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First draft of modern history
on 23 April 2012
This is likely to be a standard work on the revolution
It will not be comfortable reading for the likes of Jack Straw and Tony Blair whose embrace of the `reformed' Colonel Gaddafi led Britain into perhaps necessary but morally ambivalent paths, not least the allegations of rendition.
It is not a chronological account; Hilsum mixes first-hand eyewitness stories with the history of Gaddafi's madcap and cruel rule.
What is most interesting in the book is the insight into the sheer zaniness of Gaddafi's ubiquitous meddling, especially in African affairs - anointing himself as the `King of Kings' and upsetting many African governments by assembling the numerous legal and illegal royals of the continent. Gaddafi paid out billions in aid to assorted terrorists, not least in the IRA. He often backed competing groups in the same conflict, as in Chad. The Colonel turned south to Africa because, during his 42 years in power, he upset nearly all his fellow Arab leaders. They usually thought him mad or bad or both.
His various Ruritanian outfits are described as well as his personal vanity: he was botoxed to his eyeballs like `a sinister Middle Eastern Michael Jackson'. His flirtatiousness is recorded, for example, the well-known crush that Gaddafi had on Condoleezza Rice. The Libyan King of Kings also had the hots for Madeleine Albright, we are told.
Most of the book, however, is serious stuff. One of the central stories is the 1996 massacre in Abu Salim prison, when over 1,200 inmates were killed with machine guns and grenades. Hilsum returns again and again to this abomination which the Libyan regime tried to hide.
The author occasionally quotes poetry and sprinkles her work with the flash of a novelist's eye: disabled tanks lay `inert like giant dead cockroaches'. Hilsum is compassionate as well as literary, but above all this is a reliable work of journalism as a first draft of modern history.