his home town as a great and wealthy artist. He flashes back to playing war with other boys, but that was it violence-wise; his aspirations were all cultural, not military. He wears a top hat, carries an ebony walking stick, and fancies himself a great arbiter of the arts, though he shows flashes of sudden and furious rage.
Mao finds himself forced into an arranged marriage he doesn’t want. Pol Pot visits a dancer in the royal court, and ends up with an experience he never could have imagined. Trujillo is a fastidious young man, always impeccably dressed, his face heavily powdered to obscure the hated dark “flaws” in his complexion.
I especially liked Stalin’s tale. He’s a student at an Orthodox seminary school, and he gets into an ideological battle with another student over Social Darwinism, and how he’d use Socialism to change society. The way he wins predicts the skill and ruthlessness that will ultimately lead him to wield absolute control over a superpower.
While these short stories are just that—short pieces of fiction—Piatigorsky read extensively about each of his young protagonists, devouring not only biographies of the tyrants’ childhood years, but also psychological studies where available. The research helps a great deal.
More importantly, though, Anton Piatigorsky has a true storyteller’s gift. On relatively small canvases—most of these stories are 40 to 50 pages—the author paints vivid portraits of our young dictators-to-be. These are not bad kids. They’re not necessarily little angels either, but they are confused, frustrated teenaged boys. There was something inside each of them, though, that led them to a terrible crossroads.
Most of these tales actually lead to one crossroads or another. For some—Amin, for example—it was a seminal moment of self-discovery, where he learned the power he had inside. For others, the climaxes set them off down a long path toward their ultimate destinies. For still others, we see how the world and their inner-natures were clearing the way for the cruel madness they’d ultimately exhibit.
What Piatigorsky attempts here is an interesting literary exercise—what were six of history’s most brutal men like as teenagers? The result is far from perfunctory. Each of these stories is well-crafted, and takes us inside the subjects’ respective cultures. Most of all, each is a thoughtful, creative, unorthodox fiction winnowed from great and horrible lives that were far-too-real.
(nb: I received an advance review copy from the publisher via Edelweiss)