July 12, 2016
Hesperus Press returns with a novella written by Saddam Hussein
by Chad Felix
When we last checked in on Hesperus Press, the news was all bad, bad, very bad: the independent London house was in precarious legal territory with regard to the book The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared by Jonas Jonasson, which it published in 2012. Following publication, the book became a huge bestseller, a fact that allowed the very small press (they had just four full-time employees at the time) to create two new imprints. This was exciting and welcome news.
Then the entire Hesperus staff resigned without public explanation. A move that confounded the publishing industry, it was coordinated by Hesperus’s then-Head of Publishing, Nikki Griffiths — whose name may prove familiar to devoted MobyLives readers, as Hespersus’s loss has been Melville House UK’s gain. Seeing a number of looming problems with the press’s finances (controlled entirely by its owners), including that Jonasson, their most successful author, wasn’t being paid (and wasn’t, reportedly, the only one), staffers chose not to compromise their professionalism any further. In response to this mass resignation, journalists and trade professionals went looking for answers—which led them to discover, and promptly report on, the wrongdoing.
Jonasson had reportedly received one small royalty payment in 2012—and nothing else. Just crickets in the mailbox.
We did our very best to parse the details then, following the story through June 2015, when the press hired a new team and promised to resolve any outstanding legal issues. Since then, all has been quiet on the Hesperus front. Which leads one to wonder, what all has this eager new staff been doing for the last year? What are they planning? Well, now we know.
As reported by The Guardian’s Sian Cain, Hesperus is back with plans to publish a novella by none other than Saddam Hussein, Ekhroj minha ya mal’un. The title translates roughly to “Damned One, Get out of Here,” though Hesperus has yet to ivounce their English edition’s title.
So, okay. A novella. By Saddam Hussein.
Dictator Lit! It’s not unheard of, and it’s certainly not without academic utility or intrigue. I mean, what better—or, if not better, more interesting—way to understand an oppressive regime’s consideration of the arts than through the literary endeavors of its leaders? It is, however a strange, probably contentious, move for a press with such a turbulent recent history.
Hesperus knows that; their spokesperson told The Guardian:
We said we wanted to come back with something interesting. This is the way we wanted to go ahead … and it is topical, very ‘de jour’, with the Chilcot inquiry and the 10th anniversary [of Hussein’s death] coming up.
We were concerned that some of the writers would not be comfortable to be associated with Hesperus once we published this book, but we’re politically neutral. We only publish what we find interesting.
Ekhroj minha ya mal’un, which is due out this December and will be released alongside the launch of a new imprint “focusing on ‘eastern’ literature,” does indeed sound interesting. And from a marketing and publicity perspective, that interest can be pretty valuable.
But is the book good? Well, probably not. While Hesperus calls it, “a mix between Game of Thrones and the UK House of Cards-style fiction,” the New York Times was, in 2005, less impressed: “a forgettable piece of pulp,” they said, which was also—lest we forget—written by mass murderer.
And remembering that little fact is important, especially when one considers the book’s plot (per the Times):
The story tells of Ezekiel, a greedy schemer who plots to overthrow the sheik of a tribe with the help of a powerful enemy aiming to conquer and annihilate all Arabs but is ultimately defeated by the sheik’s daughter with the help of an Arab warrior. This is viewed as a metaphor for a Zionist-Christian plot against Arabs and Muslims.
Hesperus is also considering publishing Saddam Hussein’s novels and journals. Here’s hoping their “eastern” imprint expands to publish lesser-known authors that didn’t, you know, kill a lot of people.
Chad Felix is the Director of Library and Academic Marketing at Melville House, and a former bookseller.