- Book: The Dictator’s Wife
- Location: Eastern Europe
- Author: Freya Berry
The fictional country is Yanussia, surrounded by countries that are familiar in real life. It is coming towards the end of the 20th Century and Laura Lăzărescu is part of the English defence team, working for Marìja Popa, intent on getting her freed from her incarceration and securing a future for her, where she can live her life as she wishes. She is the wife of former dictator Constantin Popa, who was savagely killed in the uprising of 1989, which, of course, liberated many countries in the Eastern bloc from their communist despots.
Laura is originally from Yanussia, her parents fled to England when she was a young child and they have never spoken of the reasons behind their flight. Laura feels now she has an opportunity to perhaps find out more about her own family and heritage, as well as boosting her career.
She arrives thus in the country’s capital to meet Marija Popa, the Black Widow (one of her many monikers). Laura’s soul is captured, yet she tries to maintain some distance and objectivity, but as always with people who have clambered their way ruthlessly to the top, they have a canny ability to ensnare and manipulate.
Marija is accused of foul crimes, yet the script is that she ran a sweet factory which employed only women, and therefore she was deemed by many as a champion of the female sex in society. She is also accused of gathering riches and feathering her own nest with unbelievable wealth and accoutrements, yet she is also good at sliding blame onto her husband, who is, she says, the real villain. She is a simple woman, a victim, someone who came from a lowly background, had insufficient nourishment as a child and remained barren throughout her life. She couldn’t be a mother to her own children but she could be a mother to her people, which is reminiscent of Imelda Marcos, married to Ferdinand and who together stole billions of pesos from the Filipino people (she is of course remembered mainly for her ridiculous shoe collection and treating the citizens as her children).
The author goes on to cherrypick elements from different countries and incorporate recognisable idiosyncrasies that some individual dictators had (correction: still have). She calls the accommodation The Lair, taken no doubt from Hitler’s Wolf’s Lair, and describes the practice of getting citizens to spy on each other, as per the Stasi in East Berlin. She references the Ceausescus of Romania (in fact I think she says that the language of the country, Yanussian, is a version of Romanian) and in particular Elena Ceausescu – both she and her husband eventually faced a firing squad. Jiang Qing, Mao’s widow, rightly or wrongly took the rap for a lot of poor decisions, which caused hardship across China, and she eventually committed suicide.
This is very much a novel of our time and reminds us that a country can sleepwalk incredibly easily into the hands of a despot and an autocratic regime. Lessons from history are so important.