Argentina Sketches: Story of the Eye

Lying in bed my eye felt like it was going to explode, finally, after hours, aqueous fluid and pus squirted out relieving the pressure. The pain subsided, but only for fifteen minutes. So began a rewarding experience of the public health sector in Argentina, one winter morning in 2010.

After consulting my friend (who I later fell out with) at reception, I took a taxi to Hospital Lagleyze in Villa Gral. Mitre. Only one eye was infected and very sensitive to light, to keep it clamped shut I needed the good eye to be pretty much closed too. I was not feeling great. The taxi driver was sympathetic: “not far now”, he said as we rattled down a cobbled street.

I lined up to register for la guardia, my passport had an expired tourist visa inside but they weren’t worried about that. The wait in la guardia was not inordinately long. The doctor inspected my eye with equipment out of date compared to what optometrists in New Zealand had. He was friendly, spoke some English, but gave me the news in Spanish, “se puede curar, pero es una emergencia médica”. I needed to get steroid drops and antibiotics in my eye right away to sort out the infected abscess caused by my contact lenses. A common problem I’m sure. A student doctor took me to where I had to wait for my prescription, she put her hand on my shoulder sympathetically as I was a pathetic sight.

Upstairs at the dispensary I got two bottles of eye drops, these needed to be kept in the fridge and administered once every hour for forty-eight hours. This was going to make sleep near impossible. I ‘slept’ on the couch in reception to have easy access to my drops in the kitchen fridge. My alarm rang every hour at five to the hour. My condition was brought on by misuse of contact lenses. That August I was working the four to midnight shift on reception, after which I usually went out drinking until five and then crashed without taking my contact lenses out. They were one month’s disposables, bacteria covered and scratching my eyes as I slept, little wonder I had a problem.

Two days later I was back at the hospital with a piece of paper that let me into the waiting hall for patients on return visits. There were a lot of bunged up eyes in there. An elderly lady asked me to administer drops into her bloodshot eyes, this made me feel less alone. A little rat of a man shouted out that he’d been attended by a blond female doctor, I clung to his excitement that a hot blond could treat someone like him….amazing mate! The doctor who saw me this time was all black humour. Keep putting in those drops…or we’ll have to rip it out. It was no longer every hour though, my eye was on the mend.

The drops were free as was seeing the doctor. If you get to the hospital early morning in Argentina you can not only see a doctor, but a specialist of the same quality or better than those in the private clinics. Often the same doctors work in both sectors. My experience is from the rich Capital Federal not the poorer provinces though. After writing several true crime articles about Argentina, I wanted to talk about something good about the country — great in fact — the free healthcare. Of course it has its problems and — the question is, in a country with an ever-tanking economy should medical care be free, especially for foreigners? This a debate on which Argentinians are very divided.

Juan Domingo Perón in his first government from 1946–1952 created a strong welfare state. He built a lot of hospitals, lowered the rate of infant mortality and tuberculosis. A tenet of Peronism is that healthcare is a responsibility of the state. On the other side people will show you that Argentina’s per capita income started falling at this time, that Perón received a rich country to govern and left it poor — he spent too much. Lagleze, the ophthalmology hospital I visited, was built in 1942 before Perón. In Recoleta, what you might call the central hospital, the current incarnation of Hospital de Clinicas was built under Peron in 1949. The many towers of Clincas include the Faculty of Medicine and a number of specialist departments. Clinicas has something of an Eastern European communist feel, but hospitals are not about architecture. I’ve been there for a few minor issues — clogging up the system no doubt.

I was working illegally at the hostel, three shifts a week for free accommodation and one hundred pesos (then in 2010 twenty-five USD, now less than two) for any extra eight hour shifts. There were two or more other guys doing the same thing at any given time. Some of them I saw last summer on a trip to Buenos Aires. Spending months living in the same room tends to make you friends or enemies for life. The hostel was called Firulete — a term which refers to a series of moves in a tango dance — now it appears to just be imaginatively named hostel (I’ll resist checking on booking.com).

When I hear tales of Argentines and Chileans stuck at hostels here in Wellington (other nationalities too sure, but I don’t get those reports) during this Covid-19 quarantine period I feel sorry for them. Especially those at Lodge in the City, where a bunk in a room of twelve costs one hundred dollars a week — the cheapest deal in town. I’ve never been into Lodge but through the windows you can see people’s stuff piled up on the window sill. I hope none of them get sick in those crowded conditions. Many are working holidayers who were doing temp jobs that are now non-existent and so will be struggling financially. (They can’t all work reception at the hostel.)

Harry Spires Hostel in the 1950s, now Lodge in the City

Lodge in the City currently has 2.5 stars from 443 reviews on google — when the score is less than three out of five you know things are bad. Built in the fifties, the boxy four-storey structure used to be the Harry Spires Hostel for the elderly. The hostel I worked at in Buenos Aires was built not long after the turn of the twentieth century and is a much more attractive structure, from the outside at least.

The locals who did the day shifts when I was there have become quite successful. Mariano, who was about thirty-four in 2010, is now a well-known painter and kung fu teacher. A talented guy, I think he resented having to work at a hostel. Juan, the first Catholic communist I ever met, has since met the Pope and word has it he may have finished the history degree he’d been doing for ten years. The University of Buenos Aires, with no tuition fees, has high standards and a reputation for being hard to graduate from. If you aren’t paying you don’t have so much to complain about when your professor fails you?

Hospital Santa Lucia

About ten days after my first trip to Hospital Lagleyze, I went to Hospital Santa Lucia, another eye hospital in Buenos Aires. I ended up there because I got in a taxi and said “to the eye hospital” as I couldn’t remember the name Lagleyze. The driver obliged by taking me to Santa Lucia in San Cristóbal. I thought my abscess was back — it was just conjunctivitis. Santa Lucia, founded in 1823, was the first hospital in Latin America specialising in diseases of eye. In the neighbourhood of San Cristóbal since 1922, it is quite attractive. Before I went in to line up for la guardia I got a small plastic cup off a guy with multiple metal thermoses on his cart. The coffee tasted metallic and was loaded with sugar, but hey it contained caffeine. That I felt well enough to risk street coffee was a good sign. Not long after my eye issues I had a flu-type virus. I was working extra to make up the shifts the guys had covered for me when I couldn’t open my eyes. Mariano said, not unsympathetically “you’re always sick!” Being low season, there wasn’t much to do and I lay on the couch watching Two and a Half Men. However, there was always somebody up early wanting breakfast and conversation. It’s a sweet and sour experience living and working in a hostel, for example, you get to meet people but it’s hard to get away from them when you are sick or more likely hungover.

Fashion for Socialist Dictators: Maduro in China

Originally published in the Los Angeles Review of Books China Channel as Sartorial Sychophany

As Venezuela has been the recipient of over half of China’s loans to South America, the ongoing crisis there is of concern to Beijing. China continues to support the embattled government of Nicolás Maduro and, like Russia and Turkey, doesn’t recognize the opposition’s Juan Guaidó, who declared himself interim president in January 2019. Given that Venezuela is a major source of oil for China, the Communist Party would prefer stability and a continuation of the status quo. If the socialist revolución Bolivariana started by Hugo Chávez and continued by Maduro does fall, however, the pragmatic Xi will be ready to negotiate with a new government. Guaidó, for his part, has said he wants a productive relationship with China. In light of the developing crisis, a look at Maduro’s wardrobe and actions on a trip to Beijing in 2018 gives us some insight into the relationship between the two regimes.

In September 2018 the President of Venezuela, Nicolás Maduro, set off for China wearing what appeared to be a dark grey Mao suit. He could have used Kim Jong-un’s tailor, although Kim likes his Mao suits with pinstripes. Arriving in Beijing in the same outfit, Maduro also sported a black beret – a nod towards Che Guevara from whom his revolutionary lineage is more readily traced than from Mao. In Beijing, unlike most leaders in recent years, Maduro paid tribute to the Great Helmsman by visiting his mausoleum. Security usually ushers visitors by the waxy corpse quickly, but perhaps Maduro, as a VIP, was allowed to pause and take a good look. In any case, he laid a wreath at the mausoleum and called Mao a “giant of the homeland of humanity.”

Maduro was in China to get a loan of five billion US dollars that Venezuela would pay back in petroleum. Venezuela’s economy has tanked, and in the last decade, China has given the nation 50 billion dollars worth of credit. Former President Hugo Chávez and current President Maduro agreed to pay most of this back in oil. The country was around 20 billion in debt to China when Maduro set out for Beijing, but he still managed to arrange for five billion dollars more. China is now an alternative to the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for economies in such trouble that they can’t sell their government bonds because they are too risky an investment.

In the same month that Maduro visited China, Mauricio Macri, President of Argentina, South America’s other inflation-racked economy, travelled to New York to seek money from the IMF. The question for such countries has become: who are you better off with, the IMF or China? Who imposes the harsher conditions? According to Maduro, the deals he has with China are beneficial because they don’t put the country in debt when the payback is in oil, not money – a declaration that makes little sense. With the IMF, he said, there would be conditions like cutting salaries and pensions or privatizing education and healthcare.

At present, Venezuela has received the most Chinese money out of all Latin American countries and is struggling to produce enough crude oil to pay China back. Xi Jinping will be patient in recovering the loans – the biggest problem with this being that if Maduro’s government falls, the new government may not honour the agreement. That explains why China has sold a lot of military equipment to Maduro’s administration – it’s not in their interest to see Maduro and the Bolivarian Revolution, started by Hugo Chávez in the late 1990s, overthrown.

In this context, it was a wise move by Maduro to wear the Mao suit. Xi Jinping has in recent years shown it to be appropriate garb for diplomatic occasions and special events, for example wearing it while meeting US Presidents. Making a good impression on his biggest financial benefactor was important for Maduro, and any sartorial alignment would surely help him to curry favour and secure the next loan.

Except Maduro was not wearing a Mao suit at all. Rather, it was a liqui liqui – a traditional Venezuelan dress with a closed-neck tunic and matching pants, similar to the Mao suit. It has been worn by Venezuelan cowboys of the llanos or plains since the 19th century, originally as working clothes, but as time went by more as ceremonial dress. Usually, it is white, grey or beige. It is also seen in Colombia, and novelist Gabriel Garcia Marquez wore it when he accepted the Nobel Prize in 1982. Yet Marquez’s white liqui liqui summoned images of the tropics to mind much more readily than Maduro’s dark colours, which more closely resemble the Mao suit.

In 2017, Maduro declared the liqui liqui the national costume of Venezuela. The origins of the dress are discussed in a YouTube video released by the Ministry of Popular Power for Communication and Information of the Bolivarian Government of Venezuela. According to the video, the suit could have come to Venezuela via the Philippines, which seems reasonable as both were part of the Spanish empire. French 19th-century military uniforms with a closed neck are another possible source. The video also puts forward the thesis that the liqui liqui may have been influenced by the Mao suit. This seems unlikely, given that the genesis of the Mao suit was in the 20th century. It seems as if the Ministry included that suggestion for political effect, to give a nod to their most important financial ally.

Deng Xiaoping, who steered China away from Maoist policies and toward capitalism, almost exclusively wore a Mao suit in the 1980s. Since President Jiang Zemin’s tenure in the 1990s, however, Chinese leaders have mostly worn Western suits and ties. Chinese workers also moved on from the Mao suit. From what I observed in Shanghai in the early 2000s, migrants from the countryside working in construction often chose rough-cut Western suits of acrylic material. Their jackets were worn over a long-sleeved shirt in the summer and a jersey in winter. And while women’s fashions had already become varied, by the new millennium businessmen tended to go in for a polo shirt tucked into slacks, a cellphone in a pouch on their belt and a large purse under the arm – although now the Western suit is the standard for business across China.

The liqui liqui, even in dark shades, is distinguishable from the Mao suit as it doesn’t have four prominent exterior pockets. The Mao suit is also known as the Zhongshan suit in China, and Sun Yat-sen – or Sun Zhongshan, the father of the nation who declared China a republic in 1911 – designed the original suit. Sun wanted a new style of Chinese dress that was distinct from both Qing Dynasty gowns and Western clothes. He was inspired by Japanese military uniforms and tunics worn by Chinese men in Southeast Asia, where there are many other examples of traditional closed-neck jackets and shirts. It is possible that a Filipino formal dress for men, the barong Tagalog, influenced both the Mao suit and the liqui liqui. But while the former became synonymous with Chinese communism, the official attempt at the rejuvenation of the latter will perhaps now become associated with President Maduro’s flattery of China through sartorial similarity. 

Chiang Kai-shek on the Forbidden City

Originally published in the Los Angeles Review of Books China Channel as Forbidden Portrait.

In 2016, at the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall in Taipei, I saw a black and white photo that didn’t compute at first. The photo featured a portrait of the Generalissimo, Chiang Kai-Shek, hung above the Tiananmen gate of the Forbidden City in Beijing. Chiang’s upright military posture was evident, even though he could only be seen from the shoulders up. His expression was serious and piercing; his shaved head and moustache gave him a look of grim determination. The portrait was put up to celebrate victory over the Japanese in 1945 – before which it was Sun Yat-sen’s face that had graced Tiananmen square ever since his death in 1925. Mao Zedong’s portrait replaced Chiang’s in 1949. Mao has been up there ever since, except on the odd occasion when another figure has been honoured  – like Joseph Stalin on March 9th 1953, to mark his death.

A traditionalist and authoritarian at heart, Chiang Kai-Shek was the leader of China and chief of the Nationalist army before the Communist takeover in 1949. Defeated after a long civil war, Chiang and his followers escaped to the island of Taiwan and set up an alternative Chinese government. Chiang arrived in Taiwan after decades in China fighting against warlords, communists and the Japanese. Once there, he got busy dominating Taiwan – committing some atrocities along the way – and never gave up his dream of re-conquering the mainland. Chiang is not popular among many circles in Taiwan today (the new government even rounded up statues of him and relocated them in a single park) but the Chiang Kai-Shek Memorial Hall remains an impressive tribute.

A huge number of tourists get their pictures taken in front of the Tiananmen gate entrance to the Forbidden City, especially domestic tourists on a pilgrimage to Tiananmen square. A popular place to take the snap is beside the Huabiao at the north edge of the square, a ceremonial marble column engraved with a twisting dragon. The column is topped off by a dragon-like creature that looks skyward to convey the mood of the people to the heavens. Past it, Chairman Mao’s portrait is flanked by giant placards that read, “Long Live the People’s Republic of China” and “Long Live the Great Unity of the World’s Peoples.” From Mao’s headshot, you can tell that he stooped, and his receding bowl-cut is instantly recognisable. I had always assumed it was Mao who first had the cheek and bad taste to put his portrait on the Forbidden City, so it was a shock to find out Chiang had been up there before him.

Beijing was not the capital of China in Chiang’s time: his Nationalist government had set up in Nanjing – literally “southern capital” – inland from Shanghai. Later, he was forced by the Japanese invasion during World War II to move the capital further west to Chongqing. And after his defeat in the civil war, Taipei became the capital of the Republic of China – complete with its own Imperial Palace museum, full of artefacts taken from the Forbidden City when the Nationalists fled. Yet despite many of its other architectural highlights, such as the Bird’s Nest Olympic Stadium and the Temple of Heaven, contemporary Beijing could feel like any other mainland Chinese city if it didn’t have the Forbidden City. Once you go through the Tiananmen gate, you can forget the Communists; you are now in the nine-hundred-and-ninety room palace of the emperors of old. Traditional Chinese culture takes over.

You would be hard-pressed to find a copy of the picture of Chiang Kai-shek looking over Tiananmen square inside China – just as other incidents on the square that have sullied the Communist Party’s version of history have been scrubbed out. That is not just the student protests that ended with the mass killings of June 4th 1989, but also the sit-down protests nearby by thousands of Falun Gong practitioners in 1999, a group that President Jiang Zemin named an illegal, subversive cult. Then in 2001, there was an incident where Falun Gong members self-immolated themselves on Tiananmen square. This helped turn public opinion in China against the group, but Falun Gong disputes the events and has claimed that the self-immolations were staged by the government; the figures sitting cross-legged engulfed by flames, they said, were actually People’s Liberation Army soldiers in fire-proof suits.

In Taiwan, Falun Gong practitioners are common and occasionally accost Mainland tourists, trying to change the minds of their cousins across the straits who have been submitted to twenty years of propaganda demonising the group. I noticed billboards in the Taiwanese countryside, featuring a smiling blond woman in her twenties and the phrase “Falun Gong is good”; the other side had a smiling Chinese woman and the same message in Mandarin. The 1989 Beijing massacre is also widely commemorated, in the Taiwanese press and in popular culture. And Chiang Kai-shek’s name, while widely reviled, is a common sight, with buildings and streets named after him, although in Taiwan they use the honorific title Chiang Chungcheng. A few years back there was even a Chiang lookalike in Taipei that mainland tourists liked to get a photo with.

Chiang, who died in 1975, is no longer a thorn in the Chinese Communist Party’s side. But to see this photo of him on the gate of the Forbidden City, I had to go all the way to Taiwan. A great player in China’s modern history had been swept under the carpet. The defeated Nationalist party, enemies of the people, are rarely mentioned. There is a museum to Chiang Kai-shek at his former residence in Zhejiang, but otherwise, he is not so much vilified as ignored. The photo likely exists inside China, but it is not one you would want to take out at a dinner party. 

I also wrote a version of this article in Spanish.

Argentina Sketches: The Albino Thief

She checked in wearing dark glasses. It didn’t seem weird as she had platinum blond hair and pale skin. I put her in a six-bed dorm. There was only one other guest in there, a Russian woman of twenty-five. Dorms were officially mixed but in practice, we generally kept men and women separate. We hadn’t had any complaints about women being harassed yet and we wanted to keep it that way. The only complaint of a sexual nature – other types of complaints were common – had been a British guy who’d broken down in tears at reception, because he’d woken up by an Ecuadorian man in his bed wanking. It wasn’t a complaint really more just an incident of (momentarily) inconsolable misery. Anyway, it must have been early evening when she checked in, she said she was Chilean.

Some hours later the Russian girl came down to reception, her passport had been stolen. She fell to the floor in despair. It was dramatic. The Chilean, now long gone, had used a wire saw to cut through the Russian’s flimsy padlock. The Russian was strawberry blond, good-looking, had excellent English and zero Spanish. I’d heard that she’d entertained other guests the night before with some belly dancing.

The ID number the Chilean wrote down on the reception register was fake. If someone wasn’t a local, i.e. Argentinian, I didn’t usually check their IDs – unless the person looked suspicious. Most of the receptionists rarely checked either, it wasn’t policy. Or maybe it was policy to check IDs? My memory, or lack of it, is protecting me here. I felt like it was me who’d stolen the passport in the end.

I went to the Police Station on Lavalle with the Russian to report the crime. There were a couple of Brazilian tourists in there who’d had their bags snatched. That was common downtown. The officer who typed out the statement was dead-eyed and impatient. I wanted to get out of there as quickly as possible, but I was translating for the Russian and she had a lot of questions. She wanted to know where in Buenos Aires stolen passports got sold. Man, the police weren’t going to tell you that. Impossible to say, the policeman said. I thought he took the question well. He left the room for a minute and the Russian got up and then sat down at his desk to look for information on the computer. I pleaded with her to get back in her seat.

The Russian stayed on and came to reception every day to ask for news of her passport. Amazingly, the email address the albino Chilean had given was genuine – she answered me! I tried to arrange a meeting with her. We’d pay her money to get the passport back. She seemed keen for a while. But eventually, she wrote HAHAHAHAAHA and stopped replying to my emails.

The Russian’s boyfriend turned up. An American, he told me he was livid at the slack security in the hostel and seemed to blame me personally. He had given up a real job (I’m guessing banking) to come and travel in South America with his girlfriend. She would now have to go back to Moscow to get a new passport. Her stolen one had visas for Paraguay, Uruguay, Peru, Brazil etc inside which had all cost money. Those were some pretty harsh rules by the Russian government that you couldn’t get your passport sent anywhere. Blame Putin. The Russian didn’t speak to me after her boyfriend arrived, just shot evils my way. So, as I mentioned. I felt like I’d done the crime. 

The experience was worse than when I was the victim of an armed robbery in Auckland ten years earlier. A guy walked into the liquor store I was working at, went into the beer fridge, came out and asked for a bottle of Jack Daniels that was behind me. When I turned back around after reaching for the bottle, he showed me a pistol and told me to empty the till into his bag. He never pointed the pistol at me. I gave him the money – four hundred dollars. He also marched me out back and took the cassette out of the VHS – this was the year 2000 – and tore out the phone line. Quite a professional. The boss later complained that I should have made a cash drop and only have had one hundred dollars in the till. I didn’t feel guilty about that. The boss didn’t even bother to tell me this directly, but through the store manager who didn’t seem too fussed about the whole thing.  

At Auckland Central Police Station the officer taking my statement was much more jovial than the one in Argentina – he was an equally bad typist though. He asked me what the gun had looked like, I said it was a black pistol. He opened a draw took out his gun and handed it to me. 

Like this one? 

Yea.

I was surprised how heavy a real pistol was.

Careful that’s loaded.

Sounds unreal I know. He was plainclothes, a detective I guess – but since when did police in NZ have Glocks in their desks? A good looking young policewoman, another blond, gave me a lift home. She was stoic, tough, but friendly.

A month or so after the passport theft, the Chilean was apprehended in a hostel down the road in San Telmo – stealing again. It turned out she wasn’t Chilean but a seventeen-year-old Argentine from Mendoza with fame for ripping off hostels. I couldn’t go to the court case as a witness because I didn’t have a visa and was therefore working illegally. One of my Argentine colleagues asked me for the details of what happened and he went to the trial. After that incident, we were more careful about asking about IDs but the crime wave of stuff getting stolen continued nevertheless. By the way, I found out the fake Chilean really was an albino. This discovery made me feel justified in not asking her to take off her dark glasses when she checked in.

Eyes Wide Shut: Malaparte in China

Originally published in the Los Angeles Review of Books China Channel as When Malaparte Met Mao.

A former fascist sees only the good in Mao’s China.

In 1956 Italian novelist Curzio Malaparte received an invitation to travel to Beijing for a commemoration of the death of writer Lu Xun. Malaparte is most famous for his quasi-surrealist WWII novels, ‘Kaputt’ and ‘La pelle’ (The Skin).

In Kaputt, as a journalist and officer in the Italian army, he narrates happenings from behind the Eastern Front. Episodes from the Ukraine, Finland, Romania and Poland, get us up close and personal with, amongst others, members of the Nazi elite. Malaparte seems to revel in the horrific subject matter, showing the abuses and hypocrisies of the Axis forces like no other. 

In The Skin he is a liaison officer attached to the American army, taking us on a Dantesque tour of the hell that is Naples after Allied liberation. He exposes the naivety of the Americans and the damage done to the already miserable local population.

Poster for the film based on Malaparte’s novel The Skin

Malaparte was a keen observer, who did not shy away from making criticisms, why then on his trip to China was he so charmed by everything? Did he leave his critical faculties back in Europe? If so, he is hardly alone, many a fierce social critic from the West has found utopia far away from home. Did these utopias exist? Or were they merely projections of deep spiritual and humanistic urges? Malaparte’s trip to China was recorded in his book ‘Io, in Russia e in Cina’ (Me, in Russia and in China). The book was published posthumously – so the author didn’t come up with the solipsistic title. While the book includes interesting anecdotes from Stockholm, Moscow, Siberia and Ulan Bator – the bulk of it is made up of articles and notes about China.

Malaparte meets with a Chairman Mao happy to receive him, as in 1956, friends from the West are rare. Malaparte, apart from commenting on the chairman’s obsidian black teeth, is nothing but complimentary about Mao, his vision for China, and his role in achieving it. He falls for the cult of personality, just like he did with Mussolini in his pro-fascist youth. He writes of Mao that:

“Above all, his gaze fascinated me; serene, sweet, deeply kind.” (Me, in Russia and in China, henceforth ‘R and C’)1

In the interview, Mao asks about the state of things in Italy and they compare prices and salaries between their two countries. Mao welcomes any criticism the visitor might have of China. Malaparte’s only issue is that he wants those imprisoned for their Christian faith released. Interesting that Mao ‘welcomed’ a critique here because The Hundred Flowers Movement had already begun. The idea of this movement was that Mao encouraged criticism of his regime as a clever way of exposing his political enemies. Malaparte says his meeting was in private and lasted nearly an hour – both claims are unlikely, but certainly the interview took place.

By 1956 the Soviet Union had faded as a utopia for alienated Western intellectuals while China still showed hope of being socialist heaven. Khrushchev had denounced the wrongs of Stalin, but in China, the Great Leap Forward, invasion of Tibet and Cultural Revolution were yet to come. 

In February of 1956, Hungary had rebelled against its Soviet masters and been cruelly crushed. Much of the discontent in Hungary had been caused by policies that Mao was about to implement, for example, unrealistic production targets – which lead to the falsification of industrial output figures. The upshot of these bogus numbers was a scarcity of goods and inflation. Hungary also had the extra burden of paying war reparations to the Soviet Union. Among those who fled Hungary in the aftermath of the 1956 revolution was one Paul Hollander, who later wrote a book tackling the problem of Western intellectuals enamoured of the Soviet Union, China and Cuba. His book ‘Political Pilgrims’, published in 1981, will help in analysing Malaparte’s uncomfortably glowing report on China.

In 1915 Malaparte ran away from home in Tuscany as a sixteen-year-old to fight in France against the Germans. There, in 1918, his lungs were damaged by gas – nearly forty years later his weakened lungs would strike him down while on his reverie in China. His father was German and his mother was Italian. He was a fan of Mussolini at first but later critical of Il Duce (and Hitler) and put in jail for it. Malaparte claims he served five years but his influential friend, Mussolini’s son in law, got him out earlier. As a man, his gift was art, not the truth, not moral consistency, nor politics. As with many brilliant intellectuals, he didn’t feel that he got the kind of attention he deserved. After the Second World War, he was often maligned for his fascist past. A stint in Paris in the late 1940s came to an end as he was not as popular in literary circles as he’d once been – he returned to Italy and turned towards the Italian Communist Party. 

Malaparte was a dog lover

Hollander puts to us some theories to explain why Western intellectuals become disillusioned with their own societies and look towards authoritarian socialist states for meaning. First, the very freedom of Western news media and its sensational critiques of society encourages a negative viewpoint. Also, formally religious teachers and the keepers of meaning, intellectuals now (or since the late 19th century) no longer have a clear role in the secular society. With no paradise in the next world to look forward to, it must be found (or founded) in this life. Foreign dictators can be attractive to intellectuals as philosopher kings, a perfect combination of the man of action and intellectual. Malaparte tells us of Mao:

“If his prodigious life as a man of action and as a revolutionary is the mirror of his courage, of his spirit of sacrifice, of his iron will, his face is the reflection of his good, generous soul. When you think about what the Chinese revolution might have been if at the front of it there had been a fanatic, a bloodthirsty, a lucid, abstract, ruthless theorist, one shudders. “(R and C)

With hindsight the irony of the above passage makes us shudder. Socialism has obvious appeal – the participation of all citizens in the building of a fair and equal society. Noble aims do not excuse the wrongs done in the Soviet Union, Hungary, China, Cuba etc, however. (Much like the stated aim of protecting freedom does not excuse the crimes of the United States in Vietnam or Iraq.) Reviewing his time in China Malaparte does not agree:

“I also suffered when reading the Budapest news in the press, but this suffering never raised doubts. The great and positive Chinese experience absolves any error, since it demonstrates undeniably that the sum of the positive factors in the balance of progress is always superior to that of errors.” (R and C)

Many intellectuals visiting socialist states missed or ignored things we now know about like show trials and famines. Part of this was because they didn’t want to give up their dream of socialist utopia, another factor is what Hollander calls the techniques of hospitality. These people were welcomed and guided – made to feel important by having access to leaders and academics, they were given good food and accommodation and most importantly saw only what the government wanted them to. Belgian sinologist In the 1970s, China watcher, Simon Leys noted with disdain that Western visitors kept on running into each other in China – because their hosts reduced China’s near infinity to just a dozen villages to visit, and around sixty vetted individuals to meet. Flattery was also part of the techniques of hospitality. Writers and other artists were ‘accidentally on purpose’ put together with locals who knew and loved their work. China still uses this kind of tactic given the opportunity. When Trump (not strictly speaking an intellectual) visited in 2017 they put a real show on for him, treating him like an emperor – having a dinner party for him in the Forbidden City. It worked, Trump thought of President Xi was a swell guy, for a while at least. I wonder if Xi told him he enjoyed reading ‘The Art of the Deal’? Malaparte also fell victim to such flattery – he is touched by crowds of ‘spontaneous’ well-wishers when he falls ill in China.

Stalin used the famous writer Maxim Gorky to welcome foreign writers and make them feel important. In the 1930s Gorky met H.G. Wells, George Bernard Shaw and Andre Gide amongst others. With Gorky we have a local intellectual suspending his critical faculties to fit in with the regime. Gorky’s case is especially sad as he was once the chronicler of the downtrodden in Tsarist Russia. He was flattered by Stalin and made chairman of the Union of Soviet writers. The artist was no match for the manipulator and destroyer of men’s souls. From Gorky’s book ‘My Childhood’. I learned that his father died when he was young and his mother largely ignored him. No wonder in later years he craved attention and recognition – Stalin would have been well aware of this too.

In 1933 Gorky, at the bequest of Stalin and the secret police, arranged for a group of Soviet writers to visit the White Sea-Baltic Canal being constructed by gulag workers. The writers then collaborated on a book singing the praises of Stalin and his gulags that liberated the prisoners through labour – never mind that thousands of the canal workers died. Gorky could never bring himself to believe that these deaths happened. He himself died in suspicious circumstances. Incidentally, Gorky’s adopted son was with Malaparte in France fighting the Germans in WWI.  In an anecdote (set I believe in the early 1930s) Malaparte gives us an insight into Gorky’s nature:

“Gorky… made a point of telling me that in the midst of the revolution there had been an elite of opportunists, a kind of new bourgeoisie whose only ambition was to enrich themselves and enjoy life. This was not news to me, everyone knew it and everyone knew not only what Gorky thought about it, but also what Stalin thought.” (R and C)

Stalin with writer Maxim Gorky

Malaparte wasn’t as controlled by his hosts as Hollander might have suspected. In one episode he walks around the city of Datong unaccompanied by his French-speaking translator, Hong Sing. Malaparte was smart enough to know Hong Sing was there to make sure he didn’t get the ‘wrong’ idea about anything. This comes to light when they visit a theatre show in Xian and Hong translates the satirical dialogue in reference to the regime’s labour policy. Realizing his mistake, Hong quickly restranslates:

“ And then we hear a few words of dialogue, like this: ‘We must work day and night to increase production’ (which in this case is a scientific production, as if scientific production could be increased by a simple order from above), and a young assistant replies: ‘But we do not work for production!’ To this, the audience laughs… Hong Sing, kindly concerned to avoid misunderstandings, and things being judged wrongly or unfavourably, insists on saying that the two lines translate as follows: ‘It’s necessary to work day and night, otherwise you work against production’, and ‘but no, we do not work against production’. It may be that the right translation is the second but the first translation is also from Hong Sing. And then, what would there be to laugh at in the second translation?” (R and C)

So Malaparte gets a whiff of undercurrents in Mao’s China but doesn’t pursue. Likely well aware of some of the problems, he toed the line as he was sending reports to the communist magazine Vie Nuove back in Italy. (He was also sending articles back to the more right-wing Tempo.) The then editor of Vie Nuove, Maria Antonietta Marocchi, was later heavily criticised on French TV by Simon Leys for her overly positive book about Mao’s Cultural Revolution, ‘Dalla Cina: dopo la rivoluzione culturale’ (From China: after the Cultural Revolution). In 1977 she was expelled from the Italian Communist Party for supporting Maoists in Bologna! In Political Pilgrims, Hollander includes quotes from her singing the praises of the Chinese for being well washed with soap and water and completely without makeup. She is an example, for Hollander, of an alienated person looking for virtue and purpose in China. Another anecdote Hollander records that is worth mentioning comes from the Committee of Concerned Asian Scholars, in the book ‘China! Inside the People’s Republic’, published in 1972. A committee member asks an old Chinese lady with cuts on her hands from removing slivers of metal from oily rags, whether it hurts. The lady replies in the negative – she is doing it for the revolution so it doesn’t hurt.

Hollander and Simon Leys had their sights firmly fixed on those, like Marocchi, who allowed themselves to be duped by Potemkin villages, essentially show villages (or hospitals or prisons etc.). In the late 18th century Russian Empress Catherine went on a tour of the Crimea, the New Russia taken off the Ottomans, to see her new subjects (who weren’t there yet!). Her advisor Potemkin arranged for his men to travel ahead of Catherine, erecting temporary villages to impress her. The technique has since been used many times, with many variations: in the Soviet Union with model work camps, in China with show fields teeming with rice during the Great Leap Forward – and, one might argue the entire city of modern Pyongyang is a Potemkin village.

Malaparte’s tour of China was quite extensive and so I find it hard to believe he only saw ‘Potemkin’ setups. In any case, the CCP did not become expert in providing these until later in the piece. After seeing a utopia of plentiful crops, industrial development and happy workers in Beijing, Lanzhou (of all places), Taiyuan, Urumqi and Xian – Chongqing throws a spanner in the works for Malaparte with its coolie labourers. 

“The image, however, that man offers of himself, even in this verdant peace, in this serenity of nature, in this wealth of works, is the habitual image of man humiliated by misery, who struggles and suffers for his redemption. Thousands of men with sticks on their backs, bent under the weight of two baskets laden with stones, travel miles and miles, trotting, to carry stones to the lime kilns, which abound in the region of Chongqing. Here man is not degraded to the condition of a draft horse, but that of a beast of burden.” 

Working on the Chongqing railroad in the 1950s

So equality is yet to be established in The People’s Republic, but Malaparte sees the hope of a great socialist future in these workers’ eyes. He also suggests that the conditions in the city may be a hangover from the Kuomintang era. Maybe had he lived longer he could have written a novel about wartime Chongqing as brilliant as The Skin was about wartime Naples – and, as his biographer, Maurizio Serra points out, perhaps had he lived beyond 1957 he would have woken up to the enormous defects of Mao’s China.

“Considerations about Chongqing when it was capital of the Kuomintang and seat of Chiang Kai-shek…Prostitutes from Shanghai, Hong Kong. People in appalling misery and oppression. Drunken American soldiers offered grass to beast-of-burden-like workers. Popular song: ‘Laugh at poor people, but not at whores.’”

What was Malaparte capable of as a writer? Why am I unsatisfied with his rather shallow work on China? When I read his novel Kaputt, I felt like I had never come across a writer so compelled to explain the dark side of the human spirit to us. Sure Primo Levi’s account of his time in Auschwitz ‘Se questo è un uomo’ (If This Is a Man) is a masterpiece, but he was a victim,  he can dismiss the Germans as merely evil. In Kaputt, Malaparte, although a lifelong anti-German, is compromised by being an officer in the Italian army and a former enthusiast of fascism. He knows what it’s like to be on the wrong side of history. WHAT is it like though? Why does evil happen? Answers must be found. He visits the Jewish ghettos of Warsaw, Krakow and other Polish cities, wishing to go alone, but always trailed by a Gestapo officer. He sees the ragged and starving, and bodies lying on the streets waiting to be loaded onto carts and be taken away. But there are not enough carts. He dines with the German Governor-General of Poland Hans Frank, the very man who is in charge of these ghettos. Malaparte wants to see inside Frank’s soul, to explain the evil to us:

The opinion I had formed of Frank long ago was, unquestionably, negative. I knew enough of him to detest him, but I felt honor bound not to stop there. Of all the elements that I was conscious of in Frank, some a result of the experience of others and some of my own, something, I could not say what, was lacking-something in his very nature of which was not known to me but which I expected would suddenly be revealed to me at any moment.

I hoped to catch a gesture, a word, an involuntary action that might reveal to me Frank’s real face, his inner face, that would suddenly break away from the dark, deep region of his mind where, I instinctively felt, the roots of his cruel intelligence and fine musical sensitiveness were anchored in a morbid and, in a certain sense, criminal subsoil of character. (Kaputt)2

Hans Frank, Nazi Governor General of Polond

I am in no way trying to compare China in the 1950s with Poland under the Germans (nor Naples under the Americans). In Malaparte’s analysis of Frank, we see a great critic of the powerful – he wrote similar insights about Mussolini and Lenin – why not Mao?

In a chapter in The Skin entitled ‘The Black Wind’, Malaparte, this time in Ukraine, is asked for help from men crucified at the side of the road. The help they want is to be shot not cut down. In the same chapter, he comes across a wounded American soldier in Naples and claims he cannot bear to see men suffering – that he would rather kill a man than see him suffer. Other horrors in Naples include mothers selling their children as prostitutes to Moroccan soldiers and a man-made into a pancake by falling under the tracks of a moving tank. From these examples we learn that Malaparte saw hell in his life, however, his empathy for the suffering never left him. Can we admire him for that? Can we blame him for trying to find a utopia in China shortly before his death in 1957 at the age of fifty-nine? 

At the end of Me, in Russia and in China, Malaparte falls ill with pleurisy and one of his lungs collapses. He is confined to the hospital in Wuhan (yes Wuhan!) for a period of three months before he is able to make the arduous journey back to Italy in a Soviet plane. He praises the doctors who attend him and the conditions in the hospital – and claims that he received no special treatment – that all patients in China get such care. This seems doubtful, given his importance to the regime as a potential propaganda agent. Malaparte tells us that Hong Sing is very keen for him NOT to die in China and I can’t help thinking that the translator’s fate would not have been a good one if any misfortune had befallen his charge. (Dying of course being the ultimate mishap.)

Malaparte’s account of his time in China does have some redeeming features. Being well-read he can relate some of the landscapes he sees to poems by Du Fu and Li Bai. He appreciates Chinese sculpture and makes interesting comparisons to artworks in Venice. Like many a Westerner in China, he has some amusing anecdotes about the food, especially on the rather cruel methods of cooking turtles. I enjoyed his many encounters with fields of cabbages, something I too recall from bus rides in China. The first thing he does on his tour is to visit the Zhoukoudian site to see the fossilized remains of the Peking Man – who many believe to be the first ‘Chinese Man’. Is this a tourist activity that should regain popularity in Beijing? One can’t argue with Malaparte’s tour schedule, he takes in many cities and surely his talk of low prices and plentiful goods is not all false. Some of his interactions with locals are well written up, such as when a little girl playing in the mud in Xian gives him a pepple. Malaparte sees the gift as precious because the landscape for miles around is off clay with no rocks or pebbles (and there is the inference for me that he is conscious of the scarcity in the child’s life). American film director Walter Murch translated this anecdote into a poem called ‘Xian of Eight Rivers’ which I recommend. However, my overall feeling is that this is a book about what Malaparte wanted to find in China rather than what he actually did find. As for his meeting with Mao, I’m curious to know what the Great Helmsman thought of the Italian intellectual. I suspect he didn’t give him much thought at all but it’s something we’ll never know. The legend is that a Catholic priest and the leader of the Italian Communist Party visited Malaparte on his deathbed in Rome – and that both claimed he converted to their respective faiths.

1. ‘Io, in Russia e in Cina’ (Me, in Russia and in China) by Curzio Malaparte. I made English translations using Sousa Victorino’s Portuguese version ‘Eu, na Rússia e na China’, Circulo de Leitores, 1976. I read Portuguese pretty well. This book has only been translated into French, which I can’t read, and Portuguese. And, as I’m sure you now realise, I don’t read Italian.

2. ‘Kaputt’, by Curzio Malaparte, translated from the Italian by Cesare Foligno, Picador Classics, 1989, pg 147.

A shorter version of this appeared in 2018 in the LA Review of Books, China Channel, under the title ‘When Malaparte met Mao’. Sadly that site is now defunct.

What Really Happened in Wuhan?

“It began in the autumn of 2019. Months before the first reported case of human-to-human contact, the Wuhan Institute of Virology began to go dark. Publicly available information was wiped from the internet. Staff connected with the Institute disappeared as the scientists fiercely criticised its safety practices and standards. At the same time, there were burgeoning social media mentions of a new respiratory illness.”

This is an impressive book. Whether Sharri Markson has got everything right I’m not knowledgeable enough to know. Don’t fall for the critical reviews here which dismiss her out-of-hand as a Trump apologist. Yes, she works for Sky News Australia and the channel has a bias to the right. But at the same time, ABC Australia and CNN have a bias to the left. There is no fair and impartial network. To be a high profile journalist, you have to work for someone – and if she wasn’t high profile, the book wouldn’t get much play.

Markson puts forward the case for an accidental lab leak of a genetically manipulated virus rather than one which came out of nature. There is a lot of circumstantial evidence for the lab leak – and very little for the ‘zoonosis’ or out of nature theory. However, the lab leak was long seen as a conspiracy theory – largely because it was touted by Donald Trump who the mainstream media hated so. Also, it’s nigh on impossible to get any concrete evidence when the Chinese government is covering everything up.

It’s hard to sum up this book packed with science. In a nutshell, the Wuhan Institute of Virology had been doing ‘gain of function’ research on bat viruses for years. Gain of function is where – basically – you manipulate a virus to make it more deadly. The Coivd-19 virus has a spike protein suited to infect human rather than bat cells. The wet market in Wuhan did not even sell bats – let alone pangolins, the apparent intermediate host of the virus between the bats and humans.

Then there was the WHO and the wider science community afraid of contradicting China, not to mention American intelligence services failing to investigate. Any local who tried to report on the virus in China, and some did, disappeared. Even more sinister is that the Chinese military was involved in the Institute in researching biological weapons. The major twist in the story for me was around the role of Fauci – the guy CNN etc. loved to paint as the good guy.

I can’t give this book five stars because 1) a big book like this needs an index, 2) the science is a headache to read for the laymen, but I don’t see how the author could have avoided this. Give it a read and decide for yourself. 

Graham Greene Reviews

As a teenager, I read ‘The Comedians’ and in my twenties ‘The Power and the Glory’, ‘The Quiet American’ and ‘The Human Factor’. I remember swapping my copy of The Quiet American for ‘Off the Rails in Phnom Penh’ when in Laos. The Human Factor I read in a hostel in Colombia. In my early thirties, I bought a cheap copy of ‘Our Man in Havana’ in Argentina – reading it in Spanish, some of the plot was lost on me. Then I gave up on Greene for about ten years until I read George Orwell’s unfavourable review of ‘The Heart of the Matter’ and strangely it inspired me to check that novel out. In the past two years, I’ve read fifteen of Greene’s books, most of which I review below. They aren’t in the order I read them. The reviews I put the most effort into come first, and the only really negative review comes last.

The Honorary Consul

An atheist doctor? An ex-priest with wavering faith? An exotic, isolated setting with a whiskey sodden Englishman? Check all these. Two of the three ‘Englishmen’ here aren’t Greene’s usual ex-pats but locals. Born in Paraguay to a British father and local mother, Doctor Plarr is our atheist. Born in Argentina to British parents, Charlie Fortnam is the honorary British Consul in a small town on the Paraná River in Northeast Argentina. He has a great thirst for whiskey The only other Brit in town is Doctor Humphries, a grumpy teacher of literature with a background we are not sure of, but he was probably born in England. I found it true even in the early 21st century that Anglo-Argentinians held fast to a ‘colonial era’ English accent and customs, like five o’clock gin and tonics, not maintained among British descendants in my part of the world. So the idea of a locally born Englishman not quite fitting in that Greene introduces rings true.

The setting is the oppressively hot Corrientes – a million miles away from the cosmopolitan capital Buenos Aires, where Doctor Plarr’s Paraguayan mother grows fat on dulce de leche. I don’t know how long Greene was in Argentina, the novel is dedicated to Victoria Ocampo, an Argentine writer he stayed with. He refers vaguely to the political troubles in Argentina in the early 70s, the period just before the return of Perón. (Quickly followed by his death, his wife taking over, and the subsequent military dictatorship.) Over the Paraná river is Paraguay – under control of the American backed dictator, General Stroessner. In a muddle up Charlie gets kidnapped by Paraguayan rebels hoping for an exchange of prisoners. The American Ambassador was the real target. The British government isn’t eager to get involved, Charlie is a sixty-year-old ‘honorary’ consul and alcoholic – worse still he has recently married Clara, a young prostitute – not a becoming image at all. He lives by growing mate tea and importing cars and then selling them on – flaunting the diplomatic rights he doesn’t actually have.

The intellectual conversations at the brothel Clara once worked at between Plarr and local writer Doctor Saavedra are amusing. Saavedra comes off as a joke, a man obsessed with machismo – until we see that he lives in poverty and Plarr gives him grudging respect for devoting his life to literature. Greene’s idea of Argentine machismo is accurate in its knife fights, but also seems mixed up with the Mexican version which is more pervasive than the Argentine one.

The kidnappers are known to Plarr, who is involved because his British father is a political prisoner in Paraguay. Dr Plarr lacks the faith and personal morality of the head kidnapper, his ex-classmate and former priest Rivas. However, Plarr is committed to the poor – he resembles Dr Colin the atheist doctor treating lepers in Greene’s ‘A Burnt Out Case’. In both novels, Greene seems to be debating with himself the merits of the man of faith and the practical man who tries to save lives rather than souls. The saving of souls is a much more tortuous business because it raises the possibility of personal damnation. The pace never drops off much in this book – it didn’t get bogged down in Catholic theology and moral debate (although there is certainly a sufficient amount of these). There is a fair deal of humour too. I was just in the right mood for this novel, so a subjective five stars.

The Heart of the Matter

This novel drew me in with its depictions of mean gossip at the club and the general loneliness of the British inhabitants in a West African colony based on Sierra Leone. The protagonist Scobie is a policeman and the one white character who gets on with the locals – not developed beyond a shadowy presence of saying “yes sah” or, in the case of women, stirring forbidden lust as they walk by. The setting is just a background allowing the British characters to be significantly alienated and inward-looking, their small closed society becomes very claustrophobic. When the rainy season comes this feeling is further intensified.

Scobie’s wife Louise is a burden on him, she is falling apart in West Africa while he wants to stay. He risks his reputation as a straight-shooting cop and borrows money from a Syrian businessman so he can send her to South Africa. While she is away he starts an affair with a younger woman, Helen, who has survived forty days in a lifeboat after her ship sank, presumably because of a German submarine attack. The novel is set during the Second World War, but in general the war feels far away in West Africa. Helen’s husband died, and Scobie’s affection for her seems created by pity.

Wilson, a newcomer to the colony, falls in love with Louise and will not let Scobie get away with his behaviour. Never mind Wilson, Scobie’s Catholic faith won’t let him tolerate his own actions. Yusef, the Syrian he has borrowed money off wants part of his soul too – and there is a subplot about the Muslim Yusef and his Christian Syrian rival accusing each other of smuggling diamonds. Yusef is a sleazy character, who claims he wants Scobie friendship but just ends up manipulating him.

Perhaps the most brilliant part of this book is the relationship between two Brits in the colonial service: Scobie’s enemy Wilson and the pitiable Harris. The two men bond over a game involving killing cockroaches Harris has developed. They end up as flatmates in a nipper hut and find out they went to the same public school back in England. Although they won’t admit it their alienation began there. Both, however, still wish for belonging – Wilson publishes a poem in the school magazine, and Harris wants to send a letter to tell the old boys of his whereabouts, which they have requested – although in his heart he knows they just want to hit him up for a donation.

Ali, Scobie’s boy (servant) plays an important part in the book but he is hardly sketched out. Such a character would be better handled by Anthony Burgess, who would give Ali a lot of comic idiosyncrasies and include scenes of him talking to other Africans about the Europeans. Burgess’s characterisations of locals would be far from politically correct by today’s standards, but through comic portrayals, he would show at least some interest in them. Burgess’s Yusef would be better too: although Greene has it that Yusef can’t read or write, the Syrian speaks perfect English; Burgess would have attempted a more realistic speech pattern and thrown in the odd word of Arabic. “The Heart of the Matter” is interesting to compare with Burgess’s “Devil of the State”, which is influenced by Greene and dedicated to him. Greene didn’t rate it though. Burgess’s fictional Dunia in East Africa (based on Brunei, see my review Devil of a State: A Novel) is more alive than Greene’s West Africa. But Burgess doesn’t have much of a plot in his vivid portrayal of a colony on the verge of independence. Local politics don’t interest Greene, but his book is tightly written and gripping for the first 150 pages or so. Then he goes deep into Scobie’s agony of guilt, I’m interested in Catholic themes of sin, guilt and redemption, but Greene takes an indulgently long time over the fall here. This was my first work by Greene in almost a decade, I enjoyed it without getting bowled over. Originally gave it three stars – who am I kidding it needs four.

Brighton Rock

Brighton Rock has great characters, but the plot set-up was rather vague and/or hard to follow. Charles ‘Fred’ Hale is a journalist visiting Brighton to drop off cards at certain points. If members of the public find these cards and say what the Kolley Kibber (the man who drops the cards off) looks like they get a cash prize. Have I got that right?

Fred has annoyed local mobsters by writing about one of their scams and so the seventeen-year-old gang leader Pinkie murders him. At the inquest, Fred’s death is deemed to have been from natural causes. However, some people have seen things and Pinkie must deal with them. He’s not a likeable young man, he’s violent and selfish despite being a tee-totalling Catholic. Ida, a woman of about forty with often mentioned large breasts, is with Fred just before he dies. She knows something is up and aims to get to the bottom of things. A young waitress, Rose has also seen something she shouldn’t have but she falls in love with the sex-averse Pinkie. Rose is as ignorant of the larger world as they come but she has courage. This being Greene there is a lot of talk of hell and damnation from Pinkie and Rose, while Ida believes in none of it. Ida represents common sense and the enjoyment of simple pleasures like drink and, by the number of affairs she is having, sex. Rose and Ida are the most interesting and certainly most sympathetic characters in the book. Each of the three main members of Pinkie’s gang has their moment in the story. None of them is as ruthless as the young leader.

Colleoni, the big mob boss won’t take rival Pinkie seriously as a leader because of his youth and this, like most things, sparks immense anger and hatred in Pinkie. There is a fight between the rival gangs at the horse races with people slashing each other with razors. The writers of the ‘Peaky Blinders’ TV series must have been fans of Brighton Rock.

Pinkie – I don’t think I spoil things for you here – will come to a bad end, which wasn’t as hard to take as in “The Heart of the Matter”, Greene’s novel that I read just before this one, in which I really liked Scobie, the doomed protagonist.

Seaside Brighton comes alive in the book, the foreshore, the fairs, the pubs and the doss houses. ‘Frank’s’ the boarding house, where Pinkie and his mobsters live is a particular highlight. Greene doesn’t give too much description of the place, just the odd telling detail: the crumbs on the bed, the stove which hasn’t been lit in weeks. This was an enjoyable read but I’m still on a mission to find my favourite Greene novel. I would advise reading J.M Coetzee’s introduction to Brighton Rock AFTER reading the book as it includes a surprising amount of plot spoilers. (Much more than in this review!) 

The Ministry of Fear

The best thing about ‘The Ministry of Fear’ is the author’s introduction in which he describes writing this novel set in London during the Blitz while living in Freetown, West Africa. Greene gives us some interesting insights into his life as an intelligence officer in Freetown (the setting for his later novel ‘The Heart of the Matter’). He also talks about how sometimes it’s easier to write about a place when you aren’t there. This is not to say the book isn’t good – just that the intro is fascinating.

So to the story, Arthur Rowe wins a cake at a fair. But the cake was meant for somebody else. It has a photographic film inside that the ‘somebody else’ wants to smuggle out of the country and give to the Nazis. Rowe unwittingly gets involved in this and the plot is quite convoluted but Greene unravels it quite nicely – yes, he does a better job than in ‘A Confidential Agent’ for instance. The main female lead, the Austrian ‘refugee’ Anna, falls in love with Rowe as he is a man who can feel intense pity – he is also wracked by guilt like most of Greene’s protagonists.

‘The Ministry of Fear’ was made into quite a funny, almost surrealistic movie by Fritz Lang – in his introduction, Greene indicates he thought the movie was pretty pointless as they removed the psychologist, Dr Forrester. I can see what he means but the movie is worth watching. It took me a while to find a copy of this book. I think it’s one of the lesser read Greenes.

A Gun for Sale

The anti-hero Raven is made memorable by his hair-lip, sometimes just one small detail makes a novel successful. The plot is better than other Greene entertainments I’ve read recently, those being ‘The Confidential Agent’ and ‘England Made Me’. The narrative is full of foreboding of the war to come, and so captures the zeitgeist of the 1930s.

The movie version ‘This Gun for Hire’ transfers the action from England to California. Ellen who helps Raven is working undercover for a senator in the movie. This strengthens the plot as in the book Anne (Ellen) didn’t have any good reason to help him. Well, she thought helping him would stop the war, but I didn’t buy this. Because they didn’t want to mess with handsome actor Alan Ladd’s face, there is no hair-lip in the movie and this takes away Raven’s most important feature. The Eddie Muller intro on TCM’s Noir Alley to the movie is worth watching: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nyvGO…

Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake in the film based on A Gun for Sale.

The Tenth Man

How did he forget he wrote this?

The manuscript was lost for nearly forty years until someone wrote to Greene about it. He claimed he couldn’t remember writing it. The Tenth Man – a treatment to be developed into a film script – was written as part of Greene’s contract with MGM in the late 40s. On rediscovery in the 1980s, Greene re-edited it and allowed it to be published. It’s a pity it never got made into a film by Carol Reed, who directed The Third Man, Our Man in Havana and The Fallen Idol. I haven’t seen The Fallen Idol yet but the other two are excellent. A lot of times Greene’s work got made in lousy movies. The Ministry of Fear is good and I liked the 21st-century version of The Quiet American, but beyond these two and Carol Reed’s flicks, there isn’t much. (I later discovered that I was wrong about this.)

As a short novel of around 35,000 words, I preferred this to The Third Man. It has a less complicated narrative structure and stronger characters. The Third Man’s strength is its setting in the divided post-war Vienna, this one is set in France during WWII and after. Interestingly all the characters are French, no Englishman to be seen, quite unusual for Greene.

The Third Man

Using post-war Vienna divided between the English, Americans, French and Russians as the setting was genius. The faked death of Harry Lime – the seller of black-market penicillin – and his subsequent escaping through the sewer into the Russian zone were wonderful plot devices.

I got a bit mixed up about all the dodgy characters and who knew what about Harry’s fake death. Also, the British policeman relating what Rollo Martins, the protagonist, was up to reminded me of Conrad’s Lord Jim – a detached narrator telling us what we could have got from the author through the protagonist much less confusingly. Mind you this was written for film and Greene knew what he was doing.

Twenty-one Stories

My favourite story here is ‘Across the Bridge’. Yes, it’s a gringo on the run in Latin America story and that can get tiring. But Greene does it better than most.

Greene employs a narrator, who meets the protagonist and then tells his story in an unreliable way. The main problem the narrator has with the conman protagonist is how he treats his dog. There is some local colour described in the town plaza – but this is Greene: he sketches the atmosphere and then gets us involved in the plot.

‘The Basement Room’ filmed as ‘The Fallen Idol’ is also excellent. I’m happy that the movies ‘Across the Bridge’ and ‘The Fallen Idol’ have good reviews. I thought I’d seen all the good Graham Greene film adaptions already.

‘The Destructors’ is good. It reminded me of Robert Westall’s ‘The Machine Gunners’. Beyond that the stories, many of them about Catholic doubts and childhood fears, ranging from good to average.

No Man’s Land

Four stars as draft film treatments. As a book of two novellas, three stars. ‘No Man’s Land’ is set in post-war East Germany and has many similarities with ‘The Third Man’. It’s grimmer though and not well developed. The second story in the book ‘The Stranger’s Hand’ is more interesting. Set in Venice, the main character is a young English boy in the city to meet his father. Because of the war, they haven’t seen each other for three years. However, his father gets kidnapped and the boy is left alone in a hotel. Like in ‘The Fallen Idol’, Greene is very good at showing a child’s inner world in turmoil when confronted by an unfiltered version of the adult one. Sadly, Greene never finished the treatment. The ending here, supplied by another writer, is from the movie based on the story. The Stranger’s Hand originated when Greene, using a pseudonym, cheekily entered a version of it in a newspaper competition. The aim was to write a story in the vein of Graham Greene. He got the second place prize!

So The Stranger’s Hand is a film treatment with great potential that Greene probably just forgot about. Another, more well-known, one was ‘The Tenth Man’, written in about 1950, somebody found the manuscript and sent it to Greene in the 80s. For me, The Tenth Man is a five-star work. Greene’s throwaways in the 40s and 50s had ideas and atmospheres other authors can only dream of. 

The End of the Affair

In the past eight months or so, I have read seven or eight books by Graham Greene. They have all been enjoyable reads with some profundity. I’m surprised this one is the highest-rated of his works on Goodreads and that people, whose opinion I respect, like this novel.

I didn’t enjoy it, one problem is that the setting of Clapham Common, London just after the war doesn’t come alive. It’s not that Greene needs an exotic setting like the Congo or Vietnam, he wrote about Brighton brilliantly in ‘Brighton Rock’. Neither do the main players, the cynical novelist, Maurice, his saintly lover Sarah and her weak husband Henry, have much to recommend them. The plot device of having the private detective, Parkis, get Sarah’s diary for Maurice was hackneyed. Also, the contents of her diary detailing her struggle for a relationship with God just annoyed me. The comic Parkis was the only character I liked.

It’s amazing how many novels Greene wrote and how different they are while all being distinctively his. This one didn’t do it for me, but I’m still looking forward to my next GG – I’m hoping to find a second-hand copy of “The Ministry of Fear” also set in London I believe, the movie was fantastic.

Also read

‘England Made Me’, ‘The Confidential Agent’, ‘A Burnt Out Case’, ‘In Search of a Character’, ‘Travels with my Aunt’.

China Sketches: BBQ

One of those old guys, hands clasped behind back, pausing every second step to see if there was something to stick his nose into. The way he dressed, grey slacks, polyester polo shirt with sleeveless pullover on top, didn’t indicate money, time abroad, or working in a big company. He had an educated air though. Perhaps he was a retired professor. I was eating lamb skewers at a street BBQ. I  knew he’d want to question me. If he’d been a college student I’d have told him to buzz off, but I couldn’t do that to an old gent. Back in the sixties, he’d probably been stuck in Manchuria, clutching an antique rifle, waiting for the Russians to invade, his prize possession an English dictionary which he rigorously studied….or some such amazing tale. Sure enough, the old guy spotted me. He ambled over to my table and stood over me, making me hesitant to stuff my mouth with more BBQed meat. I could see by the brown spots on his face that he was positively ancient, but the old bastard probably had lower blood pressure than I did. He pointed a creaky finger and demanded, Enjoying that meat?

Yes, it’s great.

Where are you from? I must say his English did sound good.

New Zealand.

Ah, and how is it there?

Well you know a lot of space, a lot of sheep, big houses, we drive on the left, unemployment has been high lately but I’m sure it’ll come right.

No, no…I’m asking you how is the meat there?

The author in his younger days making friends with a street cleaner while waiting to eat BBQ skewers (see pictures above and below). This gentleman in blue was most unlike the character described in the story. My big head fails to fit in the frame.
Closer view of the BBQ.

The Sultan and the Governor

In Oct 2016 I travelled to North Maluku in Indonesia. Two islands there, Ternate and Tidore, are the most fascinating places I’ve been to in Indonesia. Not exactly tourist hubs, I had some trouble getting around with my basic Indonesian. The main aim was to climb the summits of these two volcanic islands. I managed one but not the other. Out of the material I gathered on the trip and subsequent reading, I wrote and sold a travel article, and published a short story. There is no direct link to the online short story, so I have polished it, renamed it, added some photos and posted it here. 

With the staff at my hotel in Ternate. The T-shirt I bought from an Aussie thrash metal band I met in Java.

Ternate is one of a string of volcanic islands just north of the equator in the Indonesian province of Maluku Utara. Before the Portuguese reached them in the early sixteenth century, Europeans had been searching for these islands for centuries because they were the source of the then precious spice: cloves.

The Sultan of Ternate allowed the newly arrived Portuguese to build a fort on his island. He was ever in need of allies as Tidore, home of a rival sultanate, was a short boat ride away. The two islands had been enemies since time immemorial, locked in a battle of mimetic rivalry: vying for the riches of the spice trade and land for growing food on the large island of Halmahera. Further afield they sought tribute from Sulawesi and Papua. Malukans believed maintaining the balance between the two islands was important to keep their world healthy. Ternate was always slightly ahead in the game, a stronger older brother, but Tidore, the cunning younger brother, had its moments. 

Tidore featured a nearly perfect cone named Kiematabu while Ternate’s Gamalama peak was asymmetrical but no less beautiful. From time to time a Portuguese climbed Gamalama to scout for incoming ships. At the summit, there was a two-hundred-metre high hill of scoria rock containing a deep, sulphur belching, crater. From the crater’s edge, early morning before the clouds rolled in, the view of the other volcanic spice islands and Halmahera to the east was almost worth the arduous journey from Lisbon. The rocky hill was surrounded by a plateau covered in long grass. And then, after descending steep slopes covered in spiky rattan choked jungle, you came to the clove tree plantations and finally mountain villages.

The Portuguese wanted the locals of Ternate to sell cloves exclusively to them. However, the Sultan’s acquiescence to this demand was only of a Machiavellian nature. Why would he stop trading with the Arabs, Javanese and Chinese Sanglays from the Philippines who had been coming to the island for so long? 

By 1570 the Portuguese presence on Ternate was not only limited to soldiers of (mis)fortune – priests had set up shop too. The Jesuits urged the Portuguese Governor, Mesquita, to do something about Sultan Hairun selling cloves to Javanese traders. Hairun was breaking the agreed-upon monopoly. These priests hated the Sultan, as he backed Islamists who blocked their proselytizing efforts. At this stage, Islam had a weak grip on the common people of Maluku and the priests were hopeful of gaining many converts to Christianity.

Cloves drying, Gurabunga village, Tidore.

Mezquita took action. He sent a force of twenty men to the far side of the island, where they burned Javanese trading ships. Some poorly armed Javanese tried to stop the Portuguese and were made mincemeat. To escape responsibility for violence we say it’s enough never to be the first to do violence. No one ever sees themselves as casting the first stone. Hairun had thrown the first rock as far as the Portuguese were concerned. 

Sultan Hairun was furious. After several scuffles between the two sides, Mezquita invited the Sultan to the fort for reconciliation. Hairun was no newbie to political intrigue having been held prisoner in the fort at various times. He’d visited the Portuguese Governor-General in Goa, usually wore Portuguese clothes and spoke the language – none of these things had saved him. Mezquita managed to separate the sovereign from his bodyguard and, in an act of bad political manoeuvring, stabbed Hairun to death. The Sultan had two servants beside him. An old man, holding an umbrella for the Sultan, tried to defend his lord and got stabbed himself. The other was a hunchback girl carrying the Sultan’s betel nut – she got away unharmed.

Hairun’s bodyguard broke out of the fort and spread the news. Chaos ensued around the island. Mourners went contrary: they paddled their kora-kora with the stern facing backwards, wore headdresses around their necks and played the flutes with their noses. The Sultan’s soldiers laid siege to the fort, yelling for Mezquita to be turned over to them.

Inside the fort there was rebellion, Mezquita was stripped of his title and sneaked outside at night. He was sent back to Malacca on a supply ship that’d been waiting offshore. When the locals learnt that Mesquita was gone they lifted the siege. Instead, they focused on guarding the two sailing ships at anchor nearby, so there was no escape for the Portuguese.

The new Sultan, Babullah, was a stronger, more ruthless character than his father and the people loved him for it. What a mistake to murder the old man, who at least had been somewhat malleable. Babullah traded for muskets, gunpowder and coats of mail. The crimson and purple Indian cloth his father had loved could wait. Crimson had reminded the old man of fresh mace – the covering from nutmeg seeds. In the name of Islam, Babullah was going to reestablish local dominance over the spice trade by driving the Portuguese out. The Sultan made sure the rice paddies around the fortress became a muddy wasteland and supplies were cut off – the battle of Ternate had begun.

Mace drying, Gurabunga village, Tidore.

Vitor Paulo Rocha became the new Portuguese governor. A man of some ability, it was a shame he became a leader in such a dire situation. A better choice than Mesquita, nevertheless he had a shadowy past. He’d been accused of corruption back in Portugal but was granted a pardon on the condition that he joined an expedition to the Indies. They said men who went to Goa were fortune seekers and those in Malacca adventurers. To end up in Ternate, that furthest Portuguese outpost, you had to have done something criminal.  

A few months after the assassination, food became a problem for the Portuguese. In the fort, there were a lot of cloves and other spices, but very little else. The men subsisted on sago bread so hard it needed to be dipped in water. The days of trading with village women for jackfruit and bananas were over. Going out to collect water was a daily trial. At first, the locals just took potshots. But then one day, the Sultan’s soldiers attacked a party getting water from a brackish stream. One man received a deep sword cut to the leg – the blade was poisoned and he died in agony. Rocha then ordered that every time they left the fort the men must wear helmets, breastplates and quilted leggings. This command was unpopular as that gear was almost unbearable to wear in the tropical heat. The next supply ship from Malacca did not appear when due. Rocha knew there could be many reasons for this.

Every evening Rocha did his rounds – checking the guards upon the turrets were in place. The other men went to sleep early inside the stone barracks, Morpheus was their only comforter. They were out of liquor and the men had never taken to chewing betel nut. Sometimes Rocha came across Padre Goncalves pacing about inside the defensive walls. The priest genuflected incessantly as he walked. Rocha knew he didn’t do this from religious fervour. The truth was the priest’s mind had gone from being holed up in the fort too long. Goncalves had been a restless man, roaming the world, and of late the island, incessantly looking for converts. Now he was just another grey beard longing for Europe.

Rocha had seen something similar to Goncalves’ compulsive genuflecting with an Indian Tiger in Goa. The beast was kept in a large cage and would pace back and forth within, using exactly the same swing of the head on every turn. The owner of the tiger eventually couldn’t bear the dead-eyed pacing and had it made into a rug. Rocha had given up confessing some time ago. Confessing to Goncalves was like throwing your sins into the abyss to multiply. The other Jesuits in the fort weren’t much saner, men who had wanted to escape life by taking priestly vows – instead they had been plunged right into the middle of things and suffered accordingly.

Gamalama viewed from a street near Fort Tolokko

Rocha thought about their chances of making it off Ternate. Even if they defeated the men guarding their ships, they would need time for repairs to make the vessels seaworthy. This would allow the Sultan a chance to regroup. What awaited them in Malacca anyway? Chains for some disobedience he was not yet aware of? Would they get shipwrecked on an island with no water? Or have the bad luck to land in Mindanao and become prisoners of the Castilians? There were thousands of possibilities. In theory, they were the glory of Portugal, conquering faraway lands, spreading the faith and making the king rich through opening new trade routes. In reality, Islamic traders had arrived first and embedded themselves, and the majority of Christian adventurers who set out for the Indies came to a bad end.

The people of Ternate kept up the pressure until the Portuguese garrison was reduced to a state beyond miserable. Eventually, the Sultan offered boats so that they could leave and Rocha accepted. The locals then occupied the fort themselves, Rocha knew that wouldn’t last for long, because the island was cursed with wealth. If not the Portuguese, some other group would arrive to make trouble. The Portuguese managed to creep back into the region and have a presence over the water in Tidore but they never returned to Ternate.

Scene from monument at Fort Kastela, the defeated Portuguese leave Ternate.

Against the odds, in 1577 Rocha made it back to Portugal. He became a fisherman, one of the better results out of any of the Portuguese adventurers from that age of exploration. When out fishing, Rocha had the habit of looking back at the skyline of Lisbon. He knew the beautiful palaces and churches he saw had been made a reality by distinct garrisons of criminals in miserable forts, trading for the spices that Europe was crazy about. Not only did cloves do simple things like preserve meat and sweeten the breath, but they also performed miracles – for instance, if mixed with oil, they could warn off the plague.

As a fisherman, Rocha’s days were of hard labour casting and pulling nets. A stark contrast to those idle tropical days, when his men did not care about life or death and slept as much as they could. In 1577 Rocha was not yet old, he got married a year after his return. Given his new way of making a living, he became a pescatarian, but his wife occasionally liked to cook meat. That was fine, but he begged her never to use cloves as a flavouring. The slightest whiff of that substance reminded him of the fort…the sweet fragrance of cloves contaminated by gunpowder and sweat.

At the top of Gamalama, Ternate’s volcanic peak. Sulphur coming out of the crater.
With locals at Fort Tolukko, Ternate. I was in a good mood because usually I’m pretty grumpy about taking these photos. But here I am five years later glad to have the memory.

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