Villa and Zapata by Frank McLynn (2000)

Almost immediately Villa lost his temper and began ranting at Obregón… Obregón replied in kind and both men seemed on the point of drawing their guns.
(Description of a typical political discussion between ‘revolutionary’ leaders, page 253)

In the autumn of 1913 the young American journalist John Reed spent four months embedded in the army of Mexican ‘revolutionary’ Pancho Villa. He was present at the general’s meetings with fellow leaders, met ordinary soldiers and peasants fighting for change, and rode into battle with the villistas. During one conversation Villa suddenly asked Reed: ‘And the war in America? How is that going?’ Puzzled, Reed replied that there was no war in America. ‘No war,’ exclaimed the amazed Villa. ‘Then how do you pass the time?’

Exactly. Fighting was a full-time activity for Villa and the various bandits, rebels, criminals, psychopaths, idealists, chancers and mercenaries he led in the so-called Army of the North, as it was for an array of other rebel leaders who flourished throughout Mexico, not to mention their counterparts in the various state militias and in the Federal Army.

Combine their itchy trigger fingers with the spectacularly two-faced, corrupt and scheming politicians who made a mess of running the country, and you have the toxic social and political mix which plunged Mexico into anarchy and violence between 1910 and 1920.

Frank McLynn is a popular historian who assimilates scholarly works on historical topics and turns them into rip-roaring narratives. In the introduction to Villa and Zapata: A Biography of the Mexican Revolution, McLynn candidly admits he has piggy-backed on Alan Knight’s two-volume history of the Mexican Revolution (Knight makes regular appearances in the text, quoted as giving the definitive view on this or that event) on Friedrich Katz’s award-winning biography of Pancho Villa, and on John Womack’s biography of Emiliano Zapata, to produce this book – although the ten-page bibliography gives evidence of a mass of other reading as well.

As the writer Patrick Marnham puts it, the so-called ‘Mexican Revolution’ presents ‘a fiendishly complicated story’, and it is quite an achievement by McLynn to have converted it into one coherent, and very readable, narrative. As the title suggests, McLynn builds it on the scaffold of the twin biographies of Zapata and Villa, but ranges far further afield to end up giving a panoramic portrait of the whole period.

Mexico: a whistlestop history

Mexico won its independence from Spain in 1821. The following decades were characterised by political turmoil dominated by the figure of general-turned-president Antonio López de Santa Anna: hence it is known as the era of Santa Anna.

Attempts at stability weren’t helped by the big war with America, from 1846 to 1848, which resulted in Mexico losing over a third of its territory to the Giant in the North, a vast area which became the American states of Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and California.

In 1858 civil war between liberals and conservatives broke out and was won by the liberals in 1861. But when they stopped repaying foreign debt to their European creditors, France sent an army to invade, claim the money, and impose on the Mexicans an Empire ruled by the Archduke Ferdinand Maximilian of Austria.

Resistance to this bizarre foreign imposition was never quelled in the more far-flung provinces and, when threats from post-Civil War America forced Napoleon III to withdraw the French army in 1867, Maximilian’s remaining forces were quickly defeated and Maximilian was executed outside Mexico City. This was the War of the Intervention.

The decade or so after Maximilian’s death was dominated by the Liberal politician, Benito Juárez. In 1876 Porfirio Díaz, a republican general during the French intervention, was elected president. He lost the 1880 election but was re-elected in 1884, and ruled continually from then until 1911. Hence this period of Mexican history is known as the Porfiriato.

Diaz encouraged foreign (mainly American, but some British) investment and influence, invested in the arts and sciences, expanded the railroad network and telecommunications, all resulting in a period of economic stability and growth. ‘Order, peace and progress,’ was his motto. He created concentric circles of advisers, cronies, bankers, financiers and big landowners, to bolster his rule, known as the scientificos.

All great and good – if you were rich. But the Porfiriato did little or nothing for the majority of Mexico’s population, the extremely impoverished peasants and peons who worked the land.

McLynn paints a vivid portrait of Mexican society on the eve of the Revolution. The most important feature was the power of the hacendados, owners of the vast haciendas, centralised settlements which owned most of the agricultural land in Mexico. They ’employed’ millions of peons, debt slaves who were born or compelled into debt to the hacendados, forced to do back-breaking work seven days a week, for a pittance (25 cents a week) which they were then obliged to spend in the hacienda stores. The hacendados as a class were wealthy and, of course, backed Diaz. Beyond the cities, towns and haciendas lay the hundred thousand or more dusty villages where ‘free’ peasants, only a notch or two above the peons, scratched a living from whatever common land was left over.

During the 1900s many of the hacendados, in all of Mexico’s thirty states, made illegal attempts to co-opt and fence in what had previously been common land, using their armed militias to make examples of any villagers foolish enough to try to defend traditional ‘rights’. This included beating up or plain murdering uppity villagers.

It was during the early 1900s that Francisco ‘Pancho’ Villa (born in 1878), Emiliano Zapata Salazar (born in 1879) and thousands like them, born and raised in big peasant families, saw at first hand how their fathers and fellow villagers were treated with contempt by hacendados who could beat, kill and even rape at will, and who, since they controlled the local police and legal system, got off scot-free. Resulting in a mounting sea of anger and frustration.

The challenge from Madero

The so-called ‘revolution’ was triggered by a mild-mannered, well-educated and rather other-worldly liberal, Francisco Madero, who announced his intention to run for president in 1910 against Diaz who was, by now, nearing his 80th birthday. Diaz tried to use state power to intimidate Madero and then ran him out of Mexico. From exile in America, Madero announced that he would lead an ‘uprising’ against Diaz commencing on November 20.

A number of rebel or bandit forces rallied to Madero’s call, including those led by Villa, already a noted bandit, train and bank robber.

Key fact: Villa throughout his career operated in the northern state of Chihauaha, Mexico’s largest state. Emiliano Zapata operated mainly in the state he grew up in, Morelos, a fairly small state just to the south of Mexico City.

Villa was a larger-than-life bandit-turned revolutionary, who loved publicity and the high life and, when he won power, redistributed land and money to his loyal followers, while continuing to support American-owned mines and oil wells, in order to cream off big money from them, which he used to a) buy arms b) enjoy life.

Zapata, by contrast, was an intensely honest, upright peasant with a peasant’s mystical attachment to the land. When he gained power in Morelos, Zapata instituted widespread land redistribution which in effect simply gave the peasants more land on which to practice their back-breaking work. He was against big cities, factories, capitalism and the future. He wanted his people to live in a timeless peasant utopia. Principled and incorruptible.

So Madero’s contest with Diaz sparked uprisings all across the country, led by a kaleidoscope of local leaders, sometimes of small criminal gangs, sometimes of larger supposedly ‘revolutionary’ groupings.

Pressure from inside and from international sponsors, most notably the States, eventually forced Diaz to hold genuine elections, which Madero won in 1911. Diaz went into exile in France. Phase one of the ‘revolution’ was over. But, in McLynn’s account, Madero made the fatal mistake of acquiescing in Diaz’s parting plan which prevented the new president from taking active power for a long five months, while civil servants prepared a handover phase.

In practice, this was long enough for the well-entrenched forces of reaction to consolidate and plan their resistance to the incomer.

Villa and Zapata, among numerous other rebel leaders who had led wide-ranging attacks on Diaz’s Federal troops, thought the job was done when Madero was elected.

It took everyone a year or so to realise that Madero, even when fully in power, was not prepared to make the slightest changes to the economic and especially landholding system. He had only ever been a liberal pursuing the idea that elections ought to produce a genuine change of leader. He was a sort of theoretical democrat. Once a meaningful election had been held, he thought his job was done. He didn’t actually plan to change anything about Mexican society. The hated hacendados remained in power.

Pancho Villa

Pancho Villa

The hundred or so pages which bring us to this point have consisted of an incredibly detailed account of the military campaigns of not only Villa in the north and Zapata in the south, but of numerous other rebel or revolutionary leaders, plus the elaborate politicking which went on in Mexico City, and in the Modera and Diaz camps, plus the machinations of other political players, plus the changing attitudes of the American president Taft and his diplomatic advisers. It is all fiendishly complicated.

And this, I’m guessing, is the main reason that most educated people don’t know much about the Mexican Revolution: it went on for such a long time, and was so incredibly complex. Not only that, but at no point did one actual revolutionary socialist leader come to power.

Compare and contrast with the Russian Revolution, which was not only more important in its impact, but easier to remember: 1. the Tsar was overthrown and executed 2. Lenin took power and 3. instituted a communist society. Easy to understand.

1911 to 1920

The sequence of events from 1911 to 1920 is unbelievably complicated, which explains why it takes McLynn 300 more large-format pages to explain them – but the outline can just about be summarised.

In February 1913 Madero was murdered by the military leader he had himself appointed, Victoriano Huerta in La Decena Tragica, the Ten Tragic Days, during which Mexico City itself became a battlefield between Army and Constitutionalist forces.

Madero’s murder sparked further uprisings all over Mexico which amounted to a ‘second revolution’. (It is grimly fascinating to read about the role played in the overthrow of Madero, the elected liberal leader, by the American ambassador to Mexico, the unhinged Henry Lane Wilson.)

All the old rebel leaders rose against General Huerta. The Constitutionalist army of Venustiano Carranza created an alliance of Northern states, the most powerful component of which was Pancho Villa’s ‘Army of the North’, which won a series of military victories taking them right to the perimeter of Mexico City. With his own army collapsing and even arch-conservatives turning against the economic and military anarchy he had precipitated, Huerta fled the country in 1914.

By 1915 Carranza had consolidated his power to become president, going on to create a new constitution in 1917, and then set about quelling his former allies, who included Villa, leader of rebels in the north, and Zapata, leader of rebels in the south.

Emiliano Zapata, leader of revolutionaries in Morelos from 1911 to his assassination in 1919

Emiliano Zapata, leader of revolutionaries in Morelos from 1911 to his assassination in 1919

After a great deal more complicated fighting and toing and froing of alliances, the great generation of ‘revolutionary leaders’ was assassinated – Zapata in 1919, Carranza himself in 1920, Villa in 1923, and another key leader, Villa’s rival in the north, who made the transition to political office, Álvaro Obregón in 1928.

That’s a high-level summary, but it’s precisely the details of the countless battles with the federales, of the tentative relationship between Villa and Zapata, of the Machiavellian politicking of Carranza, of kaleidoscope of alliances, pacts, backstabbing and betrayals, which make the story so human and enjoyable. And appalling.

Socialism or personalism?

None of these leaders was a socialist. None of them had much following among the urban working class which, in Marx and Engels’s view, ought to be at the forefront of a communist revolution.

Their followers, who made up the bulk of their ‘armies’, which fluctuated wildly in size depending on success or failure, were made up of peasants, escaped peons, criminals, bandits and psychopaths, with a handful of literate educated men who liked to think they were fighting for a national cause.

The only thing remotely like a political policy which they had was a wish for land reform – Tierra y Libertad was the rather vacuous cry of all the ‘revolutionaries – but they had no idea how to carry it out with the result that… it wasn’t carried out.

Instead, the fighting was intensely regionalised and the rebel groups followed not a ’cause’ but their regional leader – the leader who was strongest and most effective in their region, who won battles and embodied the ideals of machismo better than their rivals. In this respect, it reminds me of Beowulf and the Germanic warrior tribes of the 5th century AD.

This explains – or is typified by the way that – Mexican politics of the period was not characterised by political ideas (or nothing more sophisticated than that the rebels wanted land reform and the conservatives didn’t), instead what you get is that every one of these leaders created an –ism or, in Spanish, an –ismo, which simply reflected whatever that leader proposed; and the followers of each macho leader were given the leader’s name plus –ista at the end to indicate who they were followers of.

Thus something called villismo was attributed to rebel leader Pancho Villa, even though he was illiterate and uneducated and unintellectual, and changed his mind about key decisions from day to day – and his followers were called villistas.

Emiliano Zapata was the exponent of Zapatismo – embodied in his so-called Plan of Ayala of 1911 – and was followed by zapatistas.

But merely having an –ismo didn’t make this pair special or unique; the same rule applied to all the leaders of the time. Followers of Pascual Orozco were Orozquistas, followers of Ricardo Flores Magón were Magónistas, followers of Carranzo were Carrancistas, followers of the dictator Huerta were Huertistas and so on.

The thirty odd years of economic progress before the Revolution were and still are referred to as the Porfiriato, after Porfirio Diaz. Which in turn was followed by the Maderism of Madero. Maderismo? ‘Its main objective was to achieve democratic regeneration of the country through effective suffrage and no re-election of public officials.’ People not ideas. Personalities not policies,that,arguably, has been Mexico’s curse, as of many developing countries.

Villa in Chihuahua

McLynn devotes a chapter to Villa’s rule over the state of Chihuahua from 1913 to 1914 which he managed with surprising effectiveness. He imposed law and order, provided pensions, free food and cheap meat for his followers and their families. Cut the cost of food and other basics, organised rationing, abolished abuses and corruption with a draconian code (execution for almost any wrongdoing), got his army to repair railroads and telegraph lines, expanded the school budget, raised teachers’ pay, built more than 100 new schools and set up a military college. (p.190)

But Villa and even the most educated of his followers were economic illiterates. Most of these ‘reforms’ were paid for by simply stealing money from rich hacendados and levying punitive taxes on the wealthy mining operations in Chihuahua (themselves profitable because it was so easy to ship iron, silver, copper and so on over the border into nearby America.)

Once income from these sources ran dry, Villa simply printed money – which caused runaway inflation. Like so many illiterate dictators, he then blamed ‘saboteurs’ and set up a secret police to track them down. McLynn gives a colourful portrait of Villa’s court at the time, which included literate managers and secretaries, but also genuine psychopaths such as Rodolfo Fierro, ‘el carnicero’, who shot men for the fun of it – although even he eventually overstepped the mark when he killed English landowner William Benton and sparked an international incident.

None of this was made to introduce equality – the focus was on redistributing land and resources to his followers, just like, say, Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe redistributed land to his followers, and with the same net effect.

The labouring peons and peasants remained dirty poor, and simply had a new class of even more anarchic and unpredictable rulers lording it over them. It was, in the words of John Reed who saw all this in action, ‘the socialism of a dictator’ (p.191) or, in Alan Knight’s judgement – ‘Villa’s “socialism” was a figment of the Brooklyn Eagle.’

Zapata in Morelos

Of the 15 points in Zapata’s 1911 Plan of Ayala, only three were actually about economics or reform, articles 6 to 8 stating that:

6. property taken from the people by ‘landlords, científicos, or bosses’ will be returned to the citizens who have the titles to that property
7. one third of property of Mexican monopolies will be redistributed to villages and individuals without land
8. owners of monopolies that oppose this plan will lose the remaining two thirds of their properties which will be used as war reparations and as payment to the victims of the struggle of the revolution.

After Huerta’s ouster in 1914, Zapata set about implementing these proposals in his home state of Morelos but found it difficult in practice. Much remained to be done when he was assassinated in 1919. Permission for agrarian reform was sought by Zapata’s successor from Carranza’s successor, Álvaro Obregón, by then president of Mexico, in 1920, but was only ever implemented in Morelos, and then only partially.

If any of these characters had had clear, wide-reaching social and economic policies for the entire country – towns and cities as well as simply the peasants of one small state, industries and utilities as well as agriculture – then maybe they could have acted as a foundation on which to build coalitions, create political parties, attract voters and take the issue towards some kind of settlement.

But instead, leaders of both right and left encouraged – or simply operated in – a culture soaked in personality. The only question that ever mattered was, Are you for or against Villa or Carranza or Zapata or Modera or Huerta – or any of their hundreds of representatives at regional, state and local level?

The result was a style of politics based around personal alliances and vulnerable to all kinds of psychological whims and disagreements between the main players – a system which seems almost guaranteed to ensure that no one individual or party can ever come to uncontested power, and that armed uprisings, and the violence, looting, pillage and rape which this book is absolutely full of, spread across your country uncontrollably.

Since none of them were proposing clearly defined political ideologies with specific policies, you couldn’t co-opt them, pinch them, incorporate them into your policies, discuss them or reach compromises – as we do in democratic countries. The only way to end a cult of personality is to eliminate the personality. The only way to end villismo or zapatismo was to kill Villa, to kill Zapata.

That’s certainly what it looked like to the newspaper readers in the great big neighbour to Mexico’s north – an exasperated sense that the uprisings and violence never seemed to end, that whichever bloodthirsty leader rose to the top would soon be overthrown by another bloody coup.

'What?...Again?' Cartoon by Clifford Kennedy Berryman in The Washington Star (1919)

‘What?…Again?’ Cartoon by Clifford Kennedy Berryman in The Washington Star (1919)

Fame and the media

Zapata and Villa remain names to conjure with because, at various times, and in their respective states (Morelos for Zapata, Chihuahua for Villa) they both managed to pull off impressive military feats, often against superior Federal Army forces, which hit the headlines, sometimes around the world.

To a U.S. readership puzzled by the issues at stake, these military victories brought the two men to a peak of fame about 1914, and climaxed with the overthrow of Huerta and the triumphant entry of rebel armies into Mexico City.

In this the duo were helped by enthusiastic newspaper promoters like John Reed, and, strikingly, by the new medium of film. Rather mind-bogglingly, Pancho Villa signed with a Hollywood studio to make several films about his life and struggle while he was still fighting in the revolutionary war – namely the Life of Villa (1912), Barbarous Mexico (1913), With General Pancho Villa in Mexico (1913), The Life of General Villa (1914) and Following the Flag in Mexico (1916).

Villa’s name was further kept before the American public when, in 1916, the U.S. Army under General Pershing was sent to Mexico in response to an uncharacteristic raid Villa made on the American town of Columbus. Pershing led no fewer than 5,000 troops and employed aircraft and trucks in a huge co-ordinated manhunt, with the public kept informed by regular newsreel footage. He spent eight months in the hunt but failed to catch the wily bandit – thus adding to Villa’s latterday Robin Hood, Jesse James, Ned Kelly glamour.

Zapata’s legacy is completely different. Shy of the floodlights, far less garish, Zapata is associated to this day with inflexible, incorruptible, unflinching commitment to the issue of the peasants and their land. His example has been cited by land reform movements around the world and as recently as the 1990s a neo-Zapatista movement was started in Mexico’s impoverished south-east.

But, as far as I can tell, his only idea was a semi-mystical one that the land belongs to he who tills it: a notion generally referred to as ‘Agrarianism’. Still very relevant to the places in the world where landless peasants, peons and serfs are still forced to work for big landlords – it is totally irrelevant to the urbanised majority of the modern world’s population.

The revolutionary legacy

As to the so-called ‘Mexican Revolution’, it did not lead to any revolutionary or socialist policies. Venustiano Carranza, who claimed political suzerainty over both Villa and Zapata (in an uneasy relationship which becomes a central theme of the story) replaced Huerta as president in 1917.

Carranza wasn’t a cold-blooded killer like Huerta, but he ruthlessly pursued the centralisation of all political power, and continued what was effectively a civil war against the remaining warlords which lasted from 1915 to 1920. This apparently endless turmoil prevented anything much in the way of ‘reform’ except for continuing burning, looting, pillaging, raping and murder on an epic scale all across Mexico.

Carranza’s Constitution of 1917 was written by young professionals and, among other political changes, called for the expropriation of hacienda lands and redistribution to peasants, empowered the government to expropriate holdings of foreign companies, demanded an 8-hour work day, a right to strike, equal pay laws for women, and an end to exploitative practices such as child labour and company stores.

But just writing and ‘adopting’ a constitution doesn’t change anything on the ground and meanwhile the style of Mexican politics carried on unchanged.

Carranza was finally forced to flee when his one-time puppet Obregón launched a political campaign for the presidency in 1920. Before running away, Carranza looted the chancellery of all its gold and the capital of as much treasure as he could transport on the so-called Golden Train which he headed to the port of Vera Cruz. From here he planned to sail off into exile, as more or less every Mexican leader before him. Instead, the Golden Train was ambushed and Carranza was squalidly shot down in a mud hut where he had been taken by bandits who then betrayed him. Horrible.

Obregón won the presidential vote of 1920. The northern ‘revolutionary’ general Elías Calles succeeded him in 1924. Obregón ran again but was assassinated in 1928, allowing Calles to plan to become another long-term power behind the throne, another Diaz.

Since he wasn’t allowed to be president two terms in a row, Calles appointed Lázaro Cárdenas to be a puppet front-man for four years till he could himself return, but Cárdenas took the role seriously, won a power struggle with Calles, and expelled him from the country. Intoexile trotted another Mexican ex-president.

Same old story. In polities with a cult of personality, civilised negotiation is impossible. Either x is ruling or y is ruling. Whoever loses doesn’t go and get a job with a big corporation and cease commenting on politics – they have to be run out of the country in order for the country to function.

In the late 1920s Cárdenas set up the Party of the Mexican Revolution designed to be ‘a big tent corporatist party’, to bring political factions and interest groups (peasantry, labour, urban professionals) together, while excluding conservatives and the Catholic Church.

In 1946 the party was reorganised and renamed the PRI, or Institutional Revolutionary Party (‘a mesh of corruption’, according to McLynn, p.399), the party which went on to run Mexico until 2000.

The PRI declared itself the embodiment of the glorious ‘Mexican Revolution’ in order to justify its existence and its hold on power for nearly 70 years.

Who knows whether the social and economic changes which Mexicoexperienced in the 1930s and 40s would have come about anyway, without any of the raveing bloodshed, as a simple result of unstoppable technological and economic change, population growth, better exploitation of natural resources and so on?

But, in the Mexican way, social progress ended up requiring so much violence. So many brutal and cruel deaths. So much breathtakingly duplicitous, dishonourable backstabbing.

My view is influenced by this two-hour documentary which seems to conclude that the ‘revolution’ led to some big political changes (i.e. a readjustment about who ran the political system) but absolutely did not lead to the fair redistribution of land, or to anything like ‘equality’. Even now, over a hundred years after the ‘revolution’ began, there is still mass poverty in Mexico, and large numbers of workers still toil miserably on the land.

The Storm That Swept Mexico

A two-hour-long American documentary covering the Mexican Revolution, which includes contributions from Friedrich Katz, author of the prize-winning biography of Pancho Villa which McLynn quotes from extensively.

Why 1910 to 1920?

1910 is usually given as the start date of the Mexican Revolution because it was in this year that Francisco Madero launched his bid to become president and to end the Porfiriato. 1920 is often taken as the end date (though historians still squabble about this) because it marked:

  1. The murder of the man who had lorded it over Mexico after the flight of military strongman Huerta, Venustiano Carranza – Head of the Constitutionalist Army, 1913–1915, Head of the Preconstitutional Government, 1915–1917, President of Mexico, 1917–1920 – who had himself been the unremitting enemy of Villa, Zapato and the leaders of uprisings in other provincial states.
  2. The surrender of Pancho Villa, who was granted an amnesty for himself and his closest supporters, who were allowed to go and live in peace on a hacienda in Chihuahua.

Although Mexican politics continued to be a treacherous and dangerous business for decades to come (‘the years 1924-28 were dark and barbarous’), the half-war, half-bandit violence which had brought terror and destruction to most of Mexico for the decade since 1910, substantially came to an end.

Unlike the obsessive centraliser Carranza, who couldn’t allow any other centres of power, Obregón was a natural politician and fixer who was able to negotiate peace with all factions and create genuine stability. Well. For a few years…

The assassination of Pancho Villa

However, as the 1923 presidential election approached, the two likely contenders to replace Obregón were De la Huerta from the Right and Calles from the Left. Obregón had indulged Villa in peace and quiet on his hacienda as the old revolutionary became more right-wing and took to drink, but a series of misunderstandings led Obregón and his cronies to suspect Villa was about to throw in his lot with De la Huerta, possibly in exchange for a state governorship.

Numerous other enemies with a grudge against Villa had never given up their determination to take revenge. Obregón appears to have given his blessing to the complicated assassination conspiracy against Villa which McLynn lays out in great detail.

On 20 July 1923 Villa was driving a car packed with friends and bodyguards out of the town of Parral, where he’d been visiting one of his many mistresses, when it was bombarded with bullets by a gang of gunmen and Villa’s body was riddled with bullets. Think Bonnie and Clyde.

The Cristero Rebellion (1926–29)

In 1926 a massive rebellion broke out among Catholic peasants against the fierce anticlerical campaign of Obregón’s successor, Calles, which eventually spread across 13 of Mexico’s states, leaving as many as 100,000 dead, with some 250,000 fleeing to America.

The assassination of Alvaro Obregón

In 1927 Obregón announced his intention to run again for president. The various factions who tried to stop him found themselves blackmailed or stitched up, arrested or murdered, but powerful forces were determined to stop him.

On 17 July Obregón was shot five times in the face at point blank range by a devout Catholic linked to the Cristeras during a banquet in his honour. Obregón was the last of the generation of Villa and Zapata. he had fought alongside them, and then turned into their political enemy – which is why McLynn takes his book up to this point, eight years past the official end of the ‘revolution’, but long enough to make the reader realise there was plenty more political and social violence following the nominal ‘end’ date. What a country!

Zapata’s son

Almost at the end of the book McLynn tells us that the son of Emiliano Zapata the incorruptible, Zapata the peasants’ friend, ended up becoming a landowner himself, got elected mayor of Cuautla, sold out to the old élites and became a contented member of the Morelos plantocracy. Ha!

Conclusions

McLynn’s conclusion is that the bandit groups of both Villa and Zapata were co-opted, despite their best intentions, into struggles not to change the ruling class, but between different factions within the ruling class. Villa and Zapata were suborned to the death-contests fought between Diaz, Madero, Huerta, Carranza and Obregón.

The net result of these ten violent years was to replace an ageing, traditionalist ruling class with a younger, more thrusting ruling class – but one which went on to use the same age-old Mexican techniques of treachery and violence to seize power and, almost as an afterthought, drag Mexico into the twentieth century.

The old landowning aristocracy was killed or fled into exile, the hacienda system was broken up and replaced by more modern forms of industrial farming, cash crops, mining and so on. The look and dress of the old ruling class was abandoned. Superficially, to look at, Mexico and Mexicans had become more ‘modern’ and ‘democratic’. But,as the documentary makes clear, plenty of Mexicans still live in grinding rural poverty.

McLynn’s final, damning, conclusion, is that the ‘revolution’ made Mexico safe not for its peasants – but for the new brand of 20th century capitalism.


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The Vietnam War by Mitchell Hall (2000)

This is one of the Seminar Studies series produced by academic publisher Longman, a set of short introductions to historical topics.

This one on the Vietnam War features an 87-page overview of the war’s long and tangled history, with 23 pages of original source documents, a 6-page chronology, a 2-page list of the main characters, a 3-page glossary, and an 8-page bibliography. Designed for A-level students this is still a very useful short overview and reference book.

Vietnam geography

Vietnam is a 1,000-kilometer-long sliver of land along the east coast of the fat peninsular once known as Indochina. It widens in the north to form a kind of flowerhead shape around the northern city of Hanoi in the delta of the Red River, which is less than 50 miles from the border with China. Along the central belt which borders Laos in the west, it is sometimes as little as 30 miles wide. In the south it broadens out again before arriving at the southern city, formerly known as Saigon, on the big delta of the River Mekong.

Map of Vietnam

From 100 BC to 950 AD Vietnam was ruled by the Chinese. In the Middle Ages various dynasties tried to unite the long coastal strip and in the 1700s successfully seized the southern tip, the Mekong Delta, from the decaying Khmer Empire in Cambodia.

European explorers arrived in the 1500s, the French bringing Catholic missionaries, but it wasn’t until the 1800s that serious exploration and missionary work began. By the 1850s the French had established military control over most of Indochina, which they divided into administrative provinces and ran in the usual patronising, exploitative style.

The disastrous 20th century

World War Two was a catastrophe for European Empires all through Asia, which were overthrown by the triumphant Japanese Empire. The Japanese allowed Vietnam to continue to be run by the new Axis-friendly Vichy French regime. But when the Nazi regime in Europe collapsed in 1945, the Japanese briefly took direct rule, before their own defeat in August 1945.

Throughout the 1920s various Vietnamese nationalist movements had arisen, only to be suppressed by the French authorities. The most enduring was to be the communist one, led by Ho Chi Minh, who had trained in Bolshevik Moscow in the 1920s, and helped form the Vietnamese communist party in 1930. In 1941 Ho helped establish a broad-based nationalist movement, including moderates and radicals, which became known as the Viet Minh (full name ‘Việt Nam Độc Lập Đồng Minh Hội’, meaning ‘League for the Independence of Vietnam’). The communists were helped by Moscow to organise during the Vichy years and were given arms and advice by the American OSS during Japan’s brief period of direct rule.

This last year of the war saw a disastrous famine in Vietnam in which as many as two million starved to death. It had been inadvertently begun by Vichy French switch of agriculture from food crops to cash crops, and was exacerbated by Japanese rule, which was focused solely on feeding Japan’s home population. The collapse of civil authority and widespread hatred of the oppressor meant that, the moment Japan surrendered in August 1945, Ho Chi Minh’s call for a general uprising was met with enthusiasm in the northern and central provinces. This ‘August Revolution’ consolidated Viet Minh rule in the north and Ho called for Allied recognition of a united independent Vietnam.

What a world of pain would have been avoided if the Americans had simply agreed. Imagine if Truman had continued to supply arms and support to Ho, helped to establish a united nationalist government, and gained the eternal gratitude of the Vietnamese people.

Instead, as in Korea, the Allies i.e. America, designated a geographic division of the country: China to accept Japanese surrender in the north and Britain to accept it in the south. British soldiers occupied Saigon and put down nationalist and communist elements, pending the return of the French.

The French returned to find that: Ho Chi Minh’s Viet Minh organisation effectively controlled the north of the country; and the south included large pockets of Viet Minh and communist sympathisers, alongside competing nationalist interests, for example the Buddhist, Cao Dai and Hoa Hao religious sects, which made it very difficult to rule.

Dienbienphu

The French struggled to restore peace in the south and enforce their somewhat optimistic claim to be able to control the north. As sporadic outbreaks of violence dragged on, a French general, Henri Navarre, decided to draw the Viet Minh into an open set-piece battle such as his forebears had fought in Europe and set up a massive stronghold at Dienbienphu, far in the north and west towards the border with Laos, in the spring of 1954. The Vietminh’s leading strategist, General Vo Nguyen Giap, surrounded the 13,000 French with 50,000 Vietminh troops and after a grinding two-month conflict, took Dienbienphu.

This catastrophic defeat coincided with peace talks in Geneva about the entire region, and a deal was brokered whereby Vietnam was divided along the 17th parallel into a Vietminh-held north and the French-controlled south, with a promise to hold elections throughout the country in 1956. The French began withdrawing from South Vietnam, handing authority over to the ’emperor’ Bao Dai, who appointed Ngo Dinh Diem Prime Minister in June 1954.

American involvement

Immediately after the Second World War America, true to its vehemently anti-colonial principles, had sought to undermine and hamper the return of the French to Indochina. However, within a few short years Russia’s increasingly aggressive stance in Europe had driven a wedge between the wartime allies and changed US policy. Now US policy around the world was subordinated to the idea of ‘containment’: the fear that Russia would back or impose communist governments in every country it was able to, in an aggressive strategy to spread communism throughout the world – unless actively halted by the West.

This paranoid view of the world was strongly reinforced when Mao Zedong’s communists finally won the Chinese Civil War in October 1949, and then Kim Il-sung’s North Korean communists invaded South Korea in June 1950. It was easy to see this as a concerted effort to make all Asia communist, an outcome which would ultimately threaten pro-western Japan, and then the American West Coast.

And so the Americans switched from criticising the French to supporting them with supplies and advisers. Dienbienphu was a turning point. From then onwards hawks within the US administration began to win the argument. Thus, as the French withdrew their forces and administrators, the Americans found themselves getting drawn into supporting Diem’s southern government. This was despite Diem’s unsavoury policies. Himself a member of Vietnam’s Catholic minority, Diem forcefully repressed other religious groups and kept key positions of power within his family or clan. As with the unsavoury Syngman Rhee in South Korea, America found that the logic of its anti-communist position drew it into supporting a repressive dictator who breached every principle of human rights and good governance Americans supposedly believed in, solely on the basis that he wasn’t a communist.

The French leave Vietnam

In 1955 the last French troops left the country. In 1956 Diem instituted a fierce anti-communist drive. In 1957 fighting broke out between the Republic of Vietnam Army and anti-regime opponents, who Diem referred to as the Viet Cong – a name which would catch on. (The original phrase was Việt Nam Cộng-sản which means ‘Vietnamese communist’. It was abbreviated to Viet Cong, then just VC. In the NATO phonetic alphabet V and C are conveyed by ‘Victor’ and ‘Charlie’ – hence the widespread use of ‘Charlie’ by American troops to refer to the enemy.)

Hanoi, effective capital of the communist North, was able to recruit a wide range of anti-Diem forces in the name of overthrowing the dictator and reuniting the country. In 1959 Hanoi sent the first shipments of men and supplies to their forces in the south to fuel what had, in effect, become a civil war. The various nationalist forces were organised into the People’s Liberation Armed Forces, supplied and directed by communists. By 1961 they controlled significant parts of the countryside and had sympathisers in every southern city.

President Kennedy took office in January 1961 and walked straight into the Vietnam problem. Like his predecessors he saw it through a Cold War lens as a case of communist aggression. Kennedy authorised the despatch of US special forces to Vietnam to train and support the South Vietnam army. By 1962 advisers estimated that Diem held only 49% of South Vietnam – but instead of recognising historical reality, this only spurred the Americans to redouble their support for the losing side. In 1963 the North commissioned isolated attacks on southern military targets, in which growing numbers of Americans were killed. It was a red rag to a bull.

Why America lost the Vietnam War

1. Civil war or Cold War ‘invasion’ The Americans saw the Vietnam conflict solely in terms of the global Cold War, and solely as a communist conspiracy. They failed to acknowledge the nationalist motivation of many of their opponents, who simply wanted to see their country reunited and all foreign oppressors thrown out.

Thus the Americans persisted in thinking about the war as an ‘invasion’ from the communist North, which could be put down by bombing the North, as if this conflict resembled Germany invading France. But this book makes clear that as much as 40% of the population of the south were opposed to Diem’s regime and, after he was assassinated in a coup, his numerous successors were even less popular.

The Americans manoeuvred themselves into the hopeless position of propping up the unpopular side in a civil war.

2. The failure of ‘attrition’ The American military adopted a policy of ‘attrition’. They thought they could wear down the enemy through constant conflict in which America’s vastly larger weaponry would inevitably triumph. It would become a contest of wills. Victory was measured by body count. If more VC died than US troops died then, eventually, finally, in the end, America would win.

But in the event the American willpower cracked first. Why? To this day the military men and their supporters blame the tremendous anti-war movement which grew up back in the States for undermining the war effort. But politicians have to represent the will of the people and by the end of the 1960s the people of America had had enough.

At a deeper level the whole sorry saga recalls the parable of the fox chasing the rabbit: the fox is quicker, cleverer and stronger than the rabbit; but the fox is only running for its dinner whereas the rabbit is running for its life. The Americans were only fighting yet another war for not very clear aims, with a manifestly failing strategy, in defensof a corrupt and unpopular government. The Vietnamese were fighting for a free, united country. The Americans could go home anytime; the Vietnamese had to live there. Which side would you bet on?

American involvement

Hundreds of thousands of books, articles, movies, newspaper and magazine pieces, academic studies and websites are devoted to the American part of the Vietnam War, from roughly 1964 to 1973. Suffice to say that when President Kennedy was assassinated in November 1963, there were about 16,000 US troops in Vietnam, helping Diem’s government against Viet Cong insurgents. Six years later there were as many as 550,000 US military personnel in country.

Diem was himself assassinated a few weeks before Kennedy, and south Vietnam then suffered a series of coups by military men, rendering the southern government ever-more illegitimate and precarious. In 1965, after half a dozen military coups, Nguyễn Văn Thiệu became president and was the figurehead of the Southern regime the Americans were supposedly fighting for, for the rest of the conflict.

1964 was the key year when America could still have walked away with some dignity, and we now know it was filled with fraught debates at senior levels in the administration of President Johnson, who replaced the assassinated Kennedy.

The central event came on 2nd August when a US destroyer high up in the Gulf of Tonkin (aiding commando attacks against the North Korean coast) was attacked by some North Vietnamese boats. Two days later the same ship reported being under attack again. There is now consensus that the second attack never took place and, apparently, the first one resulted in precisely one bullet hole in the ship’s infrastructure. Nevertheless, this ‘attack’ gave Johnson administration the fig leaf it needed to go to Congress and force through the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution on 7 August 1964, which allowed the president ‘to take any measures he believed were necessary to retaliate and to promote the maintenance of international peace and security in southeast Asia.’ It was the legal fig leaf to take America into a full-blown war.

Rolling Thunder

Further North Vietnam-inspired attacks on southern targets, which killed some US servicemen, persuaded a dubious President Johnson that a bombing campaign against the North would bring them to the negotiating table. Having just read accounts of the bombing campaign of the Second World War and the Korean War, I share the President’s doubts – but the American air force won the argument and Operation Rolling Thunder – a sustained bombing campaign against Northern military targets – commenced in March 1965. Two things happened:

  • this stepping-up of the war sparked the first public protests, especially on university campuses, which formed the seeds of what would grow into a massive nationwide anti-war campaign
  • selective bombing didn’t either bolster the regime in the south or force the North to the negotiating table and so, as always happens, the generals insisted that the campaign be broadened to take in vital infrastructure, and then towns and then cities

Tim Page’s photo of the US air force man with a helmet with a set of stickers on it reading, ‘Bomb Hanoi’, ‘Bomb Saigon’, ‘Bomb Disneyland’, ‘Bomb Everything’, captures the horribly inevitable logic of all bombing campaigns. They never work and then their proponents say that’s because we’re not bombing enough.

That’s what the Luftwaffe told Hitler to get him to authorise the bombing British cities: did it bring Churchill to the negotiating table? No. Then Bomber Harris persuaded Churchill to allow indiscriminate ‘area’ bombing of German cities: did that bring Hitler to the negotiating table? No. the Americans fire-bombed Japanese cities for a year, reducing many to rubble, killing 100,000 civilians in the great firebombing of Tokyo alone: did that bring Japan to the negotiating table? No. The American Air Force bombed North Korean targets for years: did that hasten the negotiations to a conclusion? No.

But once again, the USAF persuaded a doubtful civilian leader to allow mass bombing of an enemy: did it bolster the South Vietnamese regime? No. Did it bring a defeated North Vietnam to the negotiating table? No. An estimated 50,000 North Vietnamese died.

The realisation that the (ever-expanding) bombing campaign wasn’t working, drove demands from the military authority on the ground, General Westmoreland, for more ground troops. Slowly, reluctantly, lacking a clear end-goal, Johnson authorised increasing US troops, 23,000 by the end of 1964, 385,000 during 1966, a massive 535,000 by early 1968.

The Tet Offensive

1968 was the decisive year. In January, taking the Americans completely by surprise, the North launched the Tet Offensive, striking a host of military sites all over South Vietnam, even attacking the US Embassy in Saigon.

Map of Tet Offensive targets

Although the Viet Cong lost at least 10 times the number of American dead in the Tet Offensive (45,267 to 4,124) the graphic TV images and newspaper reports, combined with the vigorous anti-war campaigns led by students back in the States, undermined American determination. It was a contributory factor to Lyndon Johnson deciding not to stand for re-election as president and to the election victory of his successor, Republican Richard Nixon, who became president in January 1969. Nixon had campaigned to bring the war to an end and tried to implement a policy of ‘Vietnamisation’ i.e. handing the war back to the South Vietnamese to fight.

Even with this determination it still took four years to get to the Paris Peace Accords of 1973, during which time plenty more pacification campaigns were carried out, plenty of programmes to bolster the South Vietnam government’s position and popularity – in fact bombing was actually increased.

In March 1969 Nixon took the fateful decision to extend the ongoing bombing into neighbouring Cambodia, through which the Viet Minh had been sending arms and supplies. This had the effect of destabilising the pro-American government there and bolstering the fierce local communist party, the Khmer Rouge, with catastrophic results.

The Americans also led a predominantly South Vietnamese Army campaign into Laos, to destroy Viet Minh bases, but the Southern army was badly worsted, abandoning much of its equipment on the field of battle. This augured badly for the whole ‘Vietnamisation’ strategy and, sure enough, once the Americans had withdrawn, the South was to ultimately lose the war. The Viet Minh knew they only had to sit tight and watch the American war effort collapse.

Decay and collapse

The biggest revelation to me in this short, punchy account, is the state of decay the American army reached during the war.

  • Drugs A Department of Defense study indicated that 60% of US military personnel in Vietnam used drugs in 1970.
  • Desertion The desertion rate hit an all-time high in 1971 – from 1963 to 1973 about half a million US soldiers deserted, nearly 20% of the total.

In 1972 the North launched the ‘Easter Offensive’, but were surprised at the solidity of the Southern fightback and the violence of the American response (this included the largest bombing campaign of the entire war, which devastated Northern supplies). As many as 100,000 Northern soldiers died and around 25,000 from the South. Even as it withdrew its troops, and transferred vast sums to President Thieu’s regime to train the southern army, America was still capable of lashing out.

Peace talks

Not only was their victory on the battlefield not as assured as they had assumed, but the international situation was shifting against the interests of the communist North. In February 1972 President Nixon made a historic state visit to China, and Hanoi could see that, ultimately, friendship with the U.S. was more important to Beijing than a never-ending war. At the same time Nixon and his Secretary of State Henry Kissinger were pursuing a policy of détente with the Russians. Stymied on the battlefield and sensing that either Russia or China might start to cut off supplies and force an unfavourable settlement, Hanoi finally agreed to come to the negotiating table, where all modern wars end. In fact Kissinger had been having secret talks with Le Duc Tho, a member of North Vietnamese politburo, from as far back as August 1969. Now there was movement.

A draft peace agreement had been hammered out by October 1972. But President Thieu refused to sign it without significant concessions by the North which thereupon withdrew from discussion. This led Nixon to agree to a final mass bombing of the North – the so-called Christmas Bombing campaign – in December 1972, inflicting huge damage and bringing condemnation from at home and abroad. But it brought Hanoi back to the table and Peace Accords were finally signed in Paris in January 1973. They provided for:

  • A ceasefire to begin on January 28, 1973
  • US troops had sixty days to withdraw all of their forces
  • both side to release all their war prisoners
  • South Vietnam and People’s Revolutionary Government to negotiate a political settlement which would allow South Vietnamese people to decide their own political future
  • Reunification of Vietnam was to be ‘carried out step by step through peaceful means’

The Americans withdrew their last forces but continued to send vast sums to Thieu’s administration. All prisoners were released, including some 591 U.S. prisoners of war. Only 159 Marines remained to guard the U.S. Embassy.

Final defeat

In spring 1974 the North launched a military campaign against the central highlands. In August President Nixon chose to resign rather than face impeachment over the Watergate affair. His successor, President Ford ignored Nixon’s secret promises to the southern regime. Emboldened by their success in the midlands, VC forces attacked towns and cities. Their strategists had thought it might take as long as two years to wear down the Southern army, particularly in light of the billions of dollars of munitions the Americans had sent them. In the event the entire campaign to conquer South Vietnam took 55 days.

Right up to the last week, U.S. officials avowed confidence in the South, which explains the final, panic-stricken scenes of helicopters landing on the Embassy roof as communist forces closed in on Saigon. Saigon fell to the North on 30 April 1975, and Vietnam was finally, after thirty years of hugely destructive conflict, reunited.

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Kingdom of Shadows by Alan Furst (2000)

Furst’s sixth novel follows the adventures of Nicholas Morath, an aristocratic Hungarian who has secured a French passport and lives in Furst’s favourite city, Paris, where he has a half share in an advertising company, the Agence Courtmain. His uncle, Count Janos Polanyi de Nemeszvar, also lives a very comfortable life in Paris.

In the first few pages we see Nicholas arriving, after a trip abroad, at the apartment of his South American lover, Cara, who has been wondering whether to masturbate in his absence and then asks him which role he’d like to play with her – wicked old uncle, slavemaster, ‘perhaps something from de Sade’.

Not to be outdone, on page seven the Count receives in his office the famous chanteuse Mimi Moux, at her usual hour, who strips to her underwear then kneels before him, undoes his fly and performs oral sex. Later, there is dinner – chicken soup with dumplings and cream, and a bottle of 1924 Echézeaux. Mmmm yummy.

Furst is touted as an author of spy novels, but I find his descriptions of sophisticated sex, often with role-playing and numerous positions, along with the descriptions of delicious-sounding European meals and fine wines, and the many sequences of sauntering around beautiful Paris in the sun or the rain or the snow, all go to make up a unified, sensual and imaginative whole, a sex fantasy Paris which no amount of cloak and dagger incidents in Eastern Europe can really dent.

Tourist Furst outweighs spy Furst. Thus it comes as no surprise to learn that there are several magazine articles devoted to helping tourists find the real-life settings of Furst’s Paris locations.

The Munich Crisis

The novel opens on 10 March 1938 and focuses on the gathering international crisis over the Sudetenland ie the strip of Czechoslovakia bordering Germany and Austria which had a large ethnic German population and was given to Czechoslovakia after the Great War. Once Hitler was in power (1933) he began making speeches calling, among other things, for the Sudetenland to be handed back to Germany. After he annexed Austria in March 1938, Hitler’s calls became more strident and threatening. Since both France and Britain had guaranteed Czechoslovakia’s borders, all Europe held its breath expecting war to break out at any minute.

Half way through the novel come British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s humiliating trips to Germany to meet Chancellor Hitler and try and find a way out of the impasse. On the third trip, to Munich, on 30 September 1938, Chamberlain caves in to all Hitler’s demands, namely the handing over of the entire Sudetenland to Germany, and persuades the French to acquiesce also.

It is against this backdrop that Nicholas carries out various undercover missions to Eastern Europe, which are both tense in themselves and also give the characters opportunities to comment on the international situation, what it means for them and their countries – always a fascinating aspect of Furst’s fiction. In fact, Furst’s ability to imagine himself back into the minds of educated people at the time of these events who have absolutely no idea what is going to happen next and who speculate about the changing scenarios as the situation evolves – will Hitler end up ruling all of Europe? will Britain make a separate peace with him? – is, for me, the most rewarding, the most thought-provoking aspect. of Furst’s novels.

Morath’s missions

  • A trip to Antwerp, ostensibly to see a client for the agency, where he also touches base with a dressmaker who has information about German industrial output.
  • A long elaborate trip to Ruthenia, an area on the borders of Hungary and Romania, to collect a thuggish villain named Pavlo and smuggle him under a false passport over the border into Hungary. After he has shot an innocent taxi driver, had a small shootout with border guards and swum the river to freedom, Morath gets him on the train to Paris where he promptly vanishes leaving the reader no idea why Morath has gone to all this effort.
  • Another long journey to Czechoslovakia and into the Sudetenland, where he is shown the extensive defences the Czechs have built into the mountains to hold up the Germans attack long enough for France and Britain to come to their aid. During this trip he and his guide, Novotny, and a small village of Czechs come under prolonged attack from ethnic German (Volksdeutsch) militia, who burn down the police station and kill various Czechs. Nicholas is only able to escape when the attack withdraws the next day. He is carrying detailed sketches of the mountain defences with a view to publicising them back in the West.
  • On a journey to Hungary to ask his mother to flee the country with him (she refuses) he is also tasked with collecting money from rich donors (what for is never clearly explained) but after picking up a briefcase of cash from Prince Hrubal in a castle, Nicholas is ambushed by the Siguranza, the Romanian secret police, who beat him up and throw him in a cell. After interrogation, he is being moved to another station when there is an armed attack on the railway station where he’s standing with his captors, most of whom are shot dead, as Nicholas is spirited away in a fast car, has his handcuffs cut off and is transported safely back across the border.

During these adventures, we learn a lot of background information about all sorts of aspects of East Europe, from the food, the landscape to, of course, the political issues: about the Croatian fascists – the Ustache – about the chequered attempts of the Hungarian leader Admiral Horthy to bend to the Nazi wind without completely capitulating to them, about the all-pervasive anti-semitism of Eastern Europe.

But no matter how fraught these trips, the reader can have confidence that Nicholas will always return to the warm willing body of Cara or – after her father, Señor Dionello, appears and insists she leave Paris and return to South America with him – of the next pretty girl Nicholas effortlessly seduces.

He kissed her, reached over and undid her bra, she shrugged her shoulders, he tossed it on a chair. Some time later, he hooked a finger in the waistband of her panties and slid them down her legs, slow and easy, until she pointed her feet so he could get them off. (p.44)

In the latter parts of the novel various strands come together in quite puzzling ways. The French authorities start calling Morath in for questioning about the incident in Romania. The Count suspects this is the work of his colleague in the Hungarian Legation, Sombol, and one fine day goes to his office, asks him to stop interfering and then shoots him in the head. Unbelievably, he persuades the French police that this was suicide, but nonetheless disappears shortly afterwards, missing, presumed dead.

Certainly dead enough for Nicholas to inherit his estate and wealth, to the accompaniment of various celebratory parties – a posh one among the Hungarian émigré community in Paris, and a small one for Nicholas and his new squeeze, Mary Day, a senior figure at his advertising agency, who he finds himself seducing/falling in love with, who buys him a special cream cake to celebrate his inheritance and then allows him to lick the cream off her nipples.

Not that Morath doesn’t still have various missions to undertake: one to Antwerp to a family firm of diamond traders, to convert the money he collected in the Hungary sequence form various donors: this will be converted to diamonds and smuggled to America as funds to be saved against the very rainy days which are coming.

Early in the novel Nicholas had been tasked with finding a safe apartment for a senior German officer supposedly to have romantic rendezvous in; about half way through the book the Count told him the officer is somehow linked to the Wehrmacht’s attempts to get rid of Hitler.

As we all know, these didn’t work, which might explain why Morath is called from his warm bed one night to help the landlord dispose of the body of a senior German officer – not the man it was rented for – who has apparently shot himself in the apartment.

In a later vignette, Morath reads that the man he helped smuggle out of Ruthenia in the opening scenes of the book was in fact an assassin and terrorist, involved in numerous outrages – including the assassination of an anti-German journalist in the Luxembourg Gardens – but was later arrested in Romania and found hanged in his cell.

In the final sequence, a well-known Hungarian Jewish émigré, a musician who’s made it big in Hollywood, Kolovitzky, is at one of the parties Morath attends. Next thing Morath hears, Kolovitzky has travelled to Vienna under the impression that he’s inherited several properties there. Big mistake. It’s a scam. He is arrested by the SS who demand a ransom from his family.

Kolovitsky’s family approach Morath to beg his help and so he undertakes a mission with various helpers who we have been introduced through the novel: the Russian barman Boris Balki, the Jewish fixer Rashkow, and the middlemen, Wolfi Szubl, who found the German officer his apartment.

This motley crew are involved in a Mission Impossible-style rescue of Kolovitzky from the hotel in Vienna where he’s being kept under guard (along with other Jewish hostages), which Morath manages by starting a massive fire and panicking the SS guards.

After more episodes involving fake identities and rendezvous with diplomatic cars, Kolovitzky is finally smuggled across the border into Hungary, from where he and Morath catch a train back to Paris and then – at last – Morath can get back into bed and snuggle up next to Mary Day’s lovely bottom.

Paris

Paris is a major character in the novel, in fact in most of Furst’s novels – arguably far more real and present than most of the second-string human characters.

The rain slackened, that afternoon, Paris a little triste in its afternoon drizzle but accustomed to weather in the spring season and looking forward to the adventures of the evening. (p.7)

They walked in the Palais Royal gardens after lunch. A dark afternoon, perpetual dusk, Polanyi and Morath like two ghosts in overcoats, moving slowly past the grey branches of the winter parterre. (p.14)

Morath had been eighteen years in Paris and the émigré life, with its appetising privacy, and immersion in the city, all passion, pleasure and bad philosophy, had changed the way he looked. It meant that women liked him more… (p.19)

Paris that September was tense and brooding, on the edge of war, darker than Morath had ever known it. The retour, the return to daily life after the August vacation, was usually a sweet moment in Parisian life, but not that autumn. (p.139)

Morath had always liked the Novembers of Paris. It rained, but the bistros were warm, the Seine dark, the lamps gold, the season’s love affairs still new. (p.176)

‘Monsieur Morath – Nicholas, if you don’t mind – this is Paris. If you want to fuck a camel, all it takes is a small bribe to the zookeeper. Whatever you want to do, any hole you can think of and some you can’t, it’s up in Pigalle, out in Clichy. For money, anything.’ (p.75)

This fetishising of a city, this making it into the theatre of all your darker fantasies, into a bottomless pit of depravity and corruption, reminds me of the way Len Deighton writes about Berlin in his nine Bernard Samson novels.

It would be interesting to compare and contrast the way the two writers make use of a major city – as a location and backdrop, as a place to be physically criss-crossed in the course of the hero’s adventures, and so as a kind of grid or matrix for the narrative to be woven onto, as well as a psychological fantasy world where all our – the readers’ – naughtiest thoughts can be acted out and vicariously satisfied.

For me, living in boring, workaday London, Furst’s Paris and Deighton’s Berlin sound amazing – the settings of non-stop parties, orgies, cabarets and endless intrigue and adventure. It would be interesting to know what people who actually live in those cities make of their fictional portraits. I wonder if any German critics ever reviewed Deighton’s Berlin novels, or what French critics make of Furst’s Paris.


Credit

Kingdom of Shadows by Alan Furst was published in 2000 by Victor Gollancz. All quotes and references are to the 2001 Phoenix paperback edition.

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The Night Soldiers novels

1988 Night Soldiers –  An epic narrative which starts with a cohort of recruits to the NKVD spy school of 1934 and then follows their fortunes across Europe, to the Spain of the Civil War, to Paris, to Prague and Switzerland, to the gulags of Siberia and the horrors of the Warsaw ghetto, in a Europe beset by espionage, conspiracy, treachery and murder.
1991 Dark Star – The story of Russian Jew André Szara, foreign correspondent for Pravda, who finds himself recruited into the NKVD and entering a maze of conspiracies, based in Paris but taking him to Prague, Berlin and onto Poland – in the early parts of which he struggles to survive in the shark-infested world of espionage, to conduct a love affair with a young German woman, and to help organise a network smuggling German Jews to Palestine; then later, as Poland is invaded by Nazi Germany, finds himself on the run across Europe. (390 pages)
1995 The Polish Officer – A long, exhausting chronicle of the many adventures of Captain Alexander de Milja, Polish intelligence officer who carries out assignments in Nazi-occupied Poland and then Nazi-occupied Paris and then, finally, in freezing wintertime Poland during the German attack on Russia.
1996 The World at Night – A year in the life of French movie producer Jean Casson, commencing on the day the Germans invade in June 1940, following his ineffectual mobilisation into a film unit which almost immediately falls back from the front line, his flight, and return to normality in occupied Paris where he finds himself unwittingly caught between the conflicting claims of the Resistance, British Intelligence and the Gestapo. (304 pages)
1999 Red Gold – Sequel to the World At Night, continuing the adventures of ex-film producer Jean Casson in the underworld of occupied Paris and in various Resistance missions across France. (284 pages)
2000 Kingdom of Shadows – Hungarian exile in Paris, Nicholas Morath, undertakes various undercover missions to Eastern Europe at the bidding of his uncle, Count Janos Polanyi, a kind of freelance espionage controller in the Hungarian Legation. Once more there is championship sex, fine restaurants and dinner parties in the civilised West, set against shootouts in forests, beatings by the Romanian police, and fire-fights with Sudeten Germans, in the murky East.
2003 Blood of Victory
2004 Dark Voyage
2006 The Foreign Correspondent
2008 The Spies of Warsaw
2010 Spies of the Balkans
2012 Mission to Paris
2014 Midnight in Europe
2016 A Hero in France

A Storm of Swords 2: Blood and Gold by George RR Martin (2000)

A Storm of Swords is the third book in George RR Martin’s epic fantasy series, ‘A Song of Ice and Fire‘. When delivered to his US publishers the book weighed in at over 1,000 pages so the decision was taken to publish it in the UK in two parts or volumes. So this is the third book, part two, titled, ‘Blood and Gold’. Ie the fourth physical book in the series.

Why are these books so compelling?

Epic Martin has brought into existence an absolutely vast new world, fully imagined in every detail, from the sound of the horses to the names of the continents, from the theology and practice of not one but several religions to the decorations on each knight’s shield. It is an awesome achievement, and a joy and delight for readers with a taste for this sort of thing to be drawn into this wonderfully complete and encyclopedic realm of the imagination. Returning after a break reading some books about music, I was immediately back there, in Westeros, in the world of fear and violence, conspiracies and sorcery, and on tenterhooks awaiting the next shocking surprise.

Number of characters A big feature of the books is the hundreds of characters. Each part of Westeros is dominated by a handful of big name families – the Baratheons, Greyjoys, Starks, Lannisters, Freys come immediately to mind – each of these Houses has scores of subsidiary branches which intertwine as dynastic marriages are arranged – and between all the Big Families are minor noble houses, the so-called bannermen who owe allegiance to a Major House, and these in turn have countless intertwined genealogies. The result is that in his five books to date Martin has named over 1,000 characters, as well as innumerable unnamed smallfolk who generally meet a grisly end. Charles Dickens created just short of a thousand named characters in his 14 novels. Martin has bested him in just five.

Cult Martin’s world is so big it’s spawned a host of secondary contributors – wikis and fanclubs, conventions and merchandise, the hit HBO TV series, cookery books and board games, and a number of fantasy illustrators who’ve given visual life to Martin’s stunning imaginings. Artist and musician Ted Nasmith has made some wonderful pictures of key locations in the Ice and Fire saga, like the one below, of the great Ice Wall which separates the kingdom of Westeros from the frozen North, home to wildlings, cannibals, wargs and the terrifying ‘Others’.

'Castle Black and the Wall' by Ted Nasmith © Ted Nasmith

‘Castle Black and the Wall’ by Ted Nasmith © Ted Nasmith

See more images of A Song of Ice and Fire on Ted Nasmith’s website.

Thriller Though filed under Fantasy, these books deploy the techniques of a thriller: each chapter doesn’t so much move the narrative on as deliver a punch. New and shocking things are continually occurring leaving you on continual tenterhooks as to the next outrageous event. These shocks are part of the larger worldview of stunning brutality, where characters are routinely raped, murdered, tortured, eviscerated or cynically betrayed – and all they themselves think about is scheming, sex or murder.

Multiple POVs Each chapter follows a specific character: the complicated action of ‘Blood and Gold’ is seen from about ten different viewpoints. This allows Martin to move the reader at great speed, very effectively, to completely disparate parts of the fantasy world of Westeros, to allow the reader to witness key developments taking place in the five or so major strands of plot. Like cuts in a TV series, the technique makes for speed of events, and for suspense. You are whisked away from one character just as something vital occurs – and it might be 50 or 100 pages before you return to their part of the plotline.

In this book, the chapter characters are:

  • Jaime Lannister, Catelyn Stark, Arya Stark, Tyrion Lannister, Davos Seaworth, Sansa Stark, Jon Snow, Daenerys Targaryen, Bran Stark, Samwell Tarly.
Lena Headey as Queen Cersei in HBO’s ‘A Clash of Kings’, broadcast on Sky Atlantic © HBO

Lena Headey as Queen Cersei in HBO’s ‘A Clash of Kings’, broadcast on Sky Atlantic © HBO

Style The default setting of the style is clear and spare and functional:

“When morning came, none of them quite realised it at first. The world was still dark, but the black had turned to grey and shapes were beginning to emerge half-seen from the gloom. Jon lowered his bow to stare at the mass of heavy clouds that covered the eastern sky. He could see a glow behind them, but perhaps he was only dreaming. He notched another bow.”     (p.301)

There are a few nods in the direction of cod-medievalism, a few stylistic gestures towards the books’ fantasy setting: the most persistent and slightly irritating one is removing the -ly suffix from adverbs. He is like to be angry. He has near finished the task. Sometimes entire paragraphs or chunks of dialogue will use these and other tame medievalisms to create a style closer to Victorian pastiches of medieval prose than the real thing. But these tics don’t conceal the fundamental modernity of the prose and the worldview it conveys.

“Bran was too frightened to shout. The fire had burned down to a few bright embers and his friends were all asleep. He almost slipped his skin and reached out for his wolf, but Summer might be miles away. He couldn’t leave his friends helpless in the dark to face whatever was coming up out of the well.”                                                                                                                                   (p.195)

Coinages Matching and echoing the epic scope of his imagination, Martin has coined completely new, medieval-sounding words to fit the fantasy medievalism of the story. These are a creative and enjoyable aspect of his style:

  • New words sept and septon and septa (shrine and priest and priestess to the seven gods), maester (doctor/alchemist), wildlings (wild men from north of the Great Wall), pyromancer (makers of wildfire, a kind of napalm), holdfast.
  • New combinations sellsword (mercenary), smallfolk (ordinary people),  strongwine, westermen,  weirwood (ancient holy woods), ironborn (inhabitant of the western Iron isles), woodharp, stumbletongue, firewine, greensick (seasick), kingsmoot, skinchanger, godswood.

English (like its parent German) allows its users to combine words to make new ones. Martin uses this facility to coin scores of neologisms, just one of the verbal techniques he uses to reinforce the otherness of his fantasy world. And the more there are, the more frequently you encounter them on each page, the greater the sense of moving into his otherworld, the greater the sense of the completeness of the fantasy world.

Another is the slight deformation of existing standard words or phrases. A frequent example is that knights (warriors in armour riding horses) are called ‘Ser’, an obvious distortion of the traditional Sir, which starts out sounding silly, but by sheer repetition comes to seem the natural term.

Names The names of the hundreds and hundreds of characters partake of the alienation affect mentioned above, of being nearly recognisable but bent or distorted. Thus Jon Snow’s fat friend in the Night Watch is Samwell Tarly. Jamie Lannister’s name is almost English. Tywin is definitely foreign and so is Tyrion. Bronn sounds as if it should be English. Joffrey is an English name, distorted. Ditto Margaery, Dorna, Cleos and Kevan, Eddard and Robb, Tommen or Lyonel. Others are entirely alien like Tygett, Darlessa, Gerion, Emmon, Lancel, Arya, Hodder, Mace or Loras.

In these and related ways the text works on a purely verbal level to draw you into a parallel universe, whisperingly close to our English history and culture, and yet bracingly alien and explosive.

Charles Dance as Lord Tywin Lannister in HBO’s ‘A Clash of Kings’, broadcast on Sky Atlantic © HBO

Charles Dance as Lord Tywin Lannister in HBO’s ‘A Clash of Kings’, broadcast on Sky Atlantic © HBO

The Worldview is shockingly brutal. These books have more in common with Hannibal Lecter than JRR Tolkien. Key characters who we’ve grown to like or at least sympathise with over the previous 2,000 pages of text are brutally snuffed out in a few lines: the young hero stabbed through the heart, the mother whose throat is cut and body thrown naked into the river, the young girl who learns to stab bandits in the belly, the friendly whore who is whipped through the streets, the hero whose sword hand is unceremoniously chopped off, the gallant knight whose face is punched in by a giant, the noble father who is abruptly beheaded, the bard whose tongue is cut out. And these are the leading characters. The secondary characters are killed in scores of ways and by the thousand, burned to death or drowned in the Battle of Blackwater Bay, crushed by mammoths, stabbed by wildlings, shot through the throat with arrows, cut down, hacked to pieces, on almost every page.

Intrigue Allegedly Martin was inspired by the Wars of the Roses with its complicated intriguing and politicking, backstabbing and machiavellianism. Maybe. But the characters in the Song demonstrate depths of cynical manipulation which owe more to the 21st century than the 15th. Also, I can’t make up my mind whether it’s a drawback or a strength, but they are all cynical and manipulative in the same kind of way. The trouble with real life is people are strange and hard to read. Whether you’re chatting up a guest at a party or hiring a new chief executive it’s the hardest thing in the world to read other people, who are continually surprising with their unpredictable combinations of acuteness and obtuseness. Lord Tywin, Cersei, Danaerys, Robb Stark, Catelin, Theon Greyjoy, Lord Mormont, Varys, Petyr Littlefinger, Bronn the sellsword – they all think the same – they are all playing the same game, the Game of Thrones.

Nikolaj Coster-Waldau as Jaime Lannister in HBO’s ‘A Clash of Kings’, broadcast on Sky Atlantic © HBO

Nikolaj Coster-Waldau as Jaime Lannister in HBO’s ‘A Clash of Kings’, broadcast on Sky Atlantic © HBO

Killing off Most of the key players in the Wars of the Roses which, apparently, was one of Martin’s inspirations, lived reasonably long lives. I think the events of the Song have covered a year, during which half of the key players – and a lot of the ones I really liked – have been killed off. I begin to wonder whether Martin will run out of characters before the series ends. On the other hand, these surprise executions very effectively add to the tension. After he’s bumped off a few real favourites, you realise no-one is safe. It makes the books all the more gripping.

Sex The brutality includes the attitude to sex. Both men and women share an essentially male view of sex – functional and brutal and phallocentric. Men routinely get hard and immediately enter their women with no foreplay. Martin makes all the characters use the f word with abandon and on a few occasions the c word. And these are the royal families ie the most highly bred people in this world. Morality starts cruel and brutal at the top of this society and gets worse as you descend. Every woman is permanently at risk of rape. Any man can be murdered at any point, by his lord and master, his brother, his father, his son. No-one is safe.

Pagan In a way these books are a massive advert for Christianity. Though three or four religions are described in Westeros (the religion of the first men, the religion of the children of the forests, the religion of the Seven gods, and the new religion of Light), none of them at all restrain their adherents from astronomical cruelty and barbarism. At the end of his hugely enjoyable and politically savvy History of Christianity (1976), the (Roman Catholic) historian, Paul Johnson, makes the case that human history of the past 2,000 years has been pretty bloodthirsty and appalling – but without the restraining influence of Christianity it would have been a whole lot worse. Whatever you think of that as a defence of Christianity, George RR Martin’s Westeros could be said to be an unflinching depiction of what Europe would have looked like without any restraining religious or cultural influences at all. It is in many (OK, most) ways a vision of Hell.

Check out George RR Martin’s blog.

The photos of characters are from the HBO TV dramatisation of the books. Series 1 is out on dvd. Series 2 transmitted last year and is now out on dvd. Series 3 will start transmitting on Sky Atlantic on Monday 1 April.

A Storm of Swords 1: Steel and Snow by George RR Martin (2000)

17 January 2012

A Storm of Swords is book three of George RR Martin’s epic fantasy series, ‘A Song of Ice and Fire‘. This one book is divided into two volumes, presumably because volume one’s 569 pages plus volume two’s 554 pages would have made a pretty unmanageable 1,123 page book. Plus the maps. Plus the 53 pages listing the characters.

Part one of ‘A Storm of Swords’ is titled ‘Steel and Snow’. As with the two previous books in the series the novel follows quite a few complex plotlines, embracing hundreds of characters scattered over two continents of his fantasy world, Westeros and Essos:

  • Beyond the ice wall Jon Snow has abandoned his comrades of the Night Watch, pretending to join the wildlings or Free Men who live in violent anarchy in the frozen North. Their leader, Mance Rayder, has assembled a ramshackle army of anarchists and psychopaths to break through the great Ice Wall and invade Westeros but around them are gathering the Others, undead zombies who rise from their tombs, garbed in black ashes with bright blue eyes, who can’t be killed by normal weapons.
  • In the capital of Westeros, King’s Landing, the ironical dwarf Tyrion recovers consciousness after helping cruel 13 year old King Joffrey Lannister’s forces to victory in the epic Battle of Blackwater Bay in which the army and navy of the pretender Stannis Baratheon are destroyed in a great conflagration of dragonfire.
Photo of Jack Gleeson as King Joffrey Baratheon in HBO’s ‘Game of Thrones’ broadcast on Sky Atlantic © HBO

Jack Gleeson as King Joffrey Baratheon in HBO’s ‘Game of Thrones’ broadcast on Sky Atlantic © HBO

  • Meanwhile Robb Stark, erstwhile King of the North, makes a terrible tactical mistake by not carrying out his promise to marry the daughter of Lord Frey, ruler of the key crossing of the Trident river, the Two Twins. Instead he marries for love an unknown 18 year old beauty, Jeyne Westerling, thus alienating his key ally in the North.
  • Thirteen year old Sansa Stark is still held hostage by Cersei Lannister in King’s Landing and betrothed to the vicious 14-year old king Joffrey although, during the course of the book her fate is changed, as a new dynastic arrangement is made for King Joffrey and Sansa finds herself reassigned to marry the dwarf Tyrion.
Photo of Sophie Turner as Sansa Stark in HBO’s ‘Game of Thrones’ broadcast on Sky Atlantic © HBO

Sophie Turner as Sansa Stark in HBO’s ‘Game of Thrones’ broadcast on Sky Atlantic © HBO

  • The tone of the whole book lifts with the arrival of Lord Tywin Lannister, father to Cersei and Tyrion and Jamei. Cold and relentless, he is a surprisingly reassuring figure because he isn’t cruel or sadistic; every strategy is carefully planned and Tywin moves in a permanent web of plans, schemes, plots, alliances and manouevres. His cunning at least has a purpose unlike the unspeakable nastiness of the vile Joffrey and the demented Cersei.
  • Arya Stark continues her odyssey as an anonymous serving girl in the vast ruins of Harrenhal – until she manages to escape (killing a guard in the process) and heads North back to her home castle, Winterfell.
  • And Daenerys Targaryan, widow of Khal Drogo, and owner of three baby dragons who symbolise the rising of new magic in a world fast heading towards Winter and catastrophe, buys – or liberates – an army of the ‘Unsullied’ – eunuchs trained to obey unquestioningly and never feel pain – with which to return and conquer what she regards as her rightful kingdom, the Westeros which all the other characters in the book are fighting and scheming for.
Photo of Jerome Flynn as the sellsword Bronn in HBO’s ‘Game of Thrones’ broadcast on Sky Atlantic © HBO

Jerome Flynn as the sellsword Bronn in HBO’s ‘Game of Thrones’ broadcast on Sky Atlantic © HBO

The stills on this page are from HBO’s riveting TV dramatisation of  ‘A Clash of Kings’, the second novel in the series, which aired in the States and on Sky Atlantic last year. The dvd of GoT series 2 is available now.

Series 3, based on the this book, will start broadcasting on Sky Atlantic on 1 April this year.

1918: War and Peace by Gregor Dallas (2000)

20 March 2012

‎’1918: War and Peace’ by Gregor Dallas is a rip-roaring read, popular history at its best, a gripping tale which sweeps through European history to the outbreak of the Great War, then zeroes in on the vital events of 1918 and continues into the nitty-gritty of the post war peace conferences which led to the troubled Treaty of Versailles.

Full of anecdotes and atmosphere, it’s a hugely enjoyable read. I particularly liked the idea that, like the ancient stories about Troy, the Great War is in fact part of an epic cycle of interlinked myths and legends. Focusing only on the beginning, or stopping before the end like all the memoirs do, is to miss the complete flow and epic tragedy of the cycle, the way the war continued in the East turning into the Russian civil war, the Russo-Polish war and others, spawning tragedies in Armenia, Greece, Palestine, and generally setting the scene for the catastrophic 20th century. A bracing, thrilling, terrifying overview.

‘1918: War and Peace’ on Amazon

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