In power, they were megalomaniacs, ruthless oppressors, torturers, bandits, liars, human slime. Now they are gone from power, hollow, harmless, pitiful were it not for the memories. Gen. Alfredo Stroessner, dictator of Paraguay for 35 years, dodders in exile in Brazil, while Gen. Manuel Noriega, dictator of Panama for much of the 1980s, is enjoying the meticulous respect of the U.S. judicial system.
Their banishments were fairly recent, but two new articles, one about Noriega and another about Stroessner, suggest how the horror of their tyrannies virtually insists on being written as comedy -- the blackest comedy, but comedy still.
Of these two stories, easily the more gripping -- indeed, downright movie-inspiring -- is the one in the June Washingtonian about the Rotarian who flummoxed the Pineapple, as Noriega was derisively known.
Washington terrorism expert Neil C. Livingstone recounts the tale of Kurt Muse, a U.S. citizen and second-generation resident of Panama, who used to get a few laughs listening to Noriega's goons chatter among themselves on a primitive police scanner. But as the situation in Panama worsened, and Muse began to confide his worries to other young businessmen at the Rotary Club in Panama City, they hit on the idea of buying better radio equipment, overriding the transmissions of Noriega's Radio Nacional and substituting their own messages.
The plan proved childishly simple to execute, and it drove Noriega's people bananas. They were certain the CIA was behind the work of what Livingstone would have us believe were some very determined amateurs. He recounts their delight in tormenting the Dobermans, Noriega's elite riot unit, whose farcical efforts to locate the transmitters resembled something by the Keystone Kops, while their thrice-daily pirate broadcasts became a staple of drive-time radio in Panama two years ago.
It was, of course, too sweet to last forever. Muse was arrested and spent some hairy months in a Panamanian jail. When the U.S. invasion of Panama got underway in December, he was one of the first to be sprung. Now he's settled with his family in suburban Washington.
Torture? Say What?
Isabel Hilton's quest for Stroessner, as she records it for the new Granta (No. 31), is more impressionistic, more "literary" -- and spooky beyond measure.
Hilton (now an editor at London's Independent newspaper) first makes the rounds in Asuncion, the capital where Stroessner's name and likeness once were affixed to nearly every public surface, to inquire about the dictator's legacy. Curiously -- or naturally, in this never-never land -- some of Stroessner's most trusted hirelings now serve the new president of Paraguay. No problem. When Hilton starts asking questions, they look blank, as though their degradation, and their country's, never happened. One of his most tireless and vicious henchmen keeps insisting, with a straight face, that he opposed Stroessner all along.
By some bizarre accident (Hilton can only surmise), she is later granted a rare audience with Stroessner himself at the Brazilian villa he shares with his neurotic son Gustavo and their families. But once she is in the dictator's presence, listening to him ramble on and on about the miles of asphalt roads he paved and the many world leaders he knew, she is stupefied by the man's blithering detachment.
Hilton reproduces enough of his gibberish to make a persuasive (if unstated) case that Stroessner no longer has any notion of the monstrosities for which he will be remembered. When she finally musters the wit to bring up torture, he keeps hearing the word "rupture" -- and denying any rupture. When she raises the issue of human rights, he says he has always been in favor of human rights.
Like Paraguay before her, Hilton is exhausted, defeated.
There's a story behind Vincent van Gogh's "Portrait of Dr. Gachet," and not just the story of why an investor judged it to be worth more than any other painting ever sold. The story -- as told in the June Connoisseur, which went to press many weeks before the gavel went down at Christie's May 15 -- is about Gachet himself.
According to David Sweetman, whose book on van Gogh is forthcoming, Paul-Ferdinand Gachet was an eccentric physician with a deep aversion to intrusive surgery and a fondness for such quaint procedures as electric-shock therapy for venereal diseases. So it was that when van Gogh shot himself in the stomach on the afternoon of July 27, 1890, Gachet decided that removing a bullet lodged so near the spine was too risky. Van Gogh, who was only 37, died two days later.
Sweetman's rather startling thesis is that van Gogh was not in a bleak and despairing frame of mind at all -- bleak paintings notwithstanding. Despite a series of unsuccessful previous suicide attempts, Sweetman argues, van Gogh didn't really want to die that day -- "Vincent's act was a gesture rather than a true attempt at suicide" -- and Gachet, whose own countenance has achieved a kind of immortality a century later, was in some way to blame for allowing it to happen.
By Ulysses S. Grant
One of the great generals of all time, Ulysses S. Grant was also one of the great writers. His 300,000-word "Personal Memoirs" of the Civil War, which he wrote in the last two years of his life under the Grim Reaper's ultimate deadline, has been called (by historian John Keegan) "the most revelatory autobiography of high command to exist in any language."
James M. McPherson, whose "Battle Cry of Freedom" won the Pulitzer Prize for history last year, pays tribute to Grant's memoirs and to the shrewd and decisive mind behind them in an essay for the summer issue of MHQ: The Quarterly Journal of Military History, a beautifully designed and edited hardbound publication.
For a probing scholarly analysis of Grant's mindset and motives in writing the memoirs, the interested reader also will want to find the essay by Henry M.W. Russell, a professor of American literature at Wake Forest University, in the spring issue of the distinguished Virginia Quarterly Review.