Everyone loves a tyrant, provided he is far enough away or long enough ago. Tyrants are much more interesting than so-called democratic politicians, especially nowadays, when so many of the latter have done nothing with their lives except sit electoral office. What, for example, would Latin American literature be without tyrants? The writer of that part of the world has so many to choose from: General Melgarejo of Bolivia, for example, who marched his troops over the balcony of his palace to demonstrate their loyalty to a visitor; or Maximiliano Hernández Martínez of El Salvador, who trained himself to stare at the sun for spiritual purposes. My favorite is Justo Rufino Barrios of Guatemala, who was once seen to take a copy of the Guatemalan constitution, fold it in four, and sit on it. “I’m going to rule in Guatemala as long as I like,” he said, “and I’ll hang anyone from the nearest tree who doesn’t like it.” Full marks for sincerity and truthfulness, if not for political philosophy.
This is not, however, a propitious age for the tyrant: we prefer our tyranny to be of the creeping, surreptitious, bureaucratic, and undermining kind, rather than galloping, open, obvious, and overbearing. Tyrants are the dinosaurs of small-brained and rigid ways destined for extinction, while democratic politicians are the swift little mammals with adaptable ways who take over from the dinosaurs as the climate changes. But who is so dull that he is not fascinated by dinosaurs, even if he wouldn’t want a Tyrannosaurus rex in his garden?
I was walking down London’s Cecil Court—the haunt of people of slightly Aspergerish disposition who collect rare, though not the very rarest, books— yesterday, when I stopped at the window of a seller of banknotes from around the world. I have always liked banknotes as physical artefacts, and have kept one or two from the foreign countries that I have visited (I am not so much a collector as an accumulator). There was displayed in the window what was called “The Tyrant Collection”: six colorful banknotes marked with the portraits of various tyrants. It was cheap and I decided to buy it, which is really against my principles. Normally, I keep only banknotes of the countries I have visited, from the time I have visited them. Among them, of course, are banknotes with portraits of tyrants: Baby Doc, Julius Nyerere, Mobutu Sese Seko.
I went in. A very pleasant lady asked me whether she could help me. I asked whether the Tyrant Collection were still available. She said that it was, and then turned to the other assistant in the shop.