Tired of Feckless Democracy? Try This Benign Dictatorship

The king in Jonathan Yalon’s book is a bit Gadhafi, a bit Erdogan, a bit Central Asian tyrant. In other words, he’s not all bad.

Paramount Pictures / AP

A daring coup attempt shakes Chingistan while the country’s all-powerful ruler, King Chingis I, is abroad. Chingis may be an out-of-touch dictator, but he’s loved by his subjects. So he makes a video telling his supporters to retake the royal palace. They enthusiastically comply, reinstating the king and ousting the rebels, who had sought to establish democratic rule.

The scene, the climax of Jonathan Yalon’s Hebrew-language novel “Hamelech Chingis harishon” (“King Chingis I”), sounds pretty familiar. Yalon watched coverage of last month’s attempt to overthrow Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and was stunned. “It’s as if they stole my book, a copyright violation,” he says. “It’s the same story, detail for detail.”

Yalon wrote his scene about three years ago; it appears in a novel that screams summer escapism. “King Chingis I” tells the story of a former Asian Soviet republic now ruled by a dictator who nurtures a cult of personality. He commissions gold statues of himself and penned a book that every subject must master. Meanwhile, his violent past is shrouded in silence.

But he also helps the people, carefully distributing profits from the kingdom’s immense natural resources and carrying out acts of charity.

And as with any tyrant in a faraway exotic kingdom, Chingis is eccentric. He wears garb from the Middle Ages and has outlawed ballet, veganism and gum-chewing. The protagonist is Turan Mugaev, whose father, a former right-hand man of the king, defected to New York when Mugaev was a baby.

After the father’s death, the son was invited to return to Chingistan, and did so to discover a world of intrigue, wild landscapes, huge quantities of gold and even love.

“The character of Chingis is largely based on Saparmurat Niyazov, the former president of Kazakhstan, who died of natural causes and not in a coup,” Yalon says. “And Chingistan is also very reminiscent of Turkmenistan. I came across Niyazov at least 10 years ago in newspaper coverage.”

Jonathan Yalon, author of the Hebrew-language novel "King Chingis I," August 2016.
David Bachar

Gadhafi and Saddam

Niyazov, Yalon notes, also wrote a book that was required reading in his country’s schools. In mosques, it was studied along with the Koran. He had a gold-plated statue of himself made that always faced the sun.

Yalon says Niyazov amused him, but a raft of dictators served as inspiration for the book: Libya’s Muammar Gadhafi and Iraq’s Saddam Hussein, not to mention rulers from Africa and elsewhere.

When it’s suggested to Yalon that he treated his dictator a bit gently, he replies: “Absolutely. Everyone is fond of him. Otherwise they’d be in a very difficult situation.”

That’s not so politically correct. Since when is dictatorship a kind of rule that is loved?

“Before writing the book, I read a lot of novels about dictators. They’re always portrayed in a negative light, and I wasn’t going to make a correction. But maybe they’re not properly understood by their opponents.”

Still, Chingis is loved, and the dictators you mentioned were violent psychopaths.

“When he came to power, Chingis needed to do a few unpleasant things, and he admitted it in the book. I wanted to create a character who’s not the default, because the evil dictator is the default in literature. I wanted to create an authoritative character who’s also complex, the kind who has an unpleasant past but actually is a ruler who thinks about the good of his people, and most of whose subjects are satisfied with his performance.

From the cover of Jonathan Yalon's 2016 novel 'Hamelech Chingis harishon' ('King Chingis I').

“I wanted to make the reader think about the enlightened dictator whose citizens are satisfied with him, as opposed to sick and corrupt democracies that enrage the public. I wanted a debate over whether the system is appropriate everywhere.”

Yalon, 38, is married and the father of twins. He lives in the Tel Aviv suburb of Ra’anana and works as a marketing director for a high-tech firm.

He had previously published a book of short stories, “Ahuv al habanot,” (“Loved by the Girls”), established and edited a book-review website, and created the computer game “Osher bli gvulot” (“Happiness Without Borders”). The game simulates an election for prime minister and has been downloaded by about 200,000 Israelis since it was created in 2007.

Kibbutzim and the Holocaust

Yalon seems to have a penchant for humor and adventure, which along with his enchantment with dictators naturally led him to Chingistan. But it turns out the path to the kingdom was also linked to a family crisis.

“About three years ago, I went through a very difficult period, three difficult events in the family that happened one after another. Now everything is all right, but it was a dark period with a bleak reality,” he says.

“I was looking for escapist content at the time, unconnected to the here and now. I wanted funny things and didn’t find them in contemporary literature, especially not in Israeli literature. We have three generations on the kibbutz and in the Holocaust, and it’s depressing. I know a lot of active and young talented Israeli authors, and all of them tend to write about the same depressing things.”

Maybe it’s not so happy here.

“That’s actually a reason to write books that make people happy. There is an uber-realism here in daily life and in literature in general. At the time, I read P.G. Wodehouse, whose books are a school for humor, and I’m always reading fantasy books.

“Before I started writing ‘Chingis,’ I read all the classic adventures ‘The Three Musketeers,’ ‘King Solomon’s Mines’ novels that have a sense of adventure. This is our world, but a kind of alternate history and a sense of adventure that I don’t find today in books at all. Maybe sometimes in fantasy books, but not at all in contemporary Israeli literature. It’s as if it’s not considered respectable, not Amos Oz.”

It’s considered a bit not serious, or maybe it’s targeted more at young people or those who simply want to be entertained.

“There are authors who use humor to gloss over the difficult subjects, to deal with the terrible reality more easily. I say this can also be done without the difficult subjects and without the terrible reality.”

In actuality, you’re a geek. A geek by definition.

“I’ve always denied my geekiness from a young age, and now it’s cool to be a geek, so I don’t care anymore. My thing with fantasy literature arose at a later age, maybe 25, when I realized that I had missed my childhood in this respect because of a denial of geekiness, and that there are marvelous books I hadn’t read stirring adventures taking place in our world.

“Chingistan it’s closed and has no internet; we know nothing about it. This aspect stems from my desire to create an old-school adventure, like those books. I wanted to develop a sense of unknown wonder, a sense of adventure and discovery. I wanted to make people happy, to write something optimistic. I don’t think that’s shameful or there’s something less good in that. I think it’s something that’s been missing.”