Short Story Review – Basma Abdel Aziz – Scenes from the Life of an Autocrat (trans. Elisabeth Jaquette)

He was the Autocrat: the sole person in charge of crafting the Public Poli-Strings that structured citizens’ lives, and the only man with full authority over them. 

I am reminded while reading Basma Abdel Aziz’s short story, Scenes from the Life of an Autocrat (trans. Elisabeth Jaquette), of the first hundred or so pages of Mario Vargas Llosa’s The Feast of the Goat, which shows, among other things, the last day of dictator Rafael Trujillo and how he ruled himself, and his people, with an iron fist.

The Autocrat, who is the primary character of this story, and who represents, in their mannerisms and actions, the ideal absolute ruler, has imposed upon himself immense measures of self-discipline in order to rule his country in the best way he sees fit.  Through edicts he calls ‘Poli-strings’ he manipulates the ways and mannerisms of the state, from very large changes to, well –

He also deleted words that society no longer needed, like “elect,”

This a serious story communicating through the gentle humour of the horrifically absurd.  Slowly, over time, the Autocrat demands more from his citizens, banning sugar in tea and calling it ‘health tea’, exhorting people to behave, to listen, to read his works, to follow him without question.  And they do – the country is stable.

And then his mother dies.

He didn’t understand how [his mother] could have died without his permission or authorization. Thinking about it wore him down. His eyes became red, and the twitch—which spread from his right eye to the left over the next few days—kept him from sleeping. Then his hand began to twitch when he was holding his pen, and this terrified him the most; he hadn’t written anything for a week. Without the usual decrees, the citizens became terrified too. Some began scouring the newspapers hundreds of times a day, hoping to find a term or Poli-String to set their minds at ease or alleviate their growing anxiety, but it was no use. They felt naked all of a sudden. There had been no warnings, no chance for them to adapt. No Poli-Strings to show them what was right and wrong, nothing to tell them what to do. They fell into a strange void, and the Autocrat suffered doubly.

The Autocrat, it seems, has fallen under the dictatorial sway of constant poli-strings, new rules, and changing requirements as much as anyone else.  He has come to believe in his own infallibility because, for so long, there was never any proof otherwise.  He attempts to combat death by editing the grammar of it away, while at the same time succumbing to the belief that he actually can.  Who is the slave and who the master?

It’s touching, in a way, that the death of his mother it was causes the Autocrat to crack and become mad.  It humanises him, though of course his response is to embed himself further into the reality-bending nightmare he has created.

The story ends as it must, though it is no less satisfying for it.  The Autocrat becomes fully unhinged, and his intense grasp on the nation and its people is proven to be so strong that the country does not, in fact, need him at all in order to continue.  His poli-strings can be, and are, written by another, and instead of celebrating with joy that a dictator has fallen, the country continues to participate in its own self-erasure, and the rest of the world continues to turn, leaving the nation behind, falling, lost.

Scenes from the Life of an Autocrat is a short story by Egyptian writer Basma Abdel Aziz, and was translated by Elisabeth Jaquette.  You can read the story online at World Literature Today.

Author Basma Abdel Aziz
Title Scenes from the Life of an Autocrat
Translator Elisabeth Jaquette
Nationality Egyptian
Publisher World Literature Today

Please visit the Short Story Reviews page to see all of the available reviews.

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