Monday, August 25, 2014

The Adventures of Fitzroy MacLean

I remember visiting a hand-grenade factory; and a hospital where a man was having his leg cut off by a German-Jewish doctor; and a printing press where nothing in particular was happening. I have a vivid recollection of making several speeches in Serbo-Croat, one from a balcony...Finally I have hazy memories of the dance at a village called Blato which rounded off our day's entertainment and which was dramatically interrupted by the explosion of a small red Italian hand-grenade which became detached from one of the girls' belts as she whirled round the barn in which it was being held.”

Rumored to be the original inspiration for playboy spy James Bond, Fitzroy Maclean, in eight very active years from 1937-1945, is transferred to Britain's foreign office in Moscow, masters the Russian language, becomes the first (non-Russian) European to visit various villages and towns in Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, and Kirghizia, among others (all the while being trailed by the Secret Police), witnesses the infamous purge trials of 1938, enlists in the armed forces following the outbreak of World War II, is elected to Parliament, helps lead sabotage missions behind enemy lines in North Africa, kidnaps an Iranian general sympathetic to Hitler, is parachuted into Yugoslavia to help Tito and the Partisans in their guerilla war against the Nazis, fraternizes with Winston Churchill, and following Nazi defeat in Belgrade, helps smooth the transition of government to avoid a civil war between communists and royalists, all the while, maintaining a committed work ethic, a keen purpose and most importantly, a sense of humor. In fact, the most significant difference between James Bond and Fitzroy MacLean is that the former is a fictional character and the latter a real man who somehow survived this incredible string of adventures.

MacLean compiled his experiences into a big book Eastern Approaches, organizing it into three parts: “Golden Road” about his diplomatic life in Moscow and clever sidestepping ventures into former Silk Route kingdoms; “Orient Sand” regarding his experiences as a saboteur in North Africa; and “Balkan War” detailing his experience with the guerillas. The entire book is a wonderful read, in particular the first two parts. The Balkan years have moments of extreme vividness, but they go a little long and are a bit much on logistical information that might not interest the casual reader (as opposed to the history buff).

MacLean launches right into his story-- there is no mention of childhood, university days, or any pertinent autobiographical information. It is very present-tense storytelling, concerned with whatever obstacles MacLean must overcome, whether they be eluding authorities on the road to the fabled ancient city of Bokhara or securing a safe supply drop zone for partisan guerillas. Through it all, he is detailed in his descriptions, anecdotal in his storytelling, and ribald in describing his more acute setbacks, as when he is briefly waylaid in Biisk, a small town in Central Asia: “Biisk did no credit to anyone. The dozen stone-built houses were without exception of pre-revolutionary construction and the wooden houses with their eaves carved in the old Siberian style were unbelievably dilapidated. The row of shops in the high street were a disgrace even by Soviet standards and the unpaved streets a sea of mud. What I saw of the population looked depressed, which indeed they had every right to be.” And then, in what seems could be another lifetime but is only a few years later, retreating with his Allied desert patrol unit after an unsuccessful sneak attack against Italian supply lines in Benghazi, an air raid of Italian fighter planes nearly obliterates their convoy: “Another truck full of explosives went up, taking with it all my personal kit. That was another two trucks gone. My equipment was now reduced to an automatic pistol, a prismatic compass and one plated teaspoon. From now onwards I should be traveling light.” Arguably such a quip would not be out of place in a cinematic 007 Act II setback.

The adventurer, Fitzroy MacLean

MacLean's firsthand experience in a paranoiac Soviet Russia and the camraderie of guerilla life in Yugoslavia are invaluable historical accounts. Obviously a winning personality (and a bit of a natural linguist, conversant in English, French, Italian, Russian, Serb-Croat and basic German) he gets on well with the hundreds of invididuals passing through his journeys-- not just Churchill and Tito, or his comrades in the Bosnian wilderness, but even the Secret Police members doing their best to follow him. His curiosity pushes him to plunge deeper into Russia's frontiers and his enthusiasm for these experiences make for enjoyable, if not enviable reading. He could easily have sat out the war with the Foreign Office, but runs for a political seat (as it was this clause only that enabled him to resign from the Foreign Office) and enlists in the army. Competent, creative, and intelligent, he rises quickly through the ranks and is trusted with very difficult missions. His bravery in North Africa is astonishing. The story of crossing the desert and sneaking into one of the largest enemy-occupied cities in North Africa so as to install time bombs on large Axis cargo ships is the stuff of pulp fiction (and the mission turns into a complete disaster, but with a twist, that is some of the best narrative in a very good story).


Eastern Approaches was originally published in 1949, following the onset of the Cold War. Though MacLean reluctantly involved himself in politics (his entry into Parliament, and later the difficult task of managing compromise between leaders of oppositional ideaologies), what he had witnessed in the Soviet Union convinced him that capitalist democracy is much preferable to communism and its totalitarian excesses (which would prove to be a conundrum for MacLean later in Yugoslavia, supporting Partisans at the expense of Royalists and their King. But it was the communists truly committed to fighting fascism and to betray them after defeating a common foe was nearly as disagreeable as communism itself). The show trials in 1938 were particularly disturbing. Stalin purged his leadership in Moscow including Bukharin, a former confidant of Lenin and legend in the Russian Revolution, and Yagoda who had been People's commisssar for Internal Affairs. Tried in a kangaroo court with no hope of acquittal, it was difficult for a foreigner like MacLean to understand why a nation would sacrifice those responsible for running it. Left to conjecture, he writes:

The trial would serve, too, as a reminder of the dangers besetting both the Soviet State and the individual citizen. It would help to keep up the nervous tension which, extending to every walk of life, had become one off the chief instruments of Soviet internal policy. By making people suspicous of one another, by teaching them to see spies and traitors everywhere, it would increase 'vigilance,' render even more improbably the germination of subversive ideas... Much, too, would be explained that had hitherto been obscure. Shortages, famines had been due, not to the shortcomings of the Soviet system, but to deliberate wrecking.”

No doubt MacLean did not want the same institutions installed in Yugoslavia, where he risked his life to liberate the Slavs from the Nazis. We say that hindsight is 20/20 and it is quite true. At the time of WWII, when history was unfolding, a soldier was only trying to stay alive long enough to win victory. Yugoslavia would eventually go communist under Tito, but the Marshall would break from Stalin and the Soviets and pursue an independent non-aligned form of communism much more open than Stalin's satellites in Eastern Europe. MacLean pretty much understood this from the get-go, but following orders, successfully organized the Partisans with supplies and air support, and operated as a liason between them and Allied command. This entailed going back and forth from the forested hillsides of Bosnia, hungry, wet, desolate, to lavish State dinners in Italy, and MacLean, an epicurian with endurance to spare enjoyed the best of both worlds. They say in sports it's not a matter of winning or losing but how you play the game. The same is not exactly true in war-- losing could mean the punishment of death or a very miserable existence, but how you fight is particularly important. We should never romanticize war, but MacLean does make the most of his numerous situations and while the following passage describing gurerrila life in the Serbian countryside does not glamorize war, it is plain from MacLean's recollections that the daily grind, while alternately terrifying and exhausting, was occasionally idyllic, or at the very least, interspersed with beautiful moments:

I recall, too, without being able to place them in the general plan of or journey, numerous isolated scenes and incidents which have somehow stuck in my memory; cold clear water spurting from a pump on the hillside under the trees in a village where we stopped in the blazing heat of midday, one working the pump while the others put their heads under it; a vast meal of milk and scrambled eggs eaten ravenously by the open window of a low, cool, upper room overlooking a valley; sleeping on the grass in an orchard by a little stream and waking suddenly in the dark to find Sergeant Duncan's hand on my shoulder; 'They're moving off, sir; they say the Germans are coming;' and then shouts of 'Pokret!' 'Get going!' and confusion and plunging horses and 'What's happened to the wireless set?'; long dismal tramps in pitch darkness through pouring rain; discussion whether to push on or to stop in a village with a population reputed to be pro-German or riddled with typhus; knocking and being told that one of the family has just died of typhus; hoping this is bluff and sleeping there all the same, all crowded into one room; waking next morning to find the rain stopped and the house, where we had arrived in the middle of the night, surrounded by orchards laded with ripe plums; arriving in a village to find a wedding in progress and being swept, before we know where we are, into a kolo, twisting and whirling in the sunshine on the green with the village maidens; lying at night out in the our sleeping bags and listening to the wireless; the BBC, the 9 o'clock news, Tomny Handley.”

It is our good fortune MacLean survived so that his recollections are now part of the collected narrative of those years. Such memories resurrect the past vividly, reminding us history is not just made up of nation states, war victories, or ideaologies, but of individuals from different tribes breaking bread together and a dance with the local maiden under the moonlight, a most ephemeral moment, might linger in your soul forever and ever.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

A Coin Locker Life

“The whole city stinks of age and stagnation and boredom, and it makes Sachiko as sick as it does me; but she goes on listening to the same old songs, trying to keep from dying of boredom, while I'd rather puke it all out, puke up a great cloud of boredom and let it rain all over Tokyo, rain till your lungs rot in your chest, till the streets crack and wash away and rivers of puke run between the buildings...”

The aforementioned "puke" features prominently in the novel, Coin Locker Babies, as does rotting fruit, raw flesh, spilling cum, soaked urine, human sweat, sour breath, cigarette smoke, exposed brain matter, and stale garbage, among other sensational olfactory transgressions. Part and parcel of a book's theme, I suppose, when it pertains to true human horror, in this case, the abandonment of a newborn baby in a coin locker. That a toddler should be left to perish and rot anonymously in a coin locker is an action so grotesquely hideous, our natural instinct is to look away, feeling an admixture of disgust, pity, and rage. But as an idea for a story, it intimates an intriguing premise and Ryu Murakami's weird-ass pseudo-sci-fi novel is almost great. Certainly there are superb moments, a wild imagination, and occasionally vivid sentences, but after getting revved up and going, the story gets distracted by its subplots and later languishes in some end-of-the-world apocalyptic ludicrousness.

An opening sentence often sets a story's tone, no less true here, and one of the wickedest in contemporary literature: “The woman pushed on the baby's stomach and sucked its penis into her mouth; it was thinner than the American menthols she smoked and a bit slimy, like raw fish.” The baby is Kiku, abandoned in a coin locker in Yokohama in July, discovered when the summer heat causes him to scream for his life. Found and placed in an orphanage, he naturally befriends Hashi, a fellow coin locker baby. But beyond the inevitable trauma of having survived something extraordinary and spending formative years raised by Catholic nuns, they have unique personalities. Kiku is shy, athletic, tough, and spiteful at the world. Hashi, on the other hand, is social but physically awkward, artistically inclined, especially adept at music and singing. Inevitably  such tragically terrible beginnings in the world would inform both their lifelong outlooks.

They are adopted by a childless couple to live in a remote island near Kyushu. Wandering the island, they find an abandoned coal mine town and a rebel drifter on a motorcycle named Gazelle, who puts a word in Kiku's head, “DATURA,” that would help him “off the whole world” including the mother who left him in a coin locker. The boys struggle in school, receive psychological testing to normalize them, and while they are teenagers, Hashi leaves the island for Tokyo to find his mother.

Written in 1980, Murakami's Tokyo is a strange, urban nightmare with its own no-go neighborhood, a Fukushimaesque city ward called Toxitown that's been contaminated and where only outcasts and outlaws, prostitutes and the mentally insane now roam (abandoned by former residents like the coal mining town of the boys' childhood, as well as the boys themselves). A high-perimeter fence with armed guards surround the community, which occupies a terrific piece of real estate in Shinjuku in “the shadow of the thirteen towers.” This is where Hashi ends up, and later, Kiku when he goes to find him.

Already a strange novel, Tokyo is where the circumstances become intensely surreal for the boys. More country bumpkin that Hashi, Kiku somehow gets involved with a supermodel named Anemone who shares his nihilistic visions, and Hashi, pimping his dolled-up body to rich, gay men, falls under the spell of D, a megaproducer in pop music, who transforms Hashi into a superstar, utilizing for marketing purposes Hashi's provenance as a coin locker baby. This leads to an incredible mid-book climax too good to spoil by mentioning, though it is worth saying that, unfortunately, Murakami never recovers the story's earlier momentum (though the ending does deliver a Hollywood-style nightmare finish).

Ryu (the superior) Murakami

Nevertheless, this is a unique work of fiction. Unlike most Japanese novelists (and a much more famous Murakami), Ryu Murakami is an exciting social critic. Japan, a mannered civilization known for many sacred cows, is skewered relentlessly in Coin Locker Babies; the music business, reality TV, the vapidity of authorities, social hypocrisies, and the “normal” people from whose custom the Underworld depends. And Murakami, at least via his protagonists, does not advocate some patsy tonic to redeem social ills, nor a revolution, but something more destructive, something punk, as when Kiku witnesses in Hashi's star makeover a new cage, gilded bars, but a locker all the same:

“The locker was bigger, maybe; the new one had a pool and gardens, with a band, people wandering abut half-naked...but it was still a huge coin locker, and no matter how many layers of camouflage you had to dig through if you felt like digging, in the end you still ran up against a wall...There's only one solution, one way out, and that's to smash everything around you to smithereens, to start over from the beginning, lay everything to waste.”

Perhaps total annihilation of everyone is a bit extreme and not extraordinarily sympathetic to most readers. Murakami came of age in the 1960s, a generation known for wanting to smash old orders and start afresh. His characters' solution, that of wiping out the human race with a US army chemical agent (DATURA) takes a potentially subversive novel and turns it into a horror show. Arguably it's a forgivable misstep, since the novel has enough going for it to be a good read. But it could have been so much more. Had Murakami kept his narrative grounded in reality the society he savages would have been understood in a more believable context that makes his characters' lives more tragically poignant. Instead of something that devolves into entertaining pulp fiction escapism, he might have written a novel for all time.

Friday, August 1, 2014

The Enigmatic Patient

“...he began to scratch her through the sari, then pulled it aside and scratched her skin-- as Hana now received this tender art, his nails against the million cells of her skin, in his tent, in 1945, where their continents met in a hill town.”

Perhaps due to prejudices from a half-remembered movie watched almost seventeen years ago, I was a bit tentative beginning Michael Ondaatje's The English Patient, slightly worried that melodrama and preciousness might make for an unsatisfying reading experience. However, I was pleasantly surprised to find Ondaatje's prose alternately simple and complex, his multiple storytelling point-of-views Faulkneresque, and the uncovering of the novel's central mystery, that of the missing identity of the “English” patient, worthwhile. It is a WWII novel in that the story is set in Italy in the summer of 1945 at the tail end of the conflict, but it is more of a character study, in which four uniquely different persons are marooned in a villa in the countryside, survivors of a devastating manmade catastrophe, not quite ready to return to the real world and its frivilous matters when so much death and tragedy has been absorbed.

A temporary makeshift hospital, the Villa San Girolamo is a former monastary laden with mines and the refuse of a brutal campaign: “It is still terrible out there. Dead cattle. Horses shot dead, half eaten. People hanging upside down from bridges. The last vices of war.” All of the patients and staff have relocated from the villa to safer grounds, save a Canadian nurse named Hana and her charge, a burn victim who survived a plane crash in North Africa, was rescued by bedouins, and who everyone believes is English, due, I suppose, his elegant speech and extravagant politeness. A family friend of Hana's, Caravaggio, an Allies spy in war and thief in peacetime, moves in, and later, a Sikh, Kip, a brilliant young sapper who, slowly, deliberately, defuses the many explosives on the villa's grounds. Alone on beautiful ruined grounds while Europe has finally stopped disintegrating, they comprise something of a post-apocalyptic family with separate responsibilities. Hana nurses and gardens, Kip scours for mines, and Caravaggio pilfers goodies like record players and vintage bottles.

Meanwhile, the English Patient, under increasingly larger doses of morphine opens up about his past-- he is something of a polymath and an explorer, mapping Egypt's Great Western Desert and spending weeks at a time searching for a lost oasis, Zerzura. A rugged indvidualist, at least, until he fell in love with another man's wife, Katherine. It was one of those passionate affairs that burn up and flame out, but only circumstantially, for the explorer was clearly smitten: “He feels everything is missing from his body, feels he contains smoke. All that is alive is the knowledge of future desire and want.” Needless to say, the affair never really fades and is the harbinger of much heartbreak including the terrible plane accident.

World War II Sikh Sappers

There is backstory to the other characters, prewar history as well as martial sacrifices-- Caravaggio's slippery espionage behind enemy lines; Kip advancing with the vanguard in the invasion of Naples, setting up makeshift bridges for armies to cross and sleeping under saints' statues in bombed-out churches; and Hana's abortion of a soldier's baby and her stoic nursing of hundreds of wounded (she has a beautiful tirade against the warmongering elite: “Every damn general should have had my job. It should have been a prerequisite for any river crossing. Who the hell were we to be given this responsibility, expected to be as wise as old priests...? I could never believe in all those services they gave for the dead. Their vulgar rhetoric. How dare they! How dare they talk like that about a human being dying.” And in the present tense of villa life there is Caravaggio's avuncular teasing of Hana; Hana's and Kip's playful, innocent courtship; a few drunken nights of revelry, with a record player and found bottles of booze.

A Bedouin of the Desert

However, the crux of the story's drama lies on the mystery of the English Patient's real identity. It is nearly always sensible to be wary of stories where the title character is bedridden. But the explorer whom the English Patient once was, is an incredible figure (literally-- so couragous, intelligent, and resourceful he is nearly beyond credibility), and Ondaatje draws out the unveling of his past in sparse, beautiful sentenes, remembered (perhaps dubiously) by a voice under the influence of morphine. The imagery is poetic, the observations acutely romantic, as when he describes walking into the desert questing for a mythical oasis: “It was as if he had walked under the millimeter of haze just above the inked fibers of a map, that pure zone between land and chart between distances and legend between nature and storyteller...The place they had chosen to come to, to be their best selves, to be unconscious of ancestry.” All the man has now is his past-- in his condition there is no future or even present. He says, recalling his fumbling of love, “I had reached that stage in life where I identified with cynical villains in books.” But this is a novel in the romantic tradition and thus certain expectations must be met. Sometimes, then, the villain learns the hard way what it is to be a hero.