Kolymsky Heights by Lionel Davidson (1994)

‘Many tricky dicks walk the trail.’ (Jean-Baptiste Porteur, p.88)

I saw this book in several second-hand bookshops before I picked it up for a pound imagining, from the stylish cover, that Davidson was one of the new young generation of thriller writers.

How wrong I was. Davidson was born in 1922 and published his first novel, The Night of Wenceslas, in 1960, the year before John le Carré made his debut – i.e. he is very much one of the old generation of thriller writers.

After Wenceslas Davidson published a novel every couple of years throughout the 1960s and early 70s until 1978 when he disappeared from view. After a gap of 16 years he returned with Kolymsky Heights, his last novel, which gained rave reviews.

Is it any good? What’s it about? Does it make me want to go in search of his other seven thrillers?

Kolymsky Heights

Kolymsky Heights is relatively long at 478 pages and quite quickly you realise this is because Davidson’s defining quality is a long, drawn-out and frustrating, round-the-houses approach.

We are introduced to a fusty old don in Oxford, Professor Lazenby. His secretary, Miss Sonntag, opens a letter from Sweden which turns out to be empty. Until the prof roots around in the bottom of it and finds some cigarette papers. These contain indentations. He calls in a pupil of his who now works in ‘Scientific Services’ and who, a few years earlier, had called on the Prof and asked him to do a little gentle spying – in fact more like ‘alert observation’ – when he was attending a conference in the Eastern Bloc.

Lazenby calls up this man, Philpott, to come and interpret the cigarette papers. They realise the bumps on the surface contain a message coded as a set of numbers. These turn out to relate to books of the Bible, giving chapter and verse numbers. By piecing together the fragmented quotes they arrive at a message which, in an elliptical way, refers to a dark-haired man from the north who can speak tongues and who the writer wants to visit him.

If you like crosswords, I think you’d like this book. Or if you’re partial to railway timetables. Precise hours and timings are given for everything, and become vitally important in the later stages of the book.

Philpott passes the message up to a level of the British security services where it is shared with the Americans. They have spy satellites patrolling the earth and photographing every inch of Russia, especially secret installations. Recent satellite photos indicate that a well-established camp in the heart of Siberia has had an explosion and fire, and shows figures tramping amidst the ruins. The guy in charge of monitoring this, W. Murray Hendricks, calls in a second opinion, a naturalist who confirms that… the figures walking around appear to be… ape-men! They have the stance of men but… their arms and legs are the wrong shape!

This chimes with the opening section of prose right at the start of the book, a (characteristically unexplained) preface which appears to be a message written from someone working at a Russian security base, writing to a colleague who is about to join him. It describes the way a baby mammoth was found deeply embedded in ice, was chipped out and transported back to the base, where it turned out not to be a mammoth at all but a human, a woman lying on her side, who had fallen into a crevasse along with some bags and a tusk, and was heavily pregnant (big and bulky with tusks – that’s what caused the initial mistaken diagnosis).

So we have learned that: a 40,000-year-old frozen pregnant woman is brought to a top secret Russian research base. Some time later, American satellite photos show ape-like men at a top secret Russian research base. Are we dealing with a 1990s version of The Island of Dr Moreau?

If we are, it takes a bloody long time to get there, because we are still with Philpott and Lazenby trying to interpret the coded and elliptical cigarette-paper message. Eventually it dawns on the Prof that the reference is to a dark-haired, native American from British Columbia, a man known by his clan name of ‘Raven’, a man he met at a scientific conference in Oxford some 15 years back, which had also been attended by some Russians.

About the Raven

The novel then switches to give us Raven’s complicated biography. Christened Jean-Baptiste Porteur, he was brought up in the matrilinear society of the Gitksan people in the Skeena river region of British Columbia, north-west Canada, before being dumped into the care of a local missionary. Porteur was taught English enough to excel in his studies but then ran away to sea for a few years. Eventually he returned to settled society and took up serious studies, becoming known as Johnny Porter.

Porter is a super-gifted linguist, one of the few people to be in a position to make academic studies of the families of languages spoken by the natives of the Pacific North-West from the inside. He publishes work on the subject, is awarded a PhD and academic prizes, but remains, nonetheless, a surly non-player of the academic game.

Now he comes to think about it, Prof Lazenby remembers getting really drunk with Raven and another man, a Russian research scientist named Rogachev, at a conference in Oxford years ago. This Russian, Rogachev, then disappeared off the grid some 15 years ago, rumoured to have joined some secret research facility. They have (through a series of deductions which I found too obscure to follow) decided that the man sending the cigarette messages must be Rogachev. And that he wants to talk to Raven.

So then the CIA are tasked with tracking down Johnny Porter and find him in a remote fishing village in British Columbia. Lazenby flies out there accompanied by Philpott who hands him over to a fresh-faced young CIA man  named Walters. The CIA are now heavily involved. At least I think it’s the CIA. Langley is referred to (the world-famous headquarters of the CIA) but the agency itself is not mentioned explicitly. Davidson prefers to keep things shadowy and instead refers to ‘the plan’ which appears to be shared by the Brits and the Yanks.

They finally track down Porter to a backwoods cabin, and present him with all the evidence that Rogachev wants him to travel to a top secret Russian research base in deepest Siberia. In fact, its precise location is still unknown (I found this a little too obscure to understand: I thought they had satellite photos. Like most of the novel, these early passages required rereading to try and figure out what was going on, and even then I often gave up trying to understand the minutiae and just read on regardless.)

Raven becomes a Korean seaman

A vast amount of effort then goes in to describing Johnny’s trip by tramp steamer from Japan up into the Arctic Ocean.

As soon as he said yes to the mission, Raven (shall I call him Raven or Porter? Raven has more mystique) was taken to some kind of camp where he was trained in spying and spycraft.

This experience, which took several months, is not actually described in the book, simply referred back to as and when necessary. During his time in ‘the camp’, the surly, secretive multilingual academic Raven has been rather magically transformed into a kind of superspy, a man who will turn out to be capable of carrying out secret rendezvous with other agents, of picking up new outfits and passports and changing identities and carrying himself off as a whole range of different people, fluent in an impressive array of languages (English, Japanese, Korean, half a dozen tribal languages and Russian) which I found increasingly unbelievable.

Thus the next chapter skips over the training camp episode to give us Raven flying into Tokyo where, with typical stubbornness, he promptly refuses to do what the Japanese CIA agent, Yoshi, tells him.

The CIA plan is for Raven to masquerade as a Korean merchant seaman aboard a Japanese tramp steamer, Suzaku Maru, which is scheduled to puff up along the northern, Arctic coast of Siberia, till it gets to the nearest port to the fabled research base.

I still didn’t understand how they know where the base is, or how Johnny will know that, or how they know the ship will stop there, or anywhere nearby. Probably I should have reread the first hundred pages again, to try and piece together the highly elliptical clues. Davidson keeps his cards very close to his chest and only tells the reader the relevant bits of the plan, just before they fall due, and are about to kick in, sometimes only after they’ve happened. The result is a permanent sense of confusion.

Thus it was only a hundred pages later that the reader learns that ‘they’ (presumably the CIA) had approached one of the crew of this tramp steamer, Ushiba, and bribed him with a lot of money to take a pill which mimics the symptoms of yellow fever. He becomes extremely ill just as they dock in Japan. The captain transfers the sick sailor to an ambulance, and Raven just happens to be hanging round and have contacted the ship’s manpower agencies, as it arrives. So he is quickly hired, masquerading as a rough Korean merchant seaman, Sun Wong Chu, complete with pigtail, speaking the language with a slight speech impediment to the Japanese crew, who despise and ignore Koreans anyway.

There’s some tough sailor stuff, in particular a brutal fight with the bosun, who breaks his nose, but Raven works his passage and is gruffly accepted by the others. The ‘plan’ is for he himself to take a yellow fever pill so that, as the ship approaches Green Cape on the Arctic coast of Siberia, it is forced to put in to port and unload him. This he does, and the captain and bosun think he has somehow picked up the earlier sailor’s disease, maybe from infected sheets, mattress etc.

He is treated at Green Cape hospital by several doctors including a woman, Dr Komarova. Then, in a move which bewildered me, Dr Komarova hands him over to the Russian militia who put him on a flight to Yakutsk, where he is transferred to an Aeroflot flight to Murmansk – because that is where the steamer Suzaku Maru, was heading and where, they assume, he will want to rejoin his ship once he is well.

Except that, after recovering for a day or two at a seaman’s mission, Raven goes to a rendezvous with an agent, picks up from him a suitcase containing new clothes and identity papers, goes to the gents loos and shaves off all his hair and Korean pigtail, and emerges with a new identity as Nikolai (Kolya) Khodyan, a member of the Chukchee people from the Siberian east, and catches a plane to Irkutsk, changes to one to Yakutsk, then another local flight on to Tchersky, the nearest airport to Green Cape.

Hang on. If it was so easy to get there, to fly there – what was the point of the scam about him pretending to be a Korean sailor? Why the enormous complication of bribing the seaman he replace to take a pill giving him fever (and trusting that the feverish sailor wouldn’t give away the plan) – and then making Raven grow a ponytail and pretend to be Korean for weeks, and get beaten up by the bosun and nearly crushed by dangerous equipment and then take the same damn pill and seriously endanger his health when… he could have just flown there in the first place?

I read all this carefully, but remained completely puzzled. I am obviously missing something and I would say that that sense – the nagging sense of missing some vital piece of the jigsaw – is the permanent and frustrating feeling given by reading this book.

So Raven is now Nikolai (Kolya) Khodyan. As planned, he proceeds to the vacant apartment of one Alexei Mikhailovitch Ponomarenko. It turns out that this man was on holiday in the Black Sea when he was approached by the CIA who knew he was a drug smuggler. They threatened to tell the authorities unless he extended his stay on the Black Sea and let his apartment in Tchersky be used by their man Raven. More, it turns out that Khodyan is a friend of Ponomarenko’s, whose identity they have borrowed to create a ‘legend’ (fake identity) for Raven.

Raven discovers Ponomarenko had a gossipy old housekeeper, Anna, and a big brassy girlfriend, Lydia Yakovlevna, both of whom we are introduced to, and both need careful (though very different) handling. Our suave superspy is up to both challenges.

Once unpacked and settled in, Raven goes straight to the Tchersky Transport Company and get a job as a long-distance lorry driver. A great deal of description goes into detailing the work of truck companies in the frozen north of Siberia, and the organisation of this particular company, and the shouty director, Bukarovksy, and various foremen who Raven has to sweet-talk into getting a job – and then we learn a great deal about the different types of trucks.

Davidson very powerfully transports us to a completely strange world, with its language, customs, slang, prejudices and the sheer, backbreaking nature of the work. In summer everything melts, the ships can bring in goods but they can’t be distributed because the countryside is a bog. In winter the ocean freezes over – no more ships – but so does the landscape and so trucks can now drive across it. Especially, it turns out, along the rivers, whose flat, deep-frozen-ice surfaces make perfect highways.

(Davidson gives historical background to the economy of the area, which began as appalling forced labour camps in the 1930s and 40s, but was transformed by the discovery of gold and other minerals in the 1960s to something like a viable, if gruelling, mining economy, pp.188-189)

Raven of course knows how to drive all the trucks (including the small, all-purpose ‘bobik’). He has – by impersonating a Korean seaman, surviving a brutal fight with the bosun, surviving a bout of yellow fever, carrying out a secret rendezvous in an airport and completely transforming his appearance and emerging a fluent Chukchee-speaking truck driver – established himself as a kind of spy superman, speaking as many oriental languages as required and capable of blending in anywhere as a member of the minority Siberian native peoples.

Raven is signed up as a driver and does the work well, earning respect and friendship among the rough crews. At a party of truck drivers Raven is horrified to notice the woman doctor Komarova, who treated him as the sick Korean seaman a few weeks earlier, taking an inordinate interest in him. (Didn’t anyone writing this grand plan foresee that he would meet one set of people as sick Korean and then, returning in a completely different guise, risked bumping into the same people again?)

She comes over and talks. She is interested that he is a Chukchee. She invites him to come and meet her mother who lives in a community of Chukchee. Raven goes and we meet the little old lady and her Chukchee friend who, it turns out (the Chukchee community being so small) was present at his birth!!

Luckily, Raven has memorised the ‘legend’ prepared for him so immaculately that he is able to talk to this old lady about his numerous relatives and their mutual acquaintances (all the time, obviously, speaking in Chukchee). I found this wildly improbable.

On the way back from the little tea party, Raven determines to kill the doctor who has been asking more and more suspicious questions about his background. He gets as far as putting his arm round her neck and is on the verge of snapping it (he is a big, strong lad) when she squeals that she is in on The Plan, she is part of The Plan, she is his contact with Rogachev!

After that they go back to her place, she explains some of the background (her father and Rogachev were in the same labour camp together; she knew him as a kindly uncle when she was a girl), and the big revelation that it was she who bribed a merchant seaman who she was treating to take the coded cigarette papers which Rogachev had smuggled out to her, placed in a letter and addressed to Prof Lazenby, the fateful letter which was opened by his secretary in her calm Oxford office all those months earlier.

Then they have sex. Obviously. Most women I know like to shag a man who’s just tried to murder them.

She was not as well found as Lydia Yakovlevna; lankier, less yielding. But she was lithe, controlled, and quite used, as she said, to getting what she wanted. She was also very much more genuine, arching without histrionics when her moment came, and he arched at the same time, and afterwards she kissed his face and stroked it. (p.247)

Now they work together to smuggle Raven into the research base. This new plan stretched credibility to breaking point and beyond. It turns out the research base is very heavily patrolled and guarded (of course), but is serviced by a rotating squad of native Evenk people, selected from the large Evenk tribe which makes a living herding reindeer nearby. The Evenk are honest and reliable and deeply clannish i.e. don’t talk to outsiders, and, anyway, don’t do anything more secret than laundry, cooking, humping heavy equipment about. None of them has any idea what the research going on at the base is about.

Dr Komarova will smuggle Raven in by using a ruse. The ruse is this:

Rogachev, head of the research station, is attended by one of the Evenk tribe, Stepan Maximovich. Stepan inherited the job from his father. He never leaves the base. Raven will be taken to meet the clan leader of the tribe, Innokenty, and pretend to be one of them, an Evenk, but who moved as a boy to Novosibirsk in the distant south (to explain his rickety accent). He will then give a long complicated story about how he met down in the south some members of a white (Russian) family, worked for them, got to know and admire them, but how the father, some kind of scientist, was sent by the state off to some kind of ‘weather station’ in the north 15 or 16 years earlier. Money was sent the family, but no letters, Then the mother of the family died young, but the daughter survived, grew up, got married and is now pregnant. But she herself is now ill. A few months ago he got a letter from the daughter begging to see him. Raven goes sees her and she begs him to track down her father for her, name of Rogachev. He poked around in local offices and got a hint that M. Rogachev was posted somewhere in the Kolyma region. This woman begged Raven to travel to the north to find her father, and ask him to give her unborn child a name, it being the role of parents to name new babies.

This sob story will persuade the Evenk to smuggle Raven into the top secret research facility, hand him on to the personal assistant Stepan, who is the only one who can gain him admittance to the presence of the legendary scientist, Rogachev – so that Raven can hand deliver to him the letter written by his daughter.

And this is what happens. Dr Komarov takes Raven to a meeting with Innokenty and the tribe (flying there by helicopter on the pretext of making a routine medical visit). The Evenk elders completely accept Raven’s long cock-and-bull story (pp.262-268). They offer to give him all the help he needs (incidentally, also accepting his use of the Evenk language, which is different from the Chukchee Raven has been using in his persona as Kolya. He is, it will be remembered, a super-linguist).

There then follows the cloak and dagger business of smuggling Raven into the site. Raven poses as the driver of a lorry full of parts and goods which Dr Komarova is taking to the base. They pass through the security barrier, the guards checking her and her Chukchee driver (Raven)’s passes and wave through. Then, as is usual, some of the Evenk porters come out into the snow to help unpack the truck in the sub-zero conditions.

Komarova chooses a moment when the guards’ backs are turned and Raven swaps clothes with one of the Evenk tribesmen. This Evenk dresses as Raven, then accompanies Pomarova back to the truck, heavily swathed in scarves and muffles and is signed back out of the complex, while Raven, also heavily muffled, is accepted on the inside by the cohort of Evenk tribesmen currently working there – because they are all in on the conspiracy of him smuggling the letter from the pregnant woman to Rogachev, as agreed off by headman Innokenty. In fact they are almost too much in on the conspiracy as they all smile and grin and wink at the doctor and Raven so much they become tensely afraid the Russian guards will notice something is wrong. But they don’t. They think the native peoples are nuts, anyway.

There follows yet more cloak and dagger as, late that night, when the Evenk have gone to bed in their dormitory, Stepan the personal assistant comes and smuggles Raven out of the Evenk dormitory, through secret passages in the research base, and finally into an enormous luxury underground library, with a gallery running round the bookshelves dotted with masterpiece paintings by Picasso, Rembrandt and so on, and leaves him there.

There’s a whirring of motors and Rogachev, the man who started this whole preposterous series of events, whirs into the library in his wheelchair. Wheelchair. That explains why he couldn’t have gone anywhere to meet a western representative.

First Raven explains the subterfuge which has got him this far, i.e. that he’s delivering a letter to Stepan from his pregnant but ill grand-daughter, and they get an envelope and scribble on a blank sheet which Raven can show to the Evenks as the grateful father’s reply.

That out of the way, Rogachev can at last explain to Raven, and to the impatient reader, what the devil the whole thing is about. What it’s about is this:

The mystery at the heart of Kolymsky Heights

Rogachev tells Raven that the Russians have been experimenting for generations to try and breed a type of intelligent but hardy ape who can function as labour in this bleak, sub-freezing terrain.

(I blinked in disbelief at this point. We know that during the 1930s, 40s and 50s they used slave labour to work these areas. If Russians don’t want to do it nowadays, why not pay the local tribespeople, or do what the rest of the West does and import cheap immigrant labour? Breeding an entire new species seems a rather costly and unpredictable way of solving your labour problem, the kind of fantasy idea which only exists in science fiction novels.)

Rogachev tells a cock-and-bull story (this novel is full of them) about his predecessor, Zhelikov, being in a labour camp, but being plucked out and flown to Moscow after the war to meet the great Stalin because the dictator had read a scientific paper about hibernation. This planted the seed in Stalin’s mind that he might not die but be preserved alive. Zhelikov listened to Stalin’s musings and realised they were his passport out of the labour camp, and so nodded wisely, and agreed to set up a research base to bring suspended animation / hibernation/ cryogenics to the peak of perfection which would be required before they could try it on the Great Leader. Stalin rang up Beria and told him to make it so.

Zhelikov asked that the existing weather research base at Tcherny Vodi, near the labour camp of Tchersky, be greatly expanded. They’d have to dig down into the small mountain it was built on, to build multiple levels below the surface, levels for scientists, for ancillary workers, all the laboratories and so on. Stalin said, Make it so.

With the result that the best of Soviet engineering built the James Bond-style secret underground base which Raven now finds himself in, quaffing sherry amid the bookshelves, surrounded by masterpieces by Mondrian and Matisse. All quite bizarre. I didn’t know if I was meant to take this as a parody of a James Bond movie, where the mad scientist reveals his plan for world domination amid symbols of uber-wealth and corruption. All it needed was for Rogachev to be stroking a white cat. Are we meant to take it seriously?

Once the base was established Zhelikov wrote to Rogachev describing the work they were doing and inviting him to join. So he came and had been there ever since.

Now the mad scientist in the wheelchair introduces Raven to his star patient. It is an ape named Ludmilla, lying in bed in a dress, wearing lipstick and glasses and reading. She says hello to Raven. Raven says hello to Ludmilla. The reader wonders if he is hallucinating.

Rogachev explains that the research program to breed intelligent apes made great advances but suffered a fatal flaw: they found they could produce either intelligent apes, or hardy apes, but never the two together. They had been exploring all aspects of the problem including brain circuitry. The discovery of the pregnant neolithic woman and her foetus led to a breakthrough, but not the one they were expecting.

By a series of accidents the research stumbled across discoveries to do with eyesight. Davidson goes into mind-numbing but incomprehensible detail as Rogachev describes the step-by-step progress made, first with rats, then with experimental apes, by which they blinded the subjects – but then used a ‘harmonic wave’ which they had accidentally stumbled across, and which turned out to ‘restore eyesight’ (explained from page 315 onwards).

This ‘harmonic wave’ had several practical applications and Rogachev shows Raven one of them. Turns out Ludmilla the talking ape had been badly injured in the explosion at the research lab which had been detected by American satellites all those months earlier. Her eyes had been damaged and infected (the explosion released some kind of contamination, we aren’t told what).

The point is that Russian grasp of this harmonic wave technology is so advanced that they were able to build a) glasses which convert light into digital information which is then b) transported along wires in the wings of the glasses to electrical contacts which c) interact with contacts embedded behind the subjects’ ears, contacts which they have wired up to the optical regions of the subject’s brain so that d) the blind can see through their glasses!

All this is taking us a long, long way from the initial idea of ape-men and H.G. Wells. Now we are curing the blind. But even this turns out not to be the secret at the book’s core.

Because tests of the harmonic band wave had another unforeseen consequence: it completely disrupts the electrical signals which are used to direct guided and intercontinental missiles. By accident, the base has stumbled over a perfect defence system against all kinds of missile attack!

Rogachev now hands Raven two of the shiny square plates which we used to call computer floppy disks, back in the early 90s (p.326). These floppy disks contain all the information needed to recreate the Russian experiments and build harmonic wave machines and so develop their own anti-missile defences. But they must be opened in laboratory conditions, at lower than 240 degrees below freezing, or they will self-destruct.

I will die soon, Rogachev says (he, too, was infected in the explosion and fire). These will be my legacy. Goodbye. And he turns and whirs out of the room in his wheelchair. Raven goes back to the main door and a few minutes later Stepan opens it and lets him out, they retrace their steps to the Evenk dormitory and smuggle him in. In the morning Raven tells the Evenk that the grateful father has given him a letter and a ring to hand on to his beloved daughter. the Evenk think he is a hero and grin at their own involvement in the kind-hearted plot. A few days later Dr Komarova returns for more medical treatment and Raven is again swapped for the Evenk driver, this time the other way round, the Evenk returning to the dormitory, Raven reverting to his role as driver, driving Dr Komarova out of the complex and away, back to Tchersky. Mission accomplished. Well, first part anyway.

Complications

Unfortunately, there are two complications. One, at a literally very high level, is that the Chinese launch two test rockets during this period, designed to fly the length of China. Both fail due to direction mechanism failure. Davidson takes us into the nitty gritty of the designs and the failures but the upshot is they’re being interfered with by Russian satellites which hover in fixed position way up over the Asian landmass. Is this going to become important? Are the Chinese going to interfere in the story somewhere?

Closer to home, the drug dealer Ponomarenko, unhappy by the rainy Black Sea, hears on the radio that the state is announcing an amnesty for drug dealers. He checks with a lawyer and the cops and then comes forward to report that he has been blackmailed into lending his flat in Tchersky to some dodgy operators, who also wanted to know all about his friend Nikolai (Kolya) Khodyan.

The Black sea cops contact the small police office in Tchersky. They put out a warrant for Kolya/Raven. Dr Komorova hears about it in her capacity as a senior government official in the region. She warns Raven. One escape plan had been for Raven to fly out of the region. Or maybe take another ship. Both now impossible with the authorities checking all papers. Good job he had made a back-up plan.

The bobik

The whole Siberian section of the story has taken several months, during which Raven has wormed his way into the good books of the Tchersky Transport Company, undertaking long distance and countless short distance drives for them. The ‘plan’ had made provision for ‘extracting’ him from the location once the mission was accomplished. But Raven is stroppy and contrary by nature and had begun to make an independent escape plan. Just as well.

This plan is to a) cosy up to the chief engineer at the Tchersky Transport Company and b) persuade him to let him have all the component which make up a bobik light truck so he can build one himself from scratch.

On one of his many delivery trips around the region Raven has discovered a big cave, hidden by frozen bushes, big enough to turn into a workshop where he can secure a block and tackle to the ceiling, instal lamps around the place, store food, a sleeping bag and blankets – and then, slowly steadily, week after week, persuade the head engineer at Tchersky, to let him have more and more pieces of bobik and drop them off at the cave, and build a truck from scratch, by himself!

Implausible doesn’t seem an adequate word to describe how wildly improbable and unnecessary I found this. Why not just pile Dr Pomarova and a load of food into one of the existing bobiks he gets to use perfectly legally, set off on a long, perfectly legal trip, and just keep going? No. In Davidson’s story, he has to build his own!

The Tchersky militia led by Major Militsky become more officious and search every house. Raven hides in Dr Komarova’s cellar. Then she drives him out to the cave with food and he does back-breaking work constructing the bobik. She is due to come next night at midnight. Is hours late. He goes out to watch. Tension, stress.

She turns up with food and the battery, the last component needed to complete the bobik, and news that the hunt is getting serious. In fact it has become a region-wide hunt and a general from Irkutsk has flown in to take charge of it. Pomorova tells Raven how much she loves him. Oh darling. Oh sweet man. Yes, yes, says Raven, but realises that she is the only official allowed into Tcherny Vodi. They will interrogate her. They go over her story, trying to plant red herrings. Then kiss goodbye. ‘I will see you again, won’t I, my love?’ She asks. ‘Of course,’ he replies, lying.

She leaves. He tries to sleep. He can’t. He gets up and starts the bobik and inches out onto the frozen river. Half an hour later a military patrol passes by. He has got out just in time.

Raven on the run

Raven drives east. On the map there is a tributary of the main river-highroad which the map says is impassible. It is certainly strewn with rocks embedded in the ice, but he drives slowly and carefully and the bobik is designed to be indestructible. After several hours Raven comes to a hump-backed bridge which carries the highway from Tchersky to Bilibino (p.377). At a succession of Road Stations, Raven cruises in silently with his lights doused, parks and siphons petrol from the tanks of other bobiks in the car parks, the drivers tucked up inside the warm lodges. Not weather to be outside. He is heading east into a big range of mountains known as the Kolymsky Heights. Aha.

In parallel, a security forces general flies into Tchersky from Irkutsk and takes charge of the search. Having interrogated Ponomarenko, he realises this is a sophisticated spying project mounted by foreign powers. He realises the agent will have left the area. He orders all transport within a 500 mile radius to be frozen and checked.

Basically these last 100 pages turn into quite a nailbiting chase, Raven a clever resourceful fugitive, pitted against the General who is also a very intelligent and thorough investigator. While Raven drives East in a bobik the General is misled by several false clues into telling his forces to search to the south for a missing rubbish truck. But when that avenue runs dry, follows other clues, until he is right on the tail of our man.

The cold calculation of the fugitive, and the clever deductions of the general (I don’t think we’re ever given his name) reminded me strongly of the similar set-up in Frederick Forsyth’s classic thriller The Day of the Jackal. A chase.

Raven drives on on on through the snow, hiding under bridges for snatched sleep, surviving on bread and salami, driving over a thousand kilometers, with a number of close shaves, and just squeezing past security barriers along the way, until he arrives at a tiny settlement named Baranikha which has an airport sure enough, but no flights in our out due to a fierce blizzard.

Raven hooks up with a drunk Inuit who he lets drink all his vodka till he passes out, whereupon Raven takes his coat and boots and backpack and skis and identity papers and hustles himself onto the first plane which is now leaving the airport as the snow lifts, to a tiny place out east, towards the Bering Strait, named Mitlakino.

Here he signs in with a jostling noisy scrum of other workers but in the dead of night retrieves his papers, backpack and steals a snowplough. The geography now becomes crucial. Baranikha and Mitlakino are way out at the easternmost tip of Siberia, on the blocky peninsula which sticks out into the Bering Strait and faces on to Alaska. Raven hadn’t planned it this way, it was pure fluke that the only plane flying from the airport was heading here. But now he’s here he conceives the plan of crossing the Bering Strait from the Russian side to the American side, and freedom. (Although Davidson nowhere explicitly explains this, the reader eventually deduces that at this time of year – the winter solstice – the Bering Strait is completely frozen over. Since it is only 50 miles wide, a man could walk it, admittedly hampered by the fog, snow and frequent blizzards.)

To cut a long story short, the security general has caught up with Raven’s trail, they’ve found the drunk Inuit at the airport as he sobers up and complains that someone’s stolen his papers, they’ve followed the trail to the workers dormitory at Mitlakino, the general yells down the phone to the dopy head of the Mitlakino settlement who does a search and discovers a snowplough is missing. They deduce Raven must be heading to the coast and the general dispatches helicopters from a nearby military base.

The border between America and Russia runs down the middle of the Bering Strait. There are two islands there, the Greater Diomede Island is on the Russian side of the sea border, the Lesser Diomede Island is on the American side.

Raven drives his snowplough through a blizzard along the coast till he gets to a settlement called Veyemik. He hides the plough and knocks on the door of the biggest house, waking the headman of the local tribe of native peoples, Inuit. Here he pretends to be an Inuit on the run from the authorities. The people take him in. Next morning they all go out fishing to iceholes they cut in the deep frost covering the sea. Raven asks to go with them. They take him in a motorised ski-bus out to the hole where the Inuits split up to fish different holes. Raven has asked a series of questions establishing that they are almost within sight of Greater Diomede Island. He slips away from the Indians and sets out on skis.

But there is unusual helicopter activity overhead. The general has figured out where he is, and even has men at Veyemik interrogating the inhabitants, and now knows the fugitive is out on the ice. The general mobilises the defence forces on Greater Diomede who turn out in ski busses, little ski scooters and on skis. Plus the helicopters overhead.

After some complicated hide and seek, during which Raven, in the ongoing blizzard fog, isolates and knocks out a security soldier and steals all his equipment, he eventually realises the general has created a solid wall of trucks and soldiers with headlights and torches on, 250m from the border. Raven climbs up a cliff on the eastern side of Greater Diomede and hides in a cave, but then a helicopter flies slowly low along the cliff, guiding a truck of soldiers which uses a mortar to fire gas mortars into every cave. Raven tucks himself back against the wall but the mortar which shoots into his cave bounces on to his chest and explodes leaving him deaf and half blind. Only a little later do we discover it blew out one of his eyes.

Half-blinded he crawls to the cave entrance and shoots down the militia in the jeep, then half climbs half falls to the ground, crawls to the jeep, and half drives it. The chase becomes horrible now, as the militia close in and shoot out the tyres and lob mortars at the engine (the general has shouted down the phone to the local commander that the fugitive must be taken alive). A mortar detonates on the bonnet which blows shards of metal into Raven’s body. He cannot hear and barely drive or think. The wrecked jeep slews in circles but…

Once again and for the final time I was confused by Davidson’s elliptical descriptions and by the way he intrudes into this vivid description, parallel accounts of the aftermath and what the Russian authorities discovered in the cave and along Raven’s trail. All of this fooled me into thinking he made it just to the edge of the international border but was captured by the Russkies.

Which turns out to be wrong. The first the reader realises of this is when we are told that Raven is being rushed to hospital in Anchorage. I.e., although it is nowhere explicitly stated that he crossed the border, and there is no description of anything the American troops did on their side or how his body was recovered or anything – next we know we have entered a different type of register as the book becomes like an official record of events, describing at high-level the transport of the body. Then we are told that Raven’s severely injured body packs up and he dies. Lost one eye, blinded in the other, shot through one knee, chest cluttered with shrapnel, lost one lung, it packs up and Raven dies. His funeral is attended by officials from Russia, who apologise for this sorry incident and for how a confused native must have wandered by accident into a military exercise. And who, naturally, make a note of everyone who attends the funeral.

Which is why none of the CIA officials attend, obviously. In fact no-one attends except the mortician and coroner.

But another reason no-one attends is that Raven isn’t dead. Davidson’s last trick in this very tricksy narrative is the not-altogether-unexpected revelation that the agency spirited the heavily-wounded Raven away to a super-advanced hospital, and swapped his boy with that of an unknown vagrant who had been – very conveniently – run over and trashed. That’s the heavily-bandaged body which is placed in a coffin and whose funeral the Russkies attend and who is cremated.

Meanwhile, Raven recuperates, given the best medical treatment the agency can provide.

And, in the final pages, there is the ring. You may recall that Rogachev gave Raven a ring, supposedly a blessing to his ‘daughter’, part of the cover story which got Raven into the compound. The ring was in fact Rogachev’s weeding ring which, knowing he is soon to die, he gives to Rogachev. Inside is engraved the motto As our love the circle has no end. After he’d been extracted from the base, among many other things Raven showed the ring to Dr Komarova, who has fallen deeply in love with him. Later, after he has fled the tightening net, Komarova goes to check out the cave where Raven had built the bobik. He has very professionally completely emptied it of every trace of his presence (loading it into the bobik and disposing of most of it in faraway ravines on his escape drive east). But she finds a small scrap of paper scrunged up. Inside is the ring with its motto.

Now, on the last page of the book, Dr Komarova has quit her job in Kolymsk and moved west to Petersburg (despite a shrewd interrogation by the general, she managed to throw the investigators off her trail and survived the whole episode without reproach). And three months later she receives a letter, containing an open-ended air ticket to Montreal, an immigration department slip bearing her correct name and passport number. And tucked away at the bottom of the envelope a tiny slip of cigarette paper bearing a single line of writing: As our love the circle has no end.

As love stories go, it has to be one of the weirdest I’ve ever read, but then the entire novel is meticulously detailed, powerfully atmospheric, often completely preposterous, sometimes incomprehensible but despite everything, exerted a very powerful tug on my imagination and memory.


Maps

There are four maps in the novel (more than you sometimes get in history books). Good quality ones, too, showing

  1. the whole of northern Asia (pp.32-33)
  2. the coast of British Columbia, where Lazenby and the CIA man go to find Raven (p.76)
  3. Cape Dezhnev and Bering Strait region (p.158)
  4. the Kolymsky Region (p.417)

But there is the same sense of oddity or something wrong about these as theres is over the whole book. Very simply, the two latter maps should be reversed.

The central section of the novel is set in the Kolymsky region, so the detailed map of the area – which shows Cape Green where the ship docks, Tchersky where the doctor lives and Raven gets his job on the lorries, the location of the research centre and even of the cave he discovers and uses to build his bobik – quite obviously this map should go at the beginning of that section instead of where it is actually positioned, well after that whole section has finished (?)

Whereas it is only on page 410 that we first hear of the small settlement of Mitlakino and Raven decides to take the plane there. At which point the precise geography of the area becomes vital to his plans for escape, and for the final nailbiting descriptions of his escape across the ice – and so this is where the map of Cape Dezhnev and Bering Strait should go – not 250 pages earlier, where it was completely irrelevant and didn’t register as important. It wasn’t important, yet.

Is this an editorial mistake, a mistake in the printing of the book? Or yet another subtle way of blindsiding the reader and keeping us puzzled, as the suppression of so many other key facts in the narrative succeeded in puzzling me all the way through.

Style

Flat descriptions Although the book is set in some dazzling and awe-inspiring landscapes (the seascapes and frozen landscapes of Siberia) Davidson is not that at descriptions. He gives the facts, but they rarely come to life. Here’s an example of his prose.

He got up and walked about the room. In a recess beside the stove an icon was on the wall. The stove was cold, the house now electrically heated, very stuffy, very warm. Books were everywhere, on shelves, tables. He couldn’t make out the titles in the dark. (p.243)

You can see the bit of effort Davidson has made to create something more than flat factual description in the use of the verbless phrases ‘very stuffy, very warm’. Not very inspiring, though, is it?

Martin Cruz Smith’s sequel to Gorky ParkPolar Star, finds his Moscow detective, Arkady Renko way off his beat, working on a factory ship in the Bering Sea. It’s the same location as the coastal scenes of Kolymsky Heights, at about the same time (Polar Star 1989, Kolymsky Heights 1994). Smith’s book is sensationally vivid in description and atmosphere. I think it’s the best of the eight Renko novels because you can feel the icy temperature, the salt spray in your face, the harshness of frozen metal.

None of that is captured by Davidson’s prose. It is flat and functional. Eventually, by dint of repetition of the facts, you get the powerful sense of brain-numbing cold, of ice and snow and blizzards. But it is done rationally, by repetition of factual information, not by the style.

Instead of jazzy and vivid description, Davidson has a few mannerisms of his own.

Echoing One is a kind of dumb, blank repetition of events. Very often he’ll end a paragraph saying so-and-so plans to do x, y or z. And then the next paragraph begins with ‘And so-and-so did x, y, or z.’

‘I have thought how this could be managed’.
He explained how this could be managed. (p.306)

He was contacting them himself immediately.
Which, immediately, he did. (p.443)

It’s a kind of rhetorical echolalia. It doesn’t add to atmosphere or even tension. The opposite. I found it helped harden the colourless carapace of Davidson’s prose, often making it even harder to work out what was happening and, in particular, why.

I suppose, it also creates an effect of inevitability. Someone says something is going to happen. And that’s what happens. Maybe the effect is to create a subtle sense of fatefulness and predestination, to give the narrative a very slightly mythic quality.

‘Sure, Kolya. You’ll take the job – just when we get the call.’
And they got the call, and he got the job. (p.197)

It all falls into place, more as if it’s a myth or legend or fairy tale, than an ordinary sequence of contingent human events.

Phrase reversal Another tic is reversing the usual structure of an English sentence, from subject-verb-object to object-subject-verb.

His present job he greatly disliked. (p.281)

With his security chief Beria he had discussed this idea. (p.299)

This idea he suddenly found himself discussing in the most bizarre circumstances… (p.300)

The route to Anyuysk she knew, and he stayed under a blanket in the back while she drove. (p.348)

This ridiculous situation he had promptly ordered Irkutsk to deal with… (p.385)

It’s a stylistic mannerism, a not very successful attempt to jazz up Davidson’s generally flat prose.

I suppose it might be argued that playing with the word order of conventional English like this goes a little way towards mimicking the various foreign languages that are spoken in the book, and maybe creating a sense of the ‘otherness’ of Russia and the Russian-speakers who the second half is set amongst. Maybe.

Her intense nervousness she covered with an air of impatience. (p.386)

To Zirianka a long-distance helicopter was required… (p.404)

Italics In the extended account of Raven’s meeting with Innokenty and the Evenks, Davidson used an excessive amount of italics to make his points, often rather unnecessarily. This reminded me of John le Carré’s nugatory use of italics to try and make his dialogue more dramatic.

Since they started their careers at almost the same time, this made me wonder if it’s a feature of the fiction of the time: was there something about emphasis in the late 1950s, a historic idiolect from that period which lingered on in their prose styles.

If they merely hovered over his route, they would catch him now. How far, in three or four minutes, could he have gone? (p.444)

For me, the random use of italics didn’t intensify the reading experience but created a rather annoying distraction.

Gaps and absences

I read the book with a permanent sense that I kept missing key bits of information about who was going where, and why.

Unless this is simply part of Davidson’s technique: to leave key bits of information and motivation out of the novel so as to leave the reader permanently off-balance.

Possibly, a second reading of the book, knowing in advance information which is only revealed later on in the text, would help you make sense of all the hints and obliquities early on in the narrative. Maybe the pattern only fully emerges after several readings. Maybe this is why Philip Pullman is liberally quoted on the front, the back and in the short introduction he provides for the book, describing it as ‘the best thriller he’s ever read’. In the introduction he says he’s arrived at this opinion after reading the book four times. Maybe that’s the amount of effort required to see the full pattern. But certain inexplicabilities would still remain: why did Raven undertake the long sea voyage if he could just have flown to Tchersky any day of the week? And nothing can eliminate the truly bizarre scene where Raven shakes hands with an ape in a dress named Ludmilla. The final hundred pages of fast-paced chase revert to something like conventional thriller style. But shaking hands with a talking ape? I still have to shake my head to be sure I actually read that. Did someone spike my drink?


Related links

Lee Bul: Crashing @ Hayward Gallery

This is a major retrospective of the art of the (female) Korean artist Lee Bul, born in 1964 and still going strong, so something of a mid-career snapshot. It brings together over 100 works in the five enormous exhibition rooms of Hayward Gallery, plus some work located outside.

Installation view of Lee Bul: Crashing at Hayward Gallery © Lee Bul 2018. Photo by Linda Nylind

Installation view of Lee Bul: Crashing showing Monster Pink (left) and Civitas Solis II (in the background) © Lee Bul 2018. Photo by Linda Nylind

Oh for a life of Sensations rather than of Thoughts!

As you walk into room one, you immediately realise that much of Lee’s art is big, involving costumes, installations, mannequins and dummies.

You also realise that it is done to a high degree of finish. Everything looks very professional and seamless. It comes as no surprise to learn that much of her recent work is conceived by her but created by a studio of craftspeople and technicians.

I’m always a little envious of my teenage kids. When they come to art exhibitions like this, they roam at will, attracted by whatever is big and brash, rarely bothering with the boring wall labels or grown-up ‘issues’, enjoying things purely for what they look like and how much fun they are. They would certainly find lots to admire here, from the point of view of the spectacular and dramatic.

Monster Pink, pictured above, is accompanied by Monster White both of which look like assemblages of wriggling worms, like some mutant aliens from Dr Who. The same sci-fi vibe attaches to what look like fragments of space suits dangling from the ceiling. On closer examination you can see that these are life-size depictions of the human body in the style of Japanese manga comics, in which both men and women have sleek, perfect bodies, often encased in futuristic body armour.

Lee has produced dismembered versions of these, half a sleek, armoured torso, or combinations of limbs and extremities, moulded into striking but disconcerting fragments of mannequins. Soft pink sacks hang next to sleek machine-tooled silhouettes.

Installation view of Lee Bul at Hayward Gallery (photo by the author)

Installation view of Lee Bul at Hayward Gallery showing Cyborg WI on the left (photo by the author)

Up the concrete ramp, in room three, there’s what seems to be a model of a futuristic city, held up by thin scaffolding, some kind of hyper-freeway emerging from a tall plastic mountain, complete with a massive neon sign clicking on and off.

Installation view of Lee Bul at Hayward Gallery (photo by the author)

Installation view of Lee Bul at Hayward Gallery showing Mon grand récit – Weep into stones… (2005) Photo by the author

Nearby is a big ‘cave’ made of shiny plastic, with a ‘door’ to go in through, a ‘window’ to look out of, and walls decorated with a mosaic of mirror fragments.

Installation view of Lee Bul at Hayward Gallery (photo by the author)

Installation view of Lee Bul at Hayward Gallery showing Bunker (M. Bakhtin) (photo by the author)

Best of all, from an excitable teenager’s point of view, are two big transport machines.

Downstairs in long, low room two, is what appears to be a space-age hovercar not unlike the one Luke Skywalker and Obi-Wan Kenobi use to go to the city of Mos Eisley to look for Han Solo in the first Star Wars movie.

Installation view of Lee Bul at Hayward Gallery (photo by the author)

Installation view of Lee Bul at Hayward Gallery showing Live Forever III (photo by the author)

To my amazement, visitors are actually encouraged to get into this device (once they’ve slipped on some protective plastic bags to go over their shoes). As I was saying to myself the immortal line ‘These are not the droids you’re looking for’, the gallery assistant lowered the roof and sealed me in.

You’re forced to lie quite low in the beautifully upholstered leather chair and watch a TV monitor placed right in front of you. If only I could have flicked the ignition, heard the engine roar, made a secret tunnel door open up and slid down a chute into the nearby River Thames to begin a high-speed boat chase against the baddies who’d just blown up the MI6 building.

Alas, all that actually happens is that the screen hanging in front of your face plays tacky Korean karaoke videos. You’re invited to put on headphones, pick up the handy microphone and join in which I was far too intimidated to do.

Finally, up the Hayward’s heavy concrete stairwell to gallery four where a) the entire floor has been covered in futuristic reflective silver plastic, giving it a Dr Who-TV set appearance, and b) and in which floats one of Lee Bul’s most iconic works, a huge model of a zeppelin made from shiny reflective silver foil.

Installation view of Lee Bul showing Willing To Be Vulnerable - Metalized Balloon (2015-2016) at Hayward Gallery © Lee Bul 2018. Photo: Linda Nylind

Installation view of Lee Bul showing Willing To Be Vulnerable – Metalized Balloon (2015-2016) at Hayward Gallery © Lee Bul 2018. Photo by Linda Nylind

And thus the native hue of resolution is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought…

My son, a big fan of manga, animé, graphic novels and sci-fi, would have loved all this, consumed purely as spectacle, as weird and wonderful objects of fantasy and imagination.

However, art is rarely this simple or free. The artists themselves, and certainly their curators and critics, are all too ready to catch the butterfly of fantasy in a net of explanations, drag it back down to earth, and pin it to a board next to all the other specimens in their collection. For example, when you look up the Wikipedia article about Lee, it begins:

Lee’s work questions patriarchal authority and the marginalization of women by revealing ideologies that permeate our cultural and political spheres

firmly dragging Lee’s art into contemporary art discourse with its all-too-familiar obsessions of gender, race, ideology and politics.

The free exhibition handout and the wall labels are where you go for more information about Lee, and they certainly are extremely informative and illuminating. In addition, there are two timelines printed on walls – one telling the history of South Korea since the 1950-53 war to the present, and one describing the development of modern art in Korea from the time of Lee’s birth (1964) to the present day, with a special emphasis on women’s art and issues.

All very interesting, but the more you read, the more you become weighed down by interpretations of art which see it all in terms of ponderous ‘issues’ – of ‘challenges’ and ‘subversions’ and ‘questionings’ – the more it feels like you are sitting through a dreary two-hour-long sociology lecture.

KOREA

The South Korea Lee was born into was ruled by a right-wing dictator who had come to power in a military coup, General Park Chung-hee, who ruled with an iron fist from 1963 to 1979. Park inaugurated a series of five year plans designed to modernise Korean society and the economy at breakneck speed.

But Lee’s parents were left-wing dissidents and, although they weren’t arrested, were subjected to harassment, periodic house searches, banned from government employment and hassled into keeping on the move, never settling long in one place.

Thus Lee’s childhood memories are of often cold and bleak makeshift homes and the oppressiveness of the authorities set against a vista of brave new towns, cities, motorways and buildings built quickly of shoddy cement, destined soon to crumble and become seedy and derelict.

THE FAILURE OF UTOPIAS

Amidst all the other ‘issues’ addressed in the art, it was this latter notion – the failure of utopianism – which interested me most. It seems to me that we are currently living through just such an epoch of failure, the slow-motion failure of the dream of a digital future.

Having worked in four British government departments or agencies on their websites and IT projects for the past eight years I have seen all manner of cock-ups and mismanagement – the collapse of the unified NHS project, the likely failure of the system for Universal Credit which was launched in 2010 and still doesn’t work properly, let alone the regular bank failures like the recent TSB collapse. All this before you consider the sinister implications of the recent Facebook-Cambridge Analytica-U.S. Presidential elections debacle.

I have also observed the negative impact of phones and laptops on my own children i.e. they have both become phone addicts. As a result of all this I have very strong, and generally negative, opinions about ‘the Digital Future’.

That’s why I warmed to this aspect of the work of Chinese art superstar, Ai Weiwei, as displayed at the 2015 Royal Academy retrospective of his work. Twitter, Facebook and all the rest of them sell themselves as agents of ‘liberation’ whereas they are, quite obviously in my opinion, implements of a new kind of surveillance society, instruments of turbo-charged consumerism, and the tools of Russian hackers and any number of other unknown forces.

Yet people love them, ignore the scandals, can’t give up their phones or Facebook accounts, and big corporation, banks and governments carry on piling all their services online as if nothing could possibly go wrong with this technology.

With all this in mind I was surprised that there was no mention anywhere of the digital utopia, of digital technology, of phones and screens and big data anywhere in this big exhibition. Instead the utopias Lee Bul is concerned with seemed to me very dated. People wearing futuristic (manga) outfits or living in futuristic cities – this all seemed very Flash Gordon to me, very old tech, a very 1950s and 60s definition of what the future is going to look like.

This feeling that her art is very retro in its vision was crystallised by one of her most iconic works, which was a star feature of the 20th Sydney Biennale in 2016 – the enormous foil zeppelin – Willing To Be Vulnerable – Metalized Balloon.

I’m perfectly aware that the Hindenburg Zeppelin is an enduring symbol of technological hubris and disaster – that it burst into flames and crashed to the ground in 1937. I’ve seen the black and white film footage many times, I’ve even watched the terrible 1975 disaster movie they made about it.

Willing To Be Vulnerable is one of Lee’s most recent works and yet… isn’t it a very old reference to a long-ago event. It would be like discussing the rise of right-wing populism by reference to Adolf Hitler (German Chancellor when the Hindenburg crashed). It’s a plausible reference, sort of, but it’s not very up to date, is it? It’s not where we are now.

And then again, it isn’t even a detailed or accurate model of the Hindenburg. It’s just a big shiny balloon. An awesomely big shiny balloon. My kids would love it. I couldn’t really see it interrogating or questioning anything.

ARCHITECTURE

The grandiose rhetoric of Korean President Park Chung-hee’s regime, and its relative failure to build the utopia it promised, also explain the strong theme of architecture throughout the exhibition.

When you look closer, you realise that the big model of the kind-of super highway emerging from a phallic mountain – Mon grand récit – Weep into stones… – pictured above, is accompanied by a series of paintings and sketches on the walls showing aspects of architecture, visions and fantasies of architecture which come to ruin.

They are subtler, quieter work which would be easy to overlook in the first impact of all the big models and installations. I particularly liked one collage painting which gives an impression of some kind of disaster involving a glass and chrome skyscraper. The idea – urban apocalypse, skyscrapers in ruins – has been done thousands of times – but I admired the layout and design of it, the shape of the main image with its ‘feeler’-like hairs at the left, and the way the small fragment floats freely above it.

Untitled (Willing to be vulnerable - Velvet #6 DDRG240C) 2017 by Lee Bul

Untitled (Willing to be vulnerable – Velvet #6 DDRG240C) 2017 by Lee Bul

POLITICAL CRITICISM

Again, it’s only if you read the wall labels and exhibition guide quite carefully that you realise there is a thread of political satire running through the show. In room one, in between the more striking cyborgs hanging from the ceiling, are a couple of small mannequin models of President Park, naked, in full anatomical detail (reminiscent in the way they’re less than life size and so somehow feeble and vulnerable, of Ron Mueck’s mannequins of his naked dead dad, back in the 1997 Sensation exhibition).

Next to the ‘bat cave’ installation (Bunker), which I described above, is what at first seems like an enormous ‘rock’, made out of some kind of plastic. It’s titled Thaw and if you look closer you just about see another model of President Park, wearing his trademark dark sunglasses, as if he’s been frozen in ice in some alternative science fiction history, and is only waiting to thaw out and rise again…

Thaw (2007) by Lee Bul

Thaw (2007) by Lee Bul

Next to this is a very big installation of a bath. Unusually, you are allowed to walk across the tiled floor which makes up a good part of the installation, towards the bath itself – a big rectangular affair as if in a sauna or maybe in the bath rooms of some kind of collective housing – to discover that it is ringed with what looks like white meringue tips, and that the bath itself is full of black ink.

This is Heaven and Hell and without the exhibition guide there’s no way you’d be able to guess that it commemorates Park Jong-chul, a student protester who was tortured and killed by the South Korean security services in a bathtub in 1987.

Installation view of Lee Bul at Hayward Gallery showing Heaven and Hell (1987) Photo by the author

Installation view of Lee Bul at Hayward Gallery showing Heaven and Hell (1987) Photo by the author

Thinking about political art, Peter Kennard’s blistering photomontages flaying political leaders such as Mrs Thatcher, Ronald Reagan and Tony Blair come to mind, for example the enormous photomontage of Tony Blair plastered with images of atrocities from the Iraq War which was on display at the recent Age of Terror exhibition at the Imperial war Museum.

Installation view of Age of Terror at Imperial War Museum London showing Head of State by Cat Phillipps and Peter Kennard, with a marble sculpture of a CCTV camera by Ai Weiwei

Installation view of Age of Terror at Imperial War Museum London showing Head of State, a photomontage by Cat Phillipps and Peter Kennard, and a marble sculpture of a CCTV camera by Ai Weiwei

There is nothing that overt or emotional here. Everything is much more controlled, inflected, allusive. Given that Lee Bul is sometimes referred to as a political artist, there’s nothing at all that – for me anyway – packed any kind of real political punch.

WOMEN’S BODIES / DESIRE

With a certain inevitability, what the exhibition probably showcases most consistently is Lee Bul’s identity as a woman artist coming from a society which was extremely repressive, not only of political dissent, but of any form of feminism or gender politics.

The historical timeline tells us that a women’s movement only got going in Korea in the later 1980s and that Lee Bul was an enthusiastic part of it. It tells us that her earliest work went beyond sculpture to explore the possibilities of performance art.

Thus room two contains six screens on which we see some of Lee’s performances – ‘provocative performance works involving her own body’, as the commentary describes them – which she carried out between 1989 and 1996.

In Abortion (1989) she suspended herself from the ceiling of an auditorium for two hours and entertained the audience with lines from poems and pop songs as well as a description of her own abortion, a medical procedure which is still, to this day, apparently, illegal in South Korea.

The Monsters at the start of the show, the wriggly worm creations, turn out to be costumes which Lee wore either writhing around on the ground or walking the streets in order to question received ideas about X and subvert assumptions about Y.

Throughout the exhibition the ‘issue’ of gender and the ‘problematics’ of the female body are reiterated. For example, the timeline of women in Korean society describes ‘the rise of a generation of artists concerned with the representation of the female body‘ who also began ‘subverting the way that women are depicted in the media’.

The guide explains that

at the core of Lee’s recent work is an investigation into landscape, which for the artist includes the intimate landscape of the body

It turns out the her interest in the manga-style cyborgs comes less from a feeling for science fiction tropes or ideas around artificial intelligence and the possibility of improving human bodies by combining them with machine parts (from pacemakers to prosthetic limbs), no, she

is interested in what the figure of the cyborg – a transhuman hybrid of flesh and machine – can tell us about desire, our relationship to technology, and cultural attitudes towards the female body.

Or, as the press release puts it:

Shaped by her experience of growing up in South Korea during a period of political upheaval, much of Lee Bul’s work is concerned with trauma, and the way that idealism or the pursuit of perfection – bodily, political or aesthetic – might lead to failure, or disaster. Questioning women’s place in society, particularly Korean society, she also addresses the ways in which popular culture – in both the East and West – informs and shapes our idea of ‘feminine’ beauty.

Actually, rather like the so-called ‘political’ works (Thaw and Heaven and Hell) I only discovered that Lee was addressing the ways popular culture shapes our idea of femininity or questions cultural attitudes towards the female body by reading the guidebook. It really wasn’t that obvious from just seeing the works themselves. The three or four cyborg fragments hanging from the ceiling are probably, but not very obviously, female. They could belong to any gender, and be about anything.

Later on there are a couple of ‘busts’ made of lurid plastic of human thoraxes encased in cyber-armour but they aren’t very obviously female. The fact that they’re made of garish pink plastic and the design of the manga-style armour is the striking thing about them.

In one or two of the videos, the artist is seen naked or semi-naked, which even I picked up on as probably a reference to the female body, although I’ve never understood how young, nubile women artists stripping off is meant to subvert anything. To me it plays directly to society’s expectation that the most important or interesting thing about nubile young women is their nubile young bodies.

But if you hadn’t been told by the exhibition website, press release, guide and wall labels that her work ‘questions ideas of femininity’ I’m not sure you’d particularly notice.

I was, for example, surprised to learn that the silver zeppelin ‘addresses the ways in which popular culture – in both the East and West – informs and shapes our idea of feminine beauty’. Really?

Willing To Be Vulnerable by Lee Bul (photo by the author)

Willing To Be Vulnerable by Lee Bul (photo by the author)

Via Negativa II

I haven’t yet mentioned another of the really impressive installations, Via Negativa II (2014) which is a maze made out of metal sheets suspended on stands, a bit like the stands you get at conferences but arranged to create an entrance into a convoluted labyrinth of shiny metal plates.

It’s not a very big maze – only three people are allowed in at a time. The ‘justification’ or ‘idea’ behind it? Well, the walls are covered with a text by an American psychologist, Julian Jaynes, in which he argued that early humans experienced a split consciousness when messages from one hemisphere of the brain to the other were experienced as auditory hallucinations. To make it art, the text is printed in a mirror image of itself i.e you can’t actually read it. You’d need to hold up a mirror to the text to see it printed properly.

I suppose this small metal maze is designed to recreate that sense of mild hallucination that Jaynes describes. At its heart there is certainly a great experience when you find yourself in a cubicle dominated by grids of yellow lights reflected to infinity in parallel mirrors. The other two visitors and I all jostled for the best position to take photos from. Maybe it’s meant to make you think about something, but it’s also just a great tourist photo opportunity.

Installation view of Lee Bul showing Via Negativa II (2014) (interior detail) © Lee Bul 2018. Photo by Mark Blower

Installation view of Lee Bul showing Via Negativa II (2014) (interior detail) © Lee Bul 2018. Photo by Mark Blower

This is all great fun, but is it ‘questioning the limits of the human’ or ‘interrogating cultural ideas of the female’? Not really.

The international language of art

In fact, you don’t learn very much about the art or culture or history of Korea from this exhibition nor even – surprisingly – about feminism.

What comes over loud and clear is that this is now the international language of art – the same kind of brash, confident, well-manufactured, high concept work which you also see being produced by (the workshops of) Ai Weiwei, Damien Hirst, and numerous other superstars.

(Hirst sprang to mind as soon as I saw Lee Bul’s Majestic Splendour, a work consisting of rows of decomposing fish with sequins on, from 1997 which, of course, echoes Hirst’s A Thousand Years, a vitrine containing a cow’s decomposing head which he displayed in 1990. Great minds think alike.)

Not long ago I visited the fascinating exhibition of everyday products from North Korea held at the House of Illustration behind King’s Cross station. There I learned about the unique political system, the Cult of the Leader and the special economic policy (Juche) of North Korea. I learned about the importance of opera, theatre and enormous public performance in their culture, about the way the Korean language lends itself to blocky futuristic design, and about their fondness for a much brighter, more acid colour palette than we in the West are used to.

In Lee Bul’s exhibition I don’t think I learned anything at all about South Korea apart from being reminded of the name of its military dictator, and that its repressive military dictatorship was, well, repressive.

For me this exhibition shows that whatever her origins, whatever her personal biography may have been (the difficult childhood, the early anti-establishment and feminist performances), Lee Bul is now – in 2018 – on a par with Ai and Hirst in creating aroma-less, origin-free, international objets d’art for the delectation of equally rootless, cosmopolitan art critics, and for transnational buyers and billionaire investors.

I went to the press launch where the show was introduced by the director of Hayward Gallery – the American Ralph Rugoff – and the show’s curator – the German Stephanie Rosenthal. As they spoke I was struck by how all three of the people behind the microphones were members of an international art élite, a cosmopolitan, transnational art world which seems impossibly glamorous to those of us forced to earn our livings in the country of our birth and unable to jet off to international biennales in Venice and Sydney, to visit art shows at the Met in New York or the Foundation Cartier in Paris or the Mori Gallery in Tokyo or the Museum of Contemporary Art in Seoul (all places where Lee has exhibited). Wow. What a glamorous jet-setting life!

Summary

This is a very well-put together overview of the career to date of one of the world’s most successful and distinctive artists. It’s packed with big, bold, funky, cool objects and installations.

If you think art needs to be ‘about’ something, then you will enjoy the way the commentary invokes issues around the female body, around social utopias, about architecture and landscape, about the interface of technology and humans, to explain Lee’s work.

Or, like me, you may come to the conclusion that these issues, ideas and texts may well be important to motivate and inspire the artist, to get her juices flowing – but that most of the works can just be enjoyed in and of themselves, as highly inventive three-dimensional objects – fun, strange, colourful, jokey – without requiring any sort of ‘meaning’ or ‘interpretation’.


Related links

Related reviews

Reviews of other Hayward Gallery exhibitions

China’s War with Japan 1937 – 1945 by Rana Mitter (2013)

The aim of the book

Mitter is an eminent historian of twentieth century China and of the period leading up to World War II in particular. In his introduction he points out that the Sino-Japanese War – which lasted from 1937 and then became subsumed in the wider World War – is often neglected in Western historiography which, perhaps understandably, focuses on the war in Europe/Russia and on the American War in the Pacific: both perspectives tend to overlook the fact that the Chinese were fighting the Japanese for four long years before the Americans joined the struggle. By providing one continuous narrative of the entire Sino-Japanese War, as seen from the Chinese point of view, Mitter aims to redress this imbalance and tell this generally ‘untold story’.

The second main point, which emerges increasingly as the wider World War progresses, is that China – as the four-year adversary of the Japanese, and as the country responsible right to the end of the war for tying down some 500,000 Japanese troops as well as supplying men to fight alongside the British in Burma – deserved much greater representation in the meetings of the Big Three – Russia, America, Britain – which decided the fate of the post-war world. China was only invited to one, minor, Allied conference – held in Cairo – and was not invited to Yalta, Tehran, Potsdam. To this day, Mitter claims, the lack of recognition of China’s part in the wider anti-fascist struggle, and then her deliberate omission from the meetings of the Big Three – which they think should have been a Big Four – rankle in the memory of educated Chinese.

It contributes to the smouldering Chinese sense that for a long, long time, for some 150 years, first the British and then the Americans assumed control and sway over the Pacific and all its peoples, and that Chinese interests and contributions were consistently ignored or trampled on.

Now, at last, in the 21st century, China is confident enough and powerful enough to begin to flex her muscles and assert her rights in the region. Which is why, Mitter argues, educated people in the West need to be aware of the often harrowing events of this brutal eight-year war, and of the emotional significance it still has for many Chinese, and how it still informs modern China’s attitudes and worldview.

The Sino-Japanese War

1. 1937 to Pearl Harbour (1941)

Having annexed neighbouring Korea (1910) and the huge northern province of China known as Manchuria (1931), the aggressively militarist Japanese Empire took the opportunity of a trivial border incident (at the so-called Marco Polo Bridge) to launch a full-scale armed invasion of China in July 1937.

When Japan attacked there were broadly three forces in China: the Nationalist Party of Chiang Kai-Shek (also known as the Kuomintang) which claimed to be the official government of the whole country; the smaller Chinese Communist Party – whose leaders included the up-and-coming demagogue Mao Zedong – and a number of regional warlords.

China was divided like this:

a) Because the latter part of the 19th century was marked in China by decades of civil war and administrative weakness. The biggest of these disruptions was the Taiping Rebellion, a vast civil war which dominated the 1860s and in which anything up to 100 million Chinese might have killed each other, and which people in the West have little awareness of. The rebellion had only been put down at the cost of giving autonomy to regional military leaders and it was this which established the pattern of ‘warlord’ control of some regions. A growing body of politicians, modernisers and revolutionaries all realised that the old imperial structures just couldn’t rule this huge country, and the turmoil eventually led to the overthrow of the Qing imperial dynasty in 1912 and the establishment of a republican government.

b) However, the nationalist revolutionaries proved incapable of preventing the country falling apart into a patchwork of regions controlled by local military leaders or ‘warlords’. Hence the complex geography and politics of the ‘Warlord Era’, 1916 – 1928.

Japan’s advance was swift not only because of China’s political, administrative and economic divisions but for the more basic reason that, under successive 19th century rulers, China had failed to modernise and keep up with the industrialised world. Convinced of their cultural superiority, of their lofty position as ‘the Heavenly Kingdom’, China’s rulers looked down on the big-nosed Europeans with their crude manners and obvious greed. Which turned out to be a mistake because the foreign devils (one of many discriminatory terms the Chinese use for non-Chinese) came armed with the benefits of the Industrial Revolution – steamships, guns, cannon, trains.

In the 1840s Chinese rulers found themselves forced at gun point to agree to treaties with Western imperialist powers – Britain, France, America – who secured for themselves coastal entrepôts (Hong Kong, Shanghai), exemption for Western citizens from Chinese law, but who (wisely) never made any attempt to colonise the vast peasant interior.

China’s economic and social backwardness contrasted with Imperial Japan, whose government realised in the 1860s that they had to keep up with the farangs by importing the best of Western know-how. The Japanese gave Westerners limited rights at certain specific trading ports but, more importantly, embarked on a wholesale reform and modernising of their technology and industry. By the turn of the twentieth century Japan combined an ongoing level of rural Asian poverty with surprising levels of urbanisation and industrialisation. This was brought forcefully home to everyone when Japan defeated Russia – itself arguably a vast, backward nation but still, in theory, European – in the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-5. Bolstered by this victory, Japan’s well-organised, well-equipped and well-managed army and navy went on to seize control of all Korea in 1910.

The disparity in cultural attitudes (Japan’s Big Yes to Western know-how compared to China’s lofty rejection), in their respective levels of industrialisation, and in central economic, political and military control, help explain why – when they decided to extend their occupation in 1937, Japan, with a population of just 72 million, managed to subdue China, with a population of about 520 million.

The war was marked early on by the Japanese massacre of the civilian inhabitants of the capital Nanking

and continued to be marked by extreme Japanese brutality and bloodshed, including the indiscriminate bombing of cities crowded with refugees – for example, the bombing campaign against the Nationalists’ temporary capital of Chongqing – which resulted in horrifying casualties.

The Nationalists themselves contributed to the mayhem with a ‘scorched earth’ policy, including burning some of their own cities to the ground before the Japanese could take them and – most notoriously – in 1938 breaking the dikes which held in the massive Yellow River. This created a truly epic flood over a huge area of central China which certainly delayed the Japanese advance but led to a mind-boggling 800,000 deaths from drowning, not to mention further deaths from disease and starvation.

The Communist forces, such as they were, had retreated deep into remote northern China in the long flight which their propaganda machine turned into the legendary ‘Long March’. About 70,000 communist cadres set out on it and maybe as few as 7,000 completed it, the rest dying or giving up along the way. Thus the bulk of the resistance to the Japanese invaders, of the actual fighting, fell to Chiang, his German-trained Nationalist forces, and whatever warlord allies he could press to help him (and who all too often let him down).

The whole story is a panorama of extraordinary chaos, suffering and death on a continental scale.

2. After Pearl Harbour

The story becomes a lot more comprehensible – and therefore interesting and memorable – once the Japanese have their bright idea to attack Pearl Harbour and declare war on the most powerful nation on earth. And Hitler decides – quite unnecessarily – to rally to their support and also declare war on America.

There had been an earlier turning point when the war in Europe broke out in September 1939 and Chiang’s Nationalists suddenly hoped for arms and support from the European democracies (who just happened to be the very same imperialist devils which Chinese nationalist propaganda had been reviling for decades). But, in the event, the supposedly all-powerful British Empire turned out to be weak – in fact, it was shown to be an essentially peacetime operation, able to carry out local police actions and just about manage a huge array of established colonial assets, but in no way ready for a war of aggression – unlike Germany or Japan. Britain herself struggled for survival in 1940 and ’41 and so the last thing on her mind was sending troops to the other side of the planet to fight in someone else’s war.

Pearl Harbour marked the beginning of the war for America, but was only a way station for the Chinese who had, by this stage, been resisting the Japanese for four long years. It would take three more bitter years to defeat them, with mixed results for Chiang’s Nationalists: on the one hand they now found themselves de facto allies of Britain and America in the war against Japan; on the down side, they now found themselves caught up in the very complicated diplomatic and military manoeuvering which took place even between the nominal allies Britain and America, with the added challenge of Stalin’s Russia, as well as coping with Mao’s communists and the Chinese collaborationist regime.

For one of the many untold stories which Mitter brings back into the light is the role of Wang Jingwei, at one time a colleague of Chiang’s, who was persuaded that the patriotic thing to do in order to prevent more loss of Chinese lives and destruction of Chinese land, was to co-operate with the Japanese. After agonising soul-searching – recorded in detail by one of his aides-de-camp, Zhou Fohai, in a diary from which Mitter liberally quotes – Wang agreed to fly back to the occupied former capital of Nanjing and allow himself to be set up as the Japanese-backed puppet leader of Occupied China – an equivalent of the Vichy Regime in France or Quisling in Norway.

The three years of the War in the Pacific are detailed in Max Hasting’s grim history Nemesis. Mitter usefully complements such Anglocentric accounts with his narrative of the ongoing battles – and the complex diplomatic manouevres – taking place in war-torn China.

One of the most interesting themes which emerge in the final part of Mitter’s book is that the various Chinese administrations – as they struggled to keep control of their areas and populations, to properly organise the collection of taxes, the feeding of soldiers, the distribution of the growing amounts of Allied aid – became progressively more centralised and relied increasingly on Terror as a political tool. Each of the three regimes set up secret police forces who used arbitrary arrest, torture and executions to intimidate dissident voices, each one headed by specific individuals – the equivalents of the Nazis’ Heinrich Himmler – who became notorious for their brutality and sadism. For Chiang’s nationalists it was Dai Li, for Wang’s collaborationists it was Li Shiqun, for Mao it was Kang Sheng.

And all three parties despised Westerners as culturally inferior, hated and bitterly resented the shame and humiliation they’d been subject to during the era of Unequal Treaties, and were – accordingly – contemptuous of the hypocrisy of Western ‘liberal, ‘democratic’ societies. None of them really understood the Western notion of democracy from below – the models of all three (as indeed of the conquering Japanese) was of top-down rule by a strong Leader – Generalissimo Chiang or Chairman Mao.

Given the huge political differences between all three factions and given the direct links between the Chinese Communists and Stalin’s Russia – Stalin told the CCP, basically, what to do – on the one hand, and the widespread corruption, brutality and inefficiency of Chiang’s Nationalists (to the many Americans who had experience of Chiang Kai-Shek’s regime, he acquired the nickname ‘Cash My Check’) on the other – it’s no surprise that relations between the Western Allies and the various Chinese factions were fraught with misunderstandings, miscalculations, misgivings and mistakes, which Mitter records in great detail.

3. Conclusion

By the end of World War II, the sustained struggle against the Japanese had exhausted Chiang Kai-Shek’s Nationalist forces. By contrast the war had seen the growth in strength and confidence of the Communists who had been able to send out political cohorts to infiltrate broad areas of unoccupied China to spread their message of a revolution for the peasants, for the poorest of the poor.

It was also during the latter part of the war that Mao began to establish his grip on the Chinese Communist party through a programme of biting criticism and calls for ideological purity – the so-called ‘Rectification Process’ – which was the start of 30 years of intimidating, arresting and executing his opponents. As Mitter points out, the techniques which underlay the catastrophic Cultural Revolution of the late 1960s were first laid down in the early 1940s.

When the War in the Pacific came to an abrupt end in August 1945, the war for control of China still had four more bloody years to go, a ragged civil war in a shattered country which ultimately led to the complete seizure of power by the Communists and the establishment of the People’s Republic of China in October 1949. The remnants of Chiang’s Nationalists fled to Taiwan, where they rule to this day. As Mitter sums up – Chiang’s Nationalists won the war but lost China.


Related links

Reviews of books about other Asian wars

The Last Valley by Martin Windrow (2004)

‘While an increasing flow of American dollars, weapons, vehicles and aircraft in the early 1950s did improve the fire and mobility of the CEFEO, they could not offset the fundamental disadvantages of a roadbound army facing a hill and forest army in a country which had few roads but a great many hills and forests.’ (p.129)

This is a really epic book about an epic battle. Its full title is The Last Valley: Dien Bien Phu and the French Defeat in Vietnam and it does what it says on the tin at immense length and in fascinating detail, clocking in at a whopping 734 pages, including detailed endnotes, bibliography, list of acronyms, no fewer than 21 maps, and a thorough index. It clearly sets out to be the definitive account of this debacle.

1. Background

The first hundred or so pages take us through the origins and early stages of the First Indochina War (1946-1954). Vietnam had been part of French colonial Indochina since the 1850s, colonial rule which was consolidated at the turn of the century. The higher education the French offered the natives ironically educated a generation to demand greater freedom and independence.

The most notable of these nationalists Ho Chi Minh (born 1890) travelled to France after World War One and tried to contact the American delegation at the Versailles Peace Conference, hoping President Woodrow Wilson would apply his Fourteen Points to Europe’s colonies – particularly French Indochina – and secure their independence. But his letters went unanswered.

Rebuffed, Ho set about educating himself in communist doctrine and guerrilla tactics, traveling to Soviet Moscow to study, then returning to Vietnam where he helped set up the Indochina Communist Party in 1930 and then helped weld the various disparate nationalist groups into a united front, the Viet Minh, in 1941.

After the Fall of France to the Nazis in June 1940, the French authorities in Indochina (as in France’s other colonies) switched allegiance to the new Vichy government, a puppet state which the Nazis allowed to administer the south of France and the French Empire.

On September 27, 1940, Germany, Italy, and Japan signed the Tripartite Pact, which became known as the Axis alliance. Japanese forces entered French Indochina and took over all important administrative powers from the Vichy French. The native Vietnamese (and Laotians and Cambodians) watched in wonder as their European imperial masters were humiliated by fellow Asians. In a culture based on ‘face’, the French empire in the East (like the British one) never recovered from the loss of face involved in their feeble surrender to the Japanese.

France was finally liberated by the Allies in late 1944 and the Vichy regime was overthrown. This put the Vichy administrators in Indochina in a tricky position vis-a-vis their Japanese masters and the growing tension came to a head in March 1945 when the Japanese rounded up the Vichy forces, locking them up in Japanese prison camps and executing anyone who resisted (‘In Saigon the senior military and civil prisoners, General Lemonnier and Resident Auphalle, were beheaded after being forced to dig their own graves.’ p.81)

In the six months between Japan’s seizure of power and the final Japanese defeat in September 1945, the Japanese left the Viet Minh to their own devices, allowing them to organise and set up cells throughout the country. The Japanese concentrated their efforts on pillaging Vietnam’s food resources to feed Japan, leading to the catastrophic famine of45 in which well over one million Vietnamese starved to death.

When the Japanese surrendered in August 1945, the Viet Minh, led by Ho, their by-now veteran organiser, immediately declared Vietnamese independence to cheering crowds and amid nationwide rejoicing. Frederick Logevall’s epic account of the period, Embers of War, includes eyewitness accounts by the handful of Americans on the scene who were amazed and impressed when Ho quoted the American declaration of Independence. Like the Americans, the Vietnamese just wanted to be free from an imperial oppressor.

Which makes the tragedy all the more bitter, which makes you want to weep tears of frustration to read of the way the Americans under President Truman abandoned their wartime commitment to liberate colonial peoples, and instead stood behind General de Gaulle’s arrogant insistence that all of Indochina must be returned to French Imperial rule.

As per the agreement made between the Big Three powers (the USA, Britain, USSR) at Potsdam earlier in 1945, a ragtag army from nationalist China was allowed to occupy the north of the country, and a division of the British Indian army occupied the south, both of them holding the ring until the French returned.

Thus, through into spring 1946 the French armed forces arrived from Europe, determined to restore the status quo ante, immediately rounding up any nationalists foolish enough to trust them, amid an atmosphere of mistrust and tension. Scattered moments of resistance quickly grew into a guerrilla insurgency across the country, in the north and south, which was crystallised in a dispute over customs dues in the port of Haiphong. On November 26 1946 the French navy bombarded the city, seriously damaging it and killing over 6,000 civilians, in just one afternoon. After such massacre, there was no going back (p.90).

2. The first Indochina war

So by 1947 France found itself drawn into an unwinnable guerrilla war against an enemy who mostly refused open battle in preference for urban terrorist attacks and hit-and-run guerrilla operations in the steamy jungles of northern Vietnam. In a way the 8 years of war, from 1946 to 1954, are footnotes to, or simply the logical consequence of, the fatal initial French decision to reoccupy the country against the express wishes of the majority of the population.

The French military struggled to contain an insurgency which was so unpredictable and where the terrain and the people were so much on the side of the insurgents. French generals arrived in Indochina full of enthusiasm and confidence, slowly grasped the hopelessness of the situation, and ended up writing bleak reports back to Paris, while all the time little convoys and isolated outposts were ambushed and annihilated.

Back in Paris the governments of the Fourth Republic proved themselves as addicted to bickering and posturing as the French governments before the war, lacking – in a neat formulation of Windrow’s – either the strength to prosecute the war with conviction (to implement conscription and triple the number of French troops in Vietnam) or the political courage to face the facts and concede to talks with the Viet Minh.

The situation underwent a sea change in October 1949 when Mao Zedong’s communist forces finally secured power in war-torn China. Mao immediately set about sending supplies to the Viet Minh and Windrow describes how military training camps were set up in south China for cohorts of Viet Minh forces to attend – learning skills of organisation, rifle, machine gun, mortar and artillery technique.

Reading the history of this period has taught me that the fall of China to communism caused massive recriminations in American politics, with a wave of republicans queueing up to accuse President Truman’s Democrat government of being ‘soft on communism’. The American political atmosphere was paranoid even before communist North Korea invaded South Korea in June 1950, precipitating America into a bloody three-year struggle in support of the beleaguered south.

All this turned the independence struggle in Vietnam into a cauldron of the Cold War and, especially after the Korean War ground to a long-delayed armistice in summer 1953, the two sides (Viet Minh and French) were supplied ever increasing amounts of arms and matériel by their respective backers (China and America – by the time it ended in 1954, the United States was paying three-quarters of the cost of the war.)

3. Dien Bien Phu

In 1951 and 1952 there were larger scale engagements as the Vietnam Army’s self-taught general, Vo Ngyen Giáp, experimented with larger attacks on French positions around Hanoi. Windrow describes each of these in meticulous detail, with precise maps showing troops dispositions in staggering detail and there are very precise maps for each of them, so that you can follow the night’s or day’s events with great precision.

November and December 1952 saw the Battle of Nà Sản. Giáp attacked the French outpost at Nà Sản, an isolated fortified camp in Tonkin supplied only by air. Giáp sent wave after wave of Viet Minh infantry in direct attack, but these either failed, or seized territory was immediately retaken by aggressive French paratroop units. Ultimately Giáp failed, with the Viet Minh suffering very heavy losses.

In May 1953 General Henri Navarre was dispatched to Vietnam with orders to bring the situation to some kind of resolution favourable for possible negotiations. He based himself in Hanoi in the north of the country, where the Viet Minh were strongest. His first priority was maintaining security in the corridor from Hanoi down to the port of Haiphong and in the broader delta of the Red River. Late in the year he launched an anti-insurgency operation in the middle of the country known as Annam. But the idea slowly took shape of deliberately recreating the Nà Sản experience on an even larger scale with the aim of drawing Giáp into committing the bulk of the Viet Minh forces – alternately known as the Vietnam Liberation Army – into a massed assault. This would allow superior French artillery, armour and air support to decimate the exposed VPA.

Given the French total domination of the air, the base would be supplied by air and air forces would also help decimate all VPA units brought against it. Windrow charts the process whereby various factors led to the decision to locate this ‘air-land base’ at the remote settlement of Dien Bien Phu. This was actually a straggle of small villages in a long narrow valley far in the north-west of the country. It was given strategic value by being a kind of crossroads for Viet Minh forces coming from China or heading south-west to threaten French-occupied Laos.

Plans were drawn up to parachute in over 10,000 men, mainly crack paratroop regiments and Foreign Legionaries, along with vast amounts of equipment, including 10 Chaffee tanks, bulldozers to create a working airstrip – Operation Castor, as it was called, commenced on 20 November 1953.

Once the airstrip was laid, old Dakota transport planes from the war began flying in scores of artillery guns, hundreds of mortars, vast amounts of ammunition and everything required to build a vast military encampment in the long narrow valley. During this set-up phase there was little or no sight of the enemy and countless politicians and journalists flew in to be impressed by the might and power of the French Army. In actual fact, right from the start a lot of the planes, crews and equipment were supplied by the Americans.

4. Catastrophe

The entire project rested on a number of assumptions or propositions:

  • Dominance in the air would prove decisive:
    1. supplies could be dropped indefinitely
    2. wounded taken out
    3. new men brought in
    4. Vietnam Liberation Army forces would be identified from the air and wiped out
    5. VLA artillery would be identified from the air and wiped out
  • The VLA would not be able to get their artillery over the high ridges surrounding the valley, and if they did they’d be wiped out from the air
  • The base could be used for offensive attacks on VLA supply lines

In the event every single one of these assumptions proved false. The few attempts to go out on offensive patrol were beaten back by the encircling VLA with heavy French losses. As January changed to February the early monsoon brought fog and mist, drastically reducing flights in and out of the airstrip. The VLA went to extraordinary lengths to camouflage their supply tracks, bending trees over to be tied in the middle above jungle paths, meticulously camouflaging each other’s uniforms and helmets and, most effectively, only moving at night. The VLA did manage to haul their heavy guns over the ridges, in heroic efforts which Windrow describes at length. This took the French completely by surprise. And then the VLA dug them into deeply embedded fissures and caves with huge overhangs of solid rock. For the entire battle the French struggled to locate the attacking guns and, despite dropping hundreds of tons of explosives, didn’t destroy a single one.

French intelligence knew that Giáp was building up large forces around the base and expected an attack on 25 January. By 31 January they were completely surrounded. The battle proper started on 13 March 1954 with a devastating barrage of one of the most remote outposts of the base. (In a hilariously French touch, it is alleged that the nine or so outcrops, based on small hillocks scattered over the valley, were named after mistresses of the womanising camp commander, Colonel Christian de Castries – Eliane, Beatrice, Gabriele etc.)

That first evening’s barrage destroyed lots of French illusions. It was as intense as a Great War artillery attack and ranged freely from the intended target (the most isolated stronghold, ‘Beatrice’) across the entire camp, damaging the airstrip, threatening command HQ deep in the compound, and killing key commanders at Beatrice within half an hour. De Castries’ chief of staff had a nervous breakdown on that first night from which he never recovered. It took only a few more days of such intense barrage for the French artillery commander, Charles Piroth, to realise that a) the VLA had brought their artillery over the mountains b) they had hidden them so effectively they couldn’t even be located let alone pummeled by the French c) air attacks were similarly ineffective. Plunging into a depression, after only a week he withdrew to his hut and killed himself with a hand grenade.

Windrow then describes the 56 day-long ordeal of the French forces as they are then slowly, systematically reduced, the VLA targeting one stronghold after another, softening them up with overwhelming artillery attacks and then sending wave after wave of fanatical VLA troops against the French forces who showed episodes of tremendous courage but time and again were borne down by sheer numbers. (In one of the countless insights the book provides, Windrow points out the narrowness and inflexibility of Gap’s tactics which were, in essence, exactly the same as First World War tactics – dig trenches close up to the enemy positions – fire a devastating bombardment – then pour endless troops into the breach, regardless of horrendous losses.)

Windrow

What makes Windrow’s account distinctive is the immense detailed attention he pays to every aspect of the military side of the battle. For example,

  • He devotes pages to a minute breakdown of the exact structure of the Viet Minh forces (named the Vietnam Liberation Army), giving the names and numbers of each division, brigade, along with the respective generals and senior officers.
  • He explains the threefold division of the Viet Minh forces, into local irregulars based in villages who provided support; militia based in villages who were organised to carry out small scale engagements; and regular army who were fully trained and lived in jungle ‘barracks’ high up in the inaccessible hill and jungle territory of North Tonkin, near the Chinese border.
  • He gives comprehensive histories of all the French divisions, regiments and battalions involved in the battle, down to platoon and squad level of all the French forces.

I have never read such an exhaustive account of a sustained military operation, such a precise breakdown of the forces involved, nor such a minute-by-minute narrative of almost every parachute that opens, every canon that fires, every machine gun blockhouse which fights on to the death.

Hundreds of pages are filled with comprehensive blow-by-blow descriptions of every units involved in the battle, clotted with division or regimental or battalion numbers, commanders and personnel, sometimes amounting to lists of acronyms and locations which can get quite confusing. This is a typical paragraph from thousands like it:

The withdrawing Group East consisted of Colonel Barrou’s GM 100, the Vietnamese light infantry unit TDKQ 520, and irregular scouts. Although much harried over the past five months this motorised brigade had a fine reputation; its infantry were the two-battalion Régiment de Corée – the former French UN battalion from the Korean War, expanded by local recruitment – and BM/43 RIC, a good unit enlisted mainly from ethnic Khmers from western Cochinchina. Coming to meet them in Lieutenant Colonel Sockeel’s Group West were GM 42, built on three montagnard battalions recruited among Rhadés from around Ban Me Thuot; each brigade had the usual 105mm artillery battalion and a few Stuart tanks from the 5th Cuirassiers. Group West also had a small airborne brigade: GAP 1, commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Romain-Defossés, with 7 BPC (Major Balbin) and 3 BPVN (Major Mollo). (p.634)

Learnings

It is a profoundly instructive book because it takes you so deeply and exhaustively into every aspect of the battle – not only into the experience of the men fighting in the trenches and front line of each stronghold, but giving a complete account of all the orders issued, signals sent and plans devised both by General Navarre and his staff in Hanoi, and de Castries and his in the camp, as well as insights into the challenges faced by the different air forces which were involved in the non-stop drop and resupply of the base. We get to know many of the officers, including the legendary Lieutenant-Colonel Marcel Bigeard and Colonel Pierre Langlais.

It is fascinating to have such an epic battle so firmly located within the larger French strategy, for Navarre had also to defend the Delta and provision his campaign in Annam.

It is a major revelation to learn that most of the French forces fighting in the battle were not strictly French, for they included a large number of native forces, both Vietnamese and Thai regiments recruited from the locality; as well as a large number of Algerian forces, and colonial troops from West African countries such as Senegal. A significant number of battalions were from the French Foreign Legion, none of whose men were French and a frisson goes through the reader to learn that many of these men were former Wehrmacht soldiers who had various reasons to flee Europe with no questions asked.

At regular intervals Windrow stops his narrative to explain aspects of warfare, always writing with clarity and common sense.

  • He gives a detailed technical explanation of artillery shell fire, how it works, what it feels like, the kind of wounds it inflicts (pp.371-374)
  • what it’s like inside a tank (hot, cramped, blind, poisoned by fume) (pp.448-449)
  • how a flamethrower works and what the flame looked like and did (p.504)

One of these digressions is the best description of what motivates men to fight I think I’ve ever read.

The section were the soldier’s closest comrades- his copains, mates or buddies; he marched, fought, ate and slept beside them, and came to know them as well as he had known his childhood brothers. It would be absurd to imagine that every soldier likes and trusts all the men in his squad; nevertheless, every serious study of human motivation among combat soldiers confirms that the key to a man’s behaviour in battle is his feeling of mutual dependence and obligation towards these immediate comrades. Today many veterans of serious and prolonged combat are not embarrassed to use the word love. This unique sense of unselfish fellowship forged in shared ordeals is the principal reward of soldiering, and its rupture by the death of friends is the most painful price. (p.176)

This put me in mind of all those accounts of British officers in the First World War who came to love their men, and were upset to be separated from them, by different postings or injury. The war poets Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon write eloquently of this soldierly love, and only a force this powerful and primeval can explain why right up to the end French troops were being parachuted into Dien Bien Phu to fight alongside their fellow Legionnaires or Parachute divisions, in a cause which was obviously hopelessly lost.

The Geneva Conference

As the battle grew more intense, preparations began for a major conference of diplomats and politicians to be held in Geneva, designed to bring together all the interested parties in South-East Asia (China, Russia, America, Britain, France) in order to address the aftermath of the Korean War as well as the situation in Indochina. Though it hadn’t been planned this way, political and military commanders on both sides (Ho and Giap, Navarre and de Castries) now realised that the outcome of the Battle at Dien Bien Phu could well determine the outcome of the conference, and thus the entire fate of the French Empire in Asia.

Also the open access given to journalists early on ensured the battle had more, and more graphic, coverage on French radio, in newspapers and magazines, than previous confrontations. The struggle against overpowering odds of their brave boys in the jungle seized the French imagination more powerfully than any previous engagement in the eight-year-old war. As the situation became progressively more grim so did the mood of the French public.

I hadn’t really grasped how fragile France was after the Second World War. There were some 19 different governments between 1945 and 1954, many lasting only months, as the relentless backbiting of a host of extreme parties, including a powerful communist party, stymied the ability to govern.

Amid a welter of parliamentary backstabbing, and recriminations among the generals and between military and politicians, Dien Bien Phu eventually fell to the Viet Minh on 7 May 1954.

In fact, as Windrow harrowingly shows, the misery for many was only just starting because around half of the prisoners of war taken by the Viet Minh died on the long jungle marches to POW camps, or in the camps themselves, due to malnutrition and disease, a process he describes with characteristic grim thoroughness.

A thoroughly demoralised French government announced its intention to quit Indochina, despite the readiness of many, including General Navarre to fight on. The Geneva Conference agreed to partition Vietnam along the 17th parallel, handing the north – Tonkin – to the Viet Minh, while the south was to be under the ‘democratic’ rule of the puppet emperor Bao Dai. Even before the French had left Americans were appearing in numbers to give political, strategic and material aid to the southern regime, a further decisive step towards their entanglement in what became known as the Vietnam War, a decade later.

Right to the end Windrow’s book is full of fascinating insights. The final pages explain how many of the survivors of Indochina found themselves redeployed to French Algeria, where the first attacks by the Front for National Liberation took place in October 1954, just a few weeks after the French evacuated Hanoi. He goes on to describe how many French soldiers felt betrayed by lack of political and military support at Dien Bien Phu. The suffering was on such a scale that for the whole cause they were fighting for – to preserve the French Empire in the Far East – to be overthrown within weeks seemed like a grotesque betrayal. This laid the seeds of the growing alienation of the French Army in Algeria, which saw a similar betrayal by politicians beginning to take place and led to the creation of the Organisation armée secrète which waged a terrorist campaign against French politicians and tried to mount a military coup in 1962.

For France herself, that was to be one legacy of Dien Bien Phu. For America, it was to be dragged into a catastrophic war. For the poor Vietnamese it was to be another 20 years of war before they finally secured their independence.

Video

There’s no shortage of videos and documentaries about both the First Indochina War and Dien Bien Phu in particular. This is the pithiest one I’ve watched.

Credit

The Last Valley: Dien Bien Phu and the French Defeat in Vietnam by Martin Windrow was published in 2004 by Weidenfeld and Nicholson. All quotes and references are to the 2005 Cassell Military Paperback edition.

Related links

The Cold War by John Lewis Gaddis (2005)

Lenin, following Marx, assumed the incompatibility of class interests: because the rich would always exploit the poor, the poor had no choice but to supplant the rich. [President Woodrow] Wilson, following Adam Smith, assumed the opposite: that the pursuit of individual interests would advance everyone’s interests, thereby eroding class differences while benefiting both the rich and the poor. These were, therefore, radically different solutions to the problem of achieving social justice within modern industrial societies. At the time the Cold War began it would not have been at all clear which was going to prevail.
(The Cold War, page 89)

Gaddis (b.1941) is a renowned academic expert on the Cold War and has been teaching and writing about it since the 1970s. The preface to this book explains that his students and publishers suggested he write a popular, brief overview of the subject, and this book is the result.

The cover of the Penguin paperback edition promises to give you the lowdown on ‘the deals, the spies, the lies, the truth’ but this is quite misleading. Along with Len Deighton’s description of it as ‘gripping’, it gives the impression that the book is a rip-roaring narrative of an action-packed era, full of intrigue and human interest.

Cover of the Penguin edition of The Cold War

Cover of the Penguin edition of The Cold War

Academic and theoretical approach

Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact the book feels very much like a textbook to accompany a university course in international studies. It doesn’t give a chronological narrative of the Cold War and certainly has no eyewitness accounts or personal stories of the kind that bring to life, for example, Jim Baggott’s history of the atom bomb, Atomic, or Max Hasting’s history of the Korean War.

Instead, the book is divided into seven themed chapters and an epilogue which deal at a very academic level with the semi-abstract theories of international affairs and geopolitics.

Nuclear weapons and the theory of war

So, for example, the second chapter, about the atom bomb, certainly covers all the key dates and developments, but is at its core an extended meditation on the German theorist of war, Carl von Clausewitz’s, famous dictum that war ‘is a continuation of political activity by other means’ (quoted p.51). The chapter shows how U.S. presidents Truman, Eisenhower and Kennedy, and their Russian opposite numbers, Stalin and Khrushchev, worked through the implications of this profound insight.

If war only exists to further the interests of the state (as it had done through all recorded history up till 1945) then a war which threatens, in fact which guarantees, the destruction of the very state whose interests it is meant to be furthering, is literally inconceivable.

Truman showed he had already grasped some of this when he removed the decision to deploy atom bombs from the military – who were inclined to think of it as just another weapon, only bigger and better – and made use of the atom bomb the sole decision of the civilian power i.e. the president.

But as the atom bombs of the 1940s were superseded by the hydrogen bombs of the 1950s, it dawned on both sides that a nuclear war would destroy the very states it was meant to protect, with profound consequences for military strategy.

This insight came very close to being ignored during the darkest days of the Korean War, when the massed Chinese army threatened to push the Allies right out of the Korean peninsula and plans were drawn up to drop atom bombs on numerous Chinese cities. Then again, during the Cuban missile crisis of 1962, American generals were advising president Kennedy to authorise a devastating first strike on the Soviet Union with results not wildly exaggerated in Kubrick’s bleak nuclear satire, Dr Stangelove.

And yet both times the civilian authority, in the shape of Presidents Truman and Kennedy, rejected the advice of their military and refused the use of nuclear weapons. Truman signalled to both China and Russia that the Korean War would remain a conventional war limited to Korea only. And Kennedy made significant concessions to the Soviets to defuse the Cuba situation. We aftercomers owe an enormous debt of gratitude to the wisdom and restraint of both these men.

It is by following the ramifications of the new theory of war created by the advent of nuclear weapons, that Gaddis makes sense of a number of Cold War developments. For example, the development of regular meetings to discuss arms limitations which took place between the Cold War antagonists from the Cuban crisis onwards, talks which continued to be fractious opportunities for propaganda but which proved Churchill’s dictum that ‘jaw jaw is better than war war’.

Capitalism versus communism

If chapter two considered the evolution of new military theory during the war, chapter three covers much the same chronological period but looked at in terms of socio-economic theory, starting with a very basic introduction to theories of Marxism and capitalism, and then seeing how these played out after World War One.

Gaddis deploys a sequence of significant dates from succeeding decades, which tell the story of the decline and fall of communism:

  • in 1951 all nations were recovering from the devastation of war, the USSR had established communist dictatorships in Eastern Europe and a newly communist China was challenging the West’s staying power in Korea
  • in 1961 Nikita Khrushchev visited America and gleefully told his audience that the communist countries would surge ahead in economic production and ‘bury’ the West
  • by 1971, as consumerism triumphed in the West, all the communist economies were stagnating and communism in China was accompanied by inconceivable brutality and mass murder
  • by 1981 life expectancy in the Soviet Union was in decline and Russia was mired in a pointless war in Afghanistan
  • by 1991 the Soviet Union and all the communist East European regimes had disappeared, while China was abandoning almost all its communist policies, leaving ‘communism’ to linger on only in the dictatorships of Cuba and North Korea

Capitalism won the Cold War. Marx claimed to have revealed the secrets of history, that the capitalist system was inevitably doomed to collapse because the exploited proletariat would be inevitably grow larger as the ruling capitalist class concentrated all wealth unto itself, making a proletariat revolution inevitable and unstoppable.

  1. In direct contradiction to this, living standards in all capitalist countries for everyone are unrecognisably higher than they were 100 years ago.
  2. Marx predicted that his communist revolution could only happen in advanced industrial countries where the capitalists had accumulated all power and the proletariat forced to rebel. In the event, communist revolutions turned out to be a characteristic of very backward, feudal or peasant countries, namely Russia and China, later Cuba, and then a sorry string of Third World basket cases – Angola, Somalia, Ethiopia, Afghanistan. It only ever existed in Eastern Europe because it was imposed by Russia’s military dictatorship, and here was thrown off the second that Russia’s tyrannical grip was loosened. It was the tragedy of both Russia and China that, in order to make their countries conform to Marx’s theories, their leaders undertook policies of forced collectivisation and industrialisation which led to the deaths by starvation or murder of as many as 50 million people, generally the very poorest. Communism promised to liberate the poor. In fact it ended up murdering the poorest of the poor in unprecedented numbers.

Lenin’s 1916 tract, Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism, is an interesting analysis of the history of the European empires up to that date and a contribution to the vast debate over the origins of the First World War. But its key practical suggestion was that capitalist states will always be driven by boundless greed and, therefore, inevitably, unstoppably, must always go to war.

Gaddis shows how Stalin and Mao shared this doctrinaire belief and how it led them to bad miscalculations. Because in direct contradiction to the notion of inevitable inter-capitalist war, American presidents Truman and Eisenhower, both with experience of the Second World War, grasped some important and massive ideas, the central one being that America could no longer be isolationist but needed to create (and lead) a union of capitalist countries, to build up economic and military security, to ensure they never again went to war.

This was a big shift. Throughout the 19th century America concentrated on settling its own lands and building up its economy, happily ignoring developments beyond its borders. Despite President Wilson’s achievement in persuading Americans to intervene in the Great War, immediately afterwards they relapsed into isolationism, refusing to join the League of Nations and indifferent to the rise of authoritarian regimes in Russia, Germany and Japan.

After the cataclysm of the Second World War, American policy shifted massively, finding expression in the Truman Doctrine, President Truman’s pledge that America would help and support democracies and free peoples around the world to resist communism. To be precise:

‘It must be the policy of the United States to support free people who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures.’ (Truman’s speech to Congress on 12 March 1947)

The doctrine was prompted by practical intervention ($400 million) to support the anti-communist forces during Greece’s Civil war (1945-49), which the Americans felt also had to be balanced by support ($100 million) for Turkey. In both respects the Americans were taking over from aid formerly provided by Britain, now no longer able to afford it. The doctrine’s implicit strategy of ‘containment’ of the USSR, led on to the creation of NATO in 1949 and the Marshall Plan for massive American aid to help the nations of Western Europe rebuild their economies.

Of course it was in America’s self-interest to stem the tide of communism, but this doesn’t really detract from the scale of the achievement – it was American economic intervention which helped rebuild the economies, and ensured freedom from tyranny, for France, West Germany, Italy, Greece, Turkey, Belgium and Holland (in Europe) and Japan and South Korea in the Far East. Hundreds of millions of people have led lives of freedom and fulfilment because of the decisions of the Truman administration.

The power of weakness

Of course the down side of this vast new expansion of America’s overseas commitment was the way it turned into a long and dishonourable tradition of America supporting repellent dictators and right-wing rulers solely because they were the only available anti-communist force.

This lamentable tradition kicked off with America’s ambivalent support for Chiang Kai-shek, the semi-fascist Nationalist leader who America supported in China, then the repellent Syngman Rhee in South Korea, through Ngo Dinh Diem in South Vietnam, General Pinochet in Chile, the Shah of Iran, Saddam Hussein in Iraq, and so on and so on.

This dark side to American post-war foreign policy is well-known, but what’s thought-provoking about Gaddis’s account is the thesis he hangs his fourth chapter on, a teasing paradox which only slowly emerges – that many of these small, ‘dependent’ nations ended up able to bend the Superpowers to their will, by threatening to collapse.

Thus many of the repellent dictators America found itself supporting were able to say: ‘If you don’t support me, my regime will collapse and then the communists will take over.’ The paradox is that it was often the weakest powers which ended up having the the strongest say over Superpower policy – thus Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist regime was able to summon up American support, as was the equally unpleasant Sygman Rhee in South Korea, because America regarded their states as buffers to communist expansion, which meant the dictators could get away with murder – and still be supported, often reluctantly, by the U.S.

But the same could also go for medium-size allies. In 1950 both France and China very much needed their respective sponsors, America and the Soviet Union. But by 1960 both were more confident of their economic and military power and by the late 1960s both were confident enough to throw off their shackles: General de Gaulle in France notoriously withdrew from NATO and proclaimed France’s independence while in fact continuing to benefit from NATO and American protection: France was weak enough to proclaim its independence while, paradoxically, America the superpower had to put up with de Gaulle’s behaviour because they needed France to carry on being an ally in Western Europe.

Mao Zedong was in awe of Stalin and relied on his good opinion and logistical support throughout his rise to power in China in 1949 until Stalin’s death in 1953. This lingering respect for the USSR lingered on through the 1950s, but China came to despise the weakness of Stalin’s successor, Khrushchev, and the feebleness of the USSR’s hold over its East European satellites, especially after they rose up in revolt (East Germany in 1953, Hungary in 1956, Czechoslovakia in 1968).

I didn’t know that border incidents between China and Russia flared up in 1969 and spread: for a while it looked as if the world’s two largest communist powers would go to war – contradicting Lenin’s thesis.

This of course presented the West with a great opportunity to divide the two communist behemoths, and Gaddis is favourable to President Nixon and his Secretary of State Henry Kissinger for the brave decision they took to visit China, to meet Mao in person and try to develop better trade and cultural links.

The Chinese, surrounded by a menacing Russia to the north, neutral India to the West and the traditional enemy, Japan, to the East, realised there was merit in reaching an understanding with distant America. Nixon realised what an enormous coup it would be to prise apart the two largest communist nations, as well as helping sort out some kind of end to the disastrous war in Vietnam.

By this stage, 25 or so years into the Cold War, the relative simplicity of a bipolar world divided between two superpowers had become considerably more complicated, increasing complexity created by the newly independent nations of the developing or Third World, and the growth of a would-be ‘non-aligned’ group of nations seeking to avoid entanglement with either side, but cannily playing both superpowers off against each other in order to extract maximum advantage.

Other themes

These first chapters deal with:

  • the realisation of the nuclear stalemate and its implications i.e. superpower war is self-defeating
  • the failure of both capitalism and communism to deliver what they promised
  • the realisation by ‘weak’ states that they could use the superpower rivalry to their advantage

Further chapters discuss:

Human rights The rise of the notion of human rights and universal justice, which was increasingly used to hold both superpowers to ever-tighter account. Gaddis looks in detail at the slow growth of official lying and ‘deniability’ within American foreign policy (epitomised by the growth in espionage carried out by the CIA) which reached its nadir when the systematic lying of President Nixon unravelled after Watergate.

Gaddis compares the discrediting of American policy with the long-term effects of the Russian suppression of the Prague Spring of 1968. In a kind of mirror of the Watergate experience, the Soviet repression in Czechoslovakia planted seeds of doubt about the legitimacy of communist rule in the minds of much of the Soviet population and especially among its intellectuals. From the 1970s onwards the Soviets had to cope with home-grown ‘dissidents’, most notably Alexander Solzhenitsyn and Andrei Sakharov.

Soviet Premier Leonid Brezhnev worked hard to secure the ‘Helsinki Accords’, a contract with the West giving a permanent written guarantee of the security of the communist regimes in Eastern Europe. He allowed the declarations of human rights which made up its latter sections to be inserted by the West as a necessary concession, but was appalled when these began to be used by dissidents within Russia to measure the government by.

When a Czech rock band was arrested in 1977 leading intellectuals protested and signed Charter 77, which politely called on the Czech communist government to respect the human rights which were paid lip service in the Czech communist constitution and the Helsinki Accords. And when the first Polish pope, Pope John Paul II, visited his homeland in 1979, he also called on the Polish government to respect human rights as defined in the Helsinki Accords.

Gaddis identifies this emergence of human rights, a realm of authenticity over and above the laws or actions of any actual government, of either West or East, as a major development in the 1970s.

The power of individuals A chapter is devoted to the importance of individuals in history – contrary to Marxist theory which believes in historical inevitabilities driven by the power of the masses. Thus Gaddis gives pen portraits of key players in the final years of communism, namely Pope John Paul II, Margaret Thatcher, Vaclav Havel and Lech Wałęsa, but above all space is given to the importance of Ronald Reagan.

Gaddis explains that détente, the strategic policy developed by President Nixon and continued by Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter, and on the Soviet side agreed by Brezhnev, amounted to an acceptance of the status quo, especially the borders in Europe, and thus solidified Russia’s grasp in the East. With these borders defined and agreed, both sides could:

a) Settle down to a routine of talks about reducing nuclear weapons (which, by this stage, came in all shapes and sizes and hence the complexity of the Strategic Arms Limitations (SALT)) talks.
b) Sublimate their confrontation into the developing world: hence the stream of local conflicts in far away countries like Ethiopia or Nicaragua, although Gaddis quotes Kremlin advisers confessing that the Soviet leadership often had second thoughts about getting involved in some of these remote conflicts, e.g. in Angola or Somalia, but felt trapped by the logic of being seen to support ‘national liberation struggles’ wherever they involved self-proclaimed Marxist parties.

At the time it felt as if Soviet communism was successfully funding revolutions and spreading its tentacles around the world; only in retrospect do we see all this as the last gasps of a flailing giant. According to Gaddis, the great political visionary who brought it to its knees was Ronald Reagan!

As someone alive and politically active during the 1980s I know that the great majority of the British people saw Reagan as a bumbling fool, satirised in the Spitting Image TV show in a recurring sketch called ‘The President’s brain is missing’. To my amazement, in Gaddis’s account (and others I’ve read) he is portrayed as a strategic genius (one of America’s ‘sharpest grand strategists ever’ p.217) who swept aside détente in at least two ways:

a) Reagan thought communism was an aberration, ‘a bizarre chapter’ (p.223) in human history which was destined to fail. So instead of accepting its potentially endless existence (like Nixon, Ford and Carter) his strategy and speeches were based on the idea that it would inevitably collapse (for example, in his famous speech in Berlin when he called on Mr Gorbachev to ‘tear down this wall’).
b) Similarly, Reagan rejected the entire twisted logic of mutually assured destruction which had grown up around nuclear weapons: he was the first genuine nuclear abolitionist to inhabit the White House, hence his outrageous offer to Gorbachev at the Iceland summit for both sides to get rid of all their nuclear weapons. And when Gorbachev refused, Reagan announced the development of his Strategic Defence Initiative (nicknamed Star Wars) i.e. the creation of a satellite shield which would shoot down any incoming nuclear missiles attacking the United States, thus rendering Russia’s nuclear arsenal obsolete, but also dangerously disturbing the delicate balance of power.

At the time these destabilising words and actions seemed reckless and dangerous, and what Gaddis portrays as the entrenched détente establishment on both sides strongly criticised Reagan. It is only with the enormous benefit of hindsight – the knowledge that the Soviet Union and communism collapsed like a pack of cards in 1989 – that Reagan’s approach and all his speeches take on the light not of a mad old man (he was 74 when Gorbachev came to power in 1985) but of a bold visionary.

The steady growth in Reagan’s stature is a salutary lesson in how history works, how what we think about a period we’ve actually lived through can be completely transformed and reinterpreted in the light of later events. How our beginnings have no inkling of our ends. An object lesson in the severe limitations of human understanding.

Conclusion

To summarise: The Cold War is not a straightforward historical account of the era 1945 to 1991 – it is really a series of thought-provoking and stimulating essays on key aspects and themes from the era. Each chapter could easily form the basis of a fascinating discussion or seminar (of the kind that Gaddis has no doubt supervised by the hundred). Thus coverage of specific incidents and events is always secondary to the ideas and theories of geopolitics and international strategic ideas which the period threw up in such abundance, and which are the real focus of the text.

It’s a fascinating book full of unexpected insights and new ways of thinking about the recent past.

I was politically active during the 1970s and 1980s, so I remember the later stages of the Cold War vividly. Maybe the biggest single takeaway from this book is that this entire era is now a ‘period’ with a beginning, a middle and an end, which can be studied as a whole. As it recedes in time it is becoming a simplified artefact, a subject for study by GCSE, A-level and undergraduate students who have no idea what it felt like to live under the ever-present threat of nuclear war and when communism still seemed a viable alternative to consumer capitalism.

Although many of its effects and implications linger on, with every year that passes the Cold War becomes a distant historical epoch, as dry and theoretical as the Fall of the Roman Empire or the Thirty Years War. I try to explain how it felt to be alive in the 1980s to my children and they look at me with blank incomprehension. So this is what it feels like to become history.


Credit

The Cold War by John Lewis Gaddis was published by Allen Lane in 2005. All quotes and references are to the 2007 Penguin paperback edition.

Related links

Related reviews

The Tragedy of Liberation by Frank Dikötter (2013)

People were encouraged to transform themselves into what the communists called ‘New People’. Everywhere, in government offices, factories, workshops, schools and universities, they were ‘re-educated’ and made to study newspapers and textbooks, learning the right answers, the right ideas and the right slogans. While the violence abated after a few years, thought reform never ended, as people were compelled to scrutinise their every belief, suppressing the transitory impressions that might reveal hidden bourgeois thoughts behind a mask of social conformity. Again and again, in front of assembled crowds or in study sessions under strict supervision, they had to write confessions, denounce their friends, justify their past activities and answer questions about their political reliability. (p.xiii)

For three-quarters of the twentieth century China was the site of enormous turmoil, war, famine, tyranny and suffering. Frank Dikötter is a Dutch historian, professor of humanities at the University of Hong Kong, formerly of the School of Oriental and African Studies in London. In the last twenty years China has become easier to visit and has opened many of its historical archives to academics for the first time. Dikötter has taken advantage of this to spend years researching provincial records and archives hitherto unseen by western historians. This research has resulted in a trilogy of books detailing the first three decades of communist party rule in China:

  1. The Tragedy of Liberation: A History of the Communist Revolution, 1945–1957 (2013)
  2. Mao’s Great Famine: The History of China’s Most Devastating Catastrophe, 1958–62 (2010)
  3. The Cultural Revolution: A People’s History, 1962-1976 (2016)

The general drift of all three books is that communist rule in China was much, much more repressive, bungling and catastrophic for the people of China than previously thought. The centrepiece is the book about the great famine of 1958-62, which charges that it was much more consciously and deliberately engineered by the communist leadership (i.e. Mao) lasted longer (1958-62), and resulted in more deaths from starvation, than previously estimated. Dikötter gives the figure of 45 million premature deaths, of which between two and three million were victims of political repression, beaten or tortured to death or executed for political reasons.

The famine book won the Samuel Johnson Prize in 2011 and was widely praised for the originality of its research, though it is not without its critics who considered the numbers inflated. No-one doubts, however, that Mao’s communist party oversaw the greatest mass death event in human history.

The Tragedy of Liberation is the second to be published in the trilogy, but covers the earlier period, setting the scene for the famine story by recounting the end of the War in the Pacific (1945), the eruption of civil war between China’s Nationalists and Communists (1946), and the eventual victory of the latter, announced in 1949.

Chinese communist party poster depicting Chairman Mao Zedong

Chinese communist party poster depicting Chairman Mao Zedong

Timeline of the Chinese civil war

  • 6 and 9 August 1945 – the United States drops atom bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
  • 8 August – Stalin declares war on Japan and Soviet troops invade Manchuria. America sends hundreds of shiploads of lend-lease material and food to Siberia to support the Russians, including 500 Sherman tanks.
  • 21 August 1945 – A formal surrender between China and Japan ends the Second World War in the Pacific. Japan’s 1 million soldiers in China lay down their arms. The American army undertakes a massive airlift of Chiang Kai-shek’s nationalist troops to all China’s main cities to take over from them, before the communists get there.
  • April 1946 – Soviet troops withdraw from Manchuria, having stripped it bare down to the last lightbulb and bath plug (p.15), and having helped Mao’s communist army take control of most of Manchuria.
  • June 1946 – Nationalists undertake a massive military campaign against the communists in Manchuria. The communists are saved by George Marshall, President Truman’s envoy, who insists on a ceasefire, allowing the communists to regroup and get more training and supplies from the Soviets (p.16).
  • September 1946 – July 1947 – US President Harry Truman, disillusioned with the corruption and maladministration of Chiang’s nationalists, imposes an arms embargo which – since the communists are receiving ample supplies and training from Russia – has the effect of boosting the communist army.
  • December 1946 to December 1947 – Nationalists pump their forces into Manchuria in a bid to crush the communists who, better armed and trained than before, turn Manchuria into a killing field wiping out repeated waves of Nationalist forces.
  • November 1948 – The communists succeed in capturing all of Manchuria after blockading and starving several major cities. Civilian deaths due to starvation run into the hundreds of thousands.
  • January 1949 – The communist army, now known as the People’s Liberation Army, much reinforced and battle-hardened, heads south out of Manchuria. On 22 January Beijing surrenders to the PLA. In the same month the nationalists lose the battle of Xizhou in central China, exposing the huge Yangtse valley to communist takeover.
  • May 1949 – Nanjing, the nationalist capital of the south bank of the Yangzi, falls to the PLA. After a lengthy siege Shanghai, financial capital of China, falls to the communists.
  • October 1 1949 – Mao declares the People’s Republic of China in Tiananmen Square.
  • December 1949 – Nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek and the remnants of his forces flee to the island of Taiwan, to this day an independent nation which China refuses to recognise. Realising their man had failed, the Americans were resigned to the eventual fall of Taiwan as well, but the situation was transformed with the outbreak of the Korean War in June 1950, when Chinese-backed North Korean forces invaded American-backed South Korea. America rallied the United Nations in a bid to create a coalition to repel the North Koreans and this spilled over into supporting Chiang, so that Taiwan’s nationalists were ensured of survival.

Mass deaths

The civil war involved a number of sieges of nationalist cities during which large number of civilians were deliberately starved to death. The six-month siege of Changchun resulted in between 150,000 and 300,000 civilian deaths. The massive Huaihai campaign resulted in at least 500,000 deaths on the nationalist side.

Dikötter’s text is larded (rather like Max Hasting’s history of the Pacific War, Nemesis) with eyewitness and first-hand accounts from all sources, civilians, peasants, students, soldiers on both sides and politicians. The overall impression is of death and destruction on a grand scale.

The communists in power

Dikötter’s book is a remorseless catalogue of the horrors of the civil war interspersed with the tyrannical policies of the narrow-minded, economically illiterate dictatorship. One of the clearest themes is that the communists achieved and maintained power through HATE at all levels. Categories of enemies were invented and then ‘discovered’ lurking at all levels of society.

An example he explains in detail is persecution of landlords. In Chinese the word landlord itself is an import from the Japanese language, because the thing itself was relatively rare. Dikötter shows that land in China was alienable i.e sellable, and was held by peasants and families under complex and highly detailed traditional contracts which also varied across the regions of China. But landlords, who owned land and raked off a profit by renting it to peasants, were relatively rare. Serfdom, on the Russian model, didn’t exist at all. But this didn’t stop Mao’s campaign to eradicate ‘landlords’ and so each province, region and local area was given quotas of landlords to identify and eradicate. With a gun in their hand and the ability to do whatever they liked, communist cadres across the country listened to the venomous vendettas which infest all rural communities, dragging unpopular villagers and their families in front of hurried kangaroo courts, where victims were abused and insulted before being showered in filth and, variously, shot immediately, beheaded, or flayed with knives, buried alive in sand or mud, hanged upside down or burned to death. Hundreds of thousands of peasants died this way and their – generally pitifully small – stocks of goods redistributed among the villagers. Obviously this didn’t lead to any particular improvement in agricultural production, in fact the disorder across the country disrupted resources, plans and distribution, so led to a drop in agricultural production.

But this is only one thread in the great tapestry of destruction. Another was the campaign against the ‘bourgeoisie’ in the cities, namely Nanjing and Shanghai. Once secure in the hands of the communists a curfew was imposed. Bars and nightclubs closed down. Decadent shops were closed down. Banks were nationalised. Capital could only be allotted by communist party cadres who were economically illiterate. Stocks and supplies ran short and so factories switched to part time work before closing down. Thousands of workers saw pay cuts and then were made unemployed. Convinced this was a conspiracy of reactionaries to discredit the party, the communist authorities took tighter control of the population, issuing identity cards and other papers, classifying every citizen into a series of categories e.g. student, professional, worker, peasant, with the workers and peasants in theory being the most advantaged. As the economic situation worsened, the communist authorities reacted with the only tool at their disposal, fear and terror, with increasing sweeps rounding up members of suspect professions and taking them for interrogation and torture and often execution.

In this and numerous other ways Dikötter’s book relentlessly catalogues the way the economically illiterate communists, blinded by the purity of their utopian doctrine, were forced to use the only strategy and language they understood, fear which was achieved by whipping up hysterical hatred of traitors, saboteurs, counter-revolutionaries, reactionaries, landlords, the bourgeoisie, intellectuals, and so on. These categories covered just about everyone, thus allowing the authorities to arrest and torture anyone into making confessions implicating strings of other people who were themselves tortured to confess, and so on.

‘You dare not speak with others about what was on your mind, even with those close to you, because it was very likely that they would denounce you. Everybody was denouncing others and was denounced by others. Everybody was living in fear.’ (Liu Xiayou, quoted on page 183)

Dikötter presents the evidence and estimates that the number of people killed in the first Great Terror, from 1950 to 1952, might be around 2 million. There were to be more waves of terror, many more. Two striking features of them are that:

  1. Mao’s orders which triggered these waves were always deliberately vague – this meant that cadres trying to carry them out tended to give them the broadest interpretation and arrest everyone, just in case.
  2. This was exacerbated by the use of quotas. Mao casually estimated that 1 in a 1,000 of each populated area should probably be executed. Once these orders were distributed to the cadres, they vied to gain the Chairman’s favour by exceeding the quota. Like quotas for steel or wheat production these were just more statistics to be reached and exceeded, the quicker the better. Authorities in different regions interpreted the lax definitions to suit themselves, and executed whichever groups were easily available and/or disliked, including ethnic minorities, petty criminals, anyone with any mark of suspicion against them.

Max Hasting’s history of the Pacific War, Nemesis, is made bearable because, amid all the unspeakable Japanese atrocities, we meet Americans and English who are, basically, humane and kindly. There are moments of light, reason and humanity. Dikötter’s book is almost impossible to read because of the stifling sense that the reader is trapped in a totally repressed society, where absolutely everyone lives in fear all the time that the slightest remark, look, or even thought could lead to their arbitrary arrest, torture and execution – where brutality is ubiquitous. There are no reports of anyone being forgiving, kind or generous. It is a landscape of unrelenting tyranny, fear and violence.

In the campaign against ‘corruption’ in the early 1950s, suspects had their hair pulled, heads forced into toilets, forced to squat with kettles of boiling water on their head, forced to strip, were beaten and whipped, were made to stand naked in snow, were paraded through the streets to be jeered and spat at, forced to kneel in hot ashes, beaten with ropes (p.162), forced to kneel on benches or to remain bent over for hours, stripped and forced into vats of freezing water, bound with leg irons, beaten with bamboo sticks, tied hand and foot and forced to make confessions in front of mass rallies,

‘Denunciation boxes’ were placed in every office so citizens could denounce each other. Lorries patrolled the streets with loudspeakers insulting the corrupt bourgeoisie and enemies of the workers.

During this period up to 4 million government employees were hounded like this, many committing suicide. Dikötter devotes some pages to describing the suicide techniques of those hounded beyond endurance. Again, Mao came up with a scientific quota: 1% of suspects should be shot, 1% sent to labour camps for life, 2-3% sentenced to ten years hard labour.

Speak Bitterness Meetings

Timeline of communist repression

‘Socialism must have a dictatorship, it will not work without it.’
(Mao Zedong, quoted page 237)

  • 1942 – With the war far from won, and the communists facing a far stronger nationalist enemy, behind the lines Mao institutes a purge of his own communist party, named the ‘Rectification campaign’. Every member of the communist party, including the highest leadership, had to write an autobiography, produce self-criticisms, confess to past errors and ask the party’s forgiveness. By 1944 15,000 spies and traitors had been unmasked, tortured and executed.
  • 1950-52 – The communists implement land reform in the south.
  • October 1950 – October 1951 – The Great Terror, known as the ‘Campaign to Suppress Counter-Revolutionaries’ leads, apart from the murder and intimidation of millions, to an explosion in the prison population and the creation of a chain of forced labour camps (pp.243-254).
  • 1951-53 – Land having been redistributed, peasants are organised into ‘mutual aid teams’.
  • October 1951 – the campaign to purge the civil service begins, alongside a thought-reform campaign to indoctrinate the educated elite into communist ideology.
  • 1952 – Mao declares war on the private sector in the ‘Five Anti Campaign’.
  • 5 March 1953 – Josef Stalin dies.
  • Spring 1953 – As a result of state-imposed communalisation of agriculture, productivity plummets and large swathes of the country experience famine, people resort to eating grass, leaves and bark, with case of children being sold for food.
  • 27 July 1953 – Ceasefire halts the Korean War.
  • November 1953 – The communist state imposes a state monopoly on grain. The state set the amount to be grown in each region (often wildly optimistic), confiscated it all, returned a fraction (a starvation rations) to the farmers, while confiscating the rest to a) feed the cities b) export to Russia in exchange for industrial goods and weapons. The result was starvation across the country, mixed with open rebellion which was put down with maximum violence.
  • 1953-55 – Peasant mutual aid teams are transformed into fully fledged communes which share all tool, animals and labour. In effect, country workers become serfs in bondage to local communist leaders.
  • 1954 – Senior communist leaders are purged for treachery and splittism. More than 770,000 people are arrested in a campaign against counter-revolutionaries.
  • June 1955 – For the third spring in a row famine struck the collectivised countryside and millions of starving peasants flocked to the cities as beggars. So Premier Zhou Enlai announced the extension of the urban system of ‘household registration’ to the countryside, to tie rural workers to their villages.
  • 1955-56 – The ‘Socialist High Tide’ campaign accelerates collectivisation in the countryside and nationalisation of industry in towns. In July 1955 about 14% of China’s 120 million rural families were members of a co-operative; by May 1956, more than 90% were members. Dikötter sees this as the final step in the systematic reduction of China’s rural population to landless serfs tied to the state. It is accompanied by widespread violence, terror and intimidation. In the cities 800,000 owners of businesses, large or small, were deprived of their property and overnight became dependent on the whim of local party officials.
  • February 1956 – Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev gives his famous speech denouncing Stalin and the ‘cult of the leader’. This bolsters Mao’s critics in the Chinese communist leadership. The ‘Socialist High Tide’ campaign is abandoned.
  • October 1956 – Encouraged by Kruschev’s speech and resulting deStalinisation, the people of Hungary revolt against the communist government. After some hesitation, the Soviets invade, crush all opposition, and impose a new, tougher regime, sending hundreds of thousands of Hungarians to labour camps.
  • Winter 1956-spring 1957 – In a response to Kruschev’s speech and deStalinisation, Mao institutes the ‘Hundred Flowers’ campaign, a more open political climate designed to avoid the overflow of protest seen in Hungary. But it goes too far, leading to a wave of student protest and strikes across the country, at which point, in the summer of 1957, Mao reverses the policy and puts Deng Xiaoping in charge of an anti-rightist campaign. This reaction persecutes up to half a million students and intellectuals, many of them packed off to gulags in the countryside to do hard labour for the rest of their lives.
  • 1957 – The communist party re-establishes its authority and rallies around the Great Leader. He prepares to declare the ‘Great Leap Forward’, which will lead to four years of famine and the greatest man-made disaster in human history, and which is the subject of the second book in the trilogy.
A peasant 'landlord' confesses all before a People's Tribunal moments before being shot (July 1952)

A peasant ‘landlord’ confesses before a People’s Tribunal moments before being executed (July 1952)

How to run a Maoist hate campaign

The first step is to declare that there is a ‘struggle’ or ‘war’ in society between the virtuous and the wicked. We must all be vigilant and watch each other and report anti-social actions or words, or even funny looks. Children must report their parents. Culprits must be ‘called out’ on their anti-social activity and brought before a mass meeting where they must confess their crimes and beg for mercy. They must reflect on their past behaviour and pledge to become a ‘New Person’, promising to dress, think and talk like everyone else, and be unstinting in their praise of the New World and the Wise Leader. The correct climate of fear has been established when everyone is nervous of being ‘named and shamed’ for the slightest slip or error. And anyone speaking up for a bourgeois deviant and enemy of the people will, of course, themselves immediately be proved guilty by association: why else would they defend the guilty?

Thus is a society atomised, making everyone fearful of everyone else, restricting conversation to the blandest generalities. It is important to have a large vocabulary of hate but to be vague about definitions, so that the maximum number of people can be caught by one term of abuse or another. Thus the Chinese communists castigated ‘the enemy’ as, among other terms, a:

  • backward element, bourgeois, bourgeois idealist, bourgeois sentimentalist, capitalist, Chiang Kai-shek roader, counter-revolutionary, degenerate, decadent, deviant element, exploiter, go-it-aloner, hoarder, hooligan, humanist, hypocrite, individualist, kulak, lackey, landlord, middle-of-the-roader, reactionary, rightist, right deviationist, running dog of imperialism, saboteur, schemer, servant of imperialism, speculator, spy and swindler.

Dikötter’s conclusion

‘The first decade of Maoism was one of the worst tyrannies in the history of the twentieth century, sending to an early grave at least 5 million civilians and bringing misery to countless more.’ (p.xv)


Credit

The Tragedy of Liberation by Frank Dikötter was published by Bloomsbury Books in 2013. All quotes and references are to the 2014 paperback edition.

Related links

Nemesis by Max Hastings (2007)

This massive slab of a book (674 pages) is a long and thorough account of the final year of the war against Japan. The book contains thousands of facts, quotes, interviews, interpretations and assessments. Some of the ones which stood out for me were:

  • Hastings points out that Russia, China and Japan simply do not have the same tradition of scholarly, objective history as we in the Anglosphere (p.xxiv). Even quite famous historians from those countries tend to parrot party lines and patriotic rhetoric. Hastings says Japanese historians are rarely quoted in Western accounts because of ‘the lack of intellectual rigour which characterises even most modern Japanese accounts’ (p.xxiii).
  • Western liberals often berate European empires for their racism – but all that pales into significance compared to the inflexible Japanese belief in their innate racial superiority, which led them to treat their ‘fellow Asians’ appallingly, particularly after the Japanese invasion of Manchuria in 1931 (p.4). As many as 15 million Asians died in Japan’s so-called ‘Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere’, including up to ten million Chinese (Hastings says 15 million in the period 1931-45, p.12, and Chinese historians claim up to 50 million), as well as 2 million Koreans (several times Hastings makes the chastening point that all large numbers to do with the Second World War are to be treated with caution).
  • At least a million Vietnamese died in the great famine of 1944-45 caused by the Japanese overlords’ insistence that rice paddies be switched to fibre crops (p.13). Over 2 million Filipinos died in the appalling massacres during the battles to liberate the Philippines. And so on.
  • Wherever the Japanese went they enslaved large numbers of local women as sex slaves.
    • Wikipedia quotes a typical Japanese soldier saying the women ‘cried out, but it didn’t matter to us whether the women lived or died. We were the emperor’s soldiers. Whether in military brothels or in the villages, we raped without reluctance.’ (Wikipedia)
  • Marriage with inhabitants of any of the colonised countries – China, Korea, Burma – was forbidden, to prevent dilution of the superior Yamato race (p.38).
  • 103,000 Americans died in the war against Japan out of a total one and a quarter million who served there (p.9). The US pro rata casualty rate in the Pacific was three and a half times that in Europe, not least because of Japan’s rejection of the Geneva Convention whereby a beleaguered force could surrender. The Japanese fought to the last man again and again, forcing the Allies to suffer disproportionately large casualties.
    • ‘Until morale cracks it must be accepted that the capture of a Japanese position is not ended until the last Jap in it (generally several feet underground) is killed. Even in the most desperate circumstances, 99 per cent of the Japs prefer death or suicide to capture.’ (Major-General Douglas Gracey, quoted on page 11.)
  • Hastings says the idea that the Japanese were on the verge of surrendering when America dropped the atom bombs in August 1945 is a ‘myth’ which has been ‘comprehensively discredited’. If the war had continued for even a few weeks longer more people would have died in the intense aerial bombing and fighting, than died at Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
  • The great missed opportunity of the war was that Japan could/should have invaded Russia from the East to co-ordinate with Hitler’s invasion from the West in June 1941. There was a real chance that by dividing Stalin’s armies the two fascist countries could have brought Russia to its knees, forced a change of government, and begun exploiting Russia’s raw materials to fuel their war machines. But Stalin’s certainty that Japan would not invade at this crucial juncture (provided by the spy Richard Sorge), allowed him to move his Eastern divisions back to the heartland where they were crucial in stopping the German advance at Moscow, and then slowly throwing the Germans back.
  • The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour on 7 December 1941 was a catastrophic mistake. If the Japanese had restricted themselves to invading the European colonies in Asia largely abandoned by embattled France, Holland and Britain i.e. Burma, Malaysia etc, then President Roosevelt would have found it difficult if not impossible to persuade Congress and the American people to go to war, to sacrifice American boys, to save old European empires. Some kind of modus vivendi between Japan and America could have been possible. But the attack on Pearl Harbour, the ‘Day of Infamy’, handed the case for war to Roosevelt on a plate, effectively dooming Japan’s military government and empire. ‘By choosing to participate in a total war, [Japan] exposed itself to total defeat’. (p.5)

The ineffectiveness of militarism

History is a playground of ironies. It is difficult to know where to start in this particular theatre of ironic reversals.

Both of these two militaristic states – Japan and Germany – fetishised war and the soldier, seeing the highest role the individual could play to be a latter-day Aryan ubermensch or samurai and the state as the embodiment of the militarised will of the people. In their speeches and propaganda, Japan’s leaders dripped contempt for the liberal capitalist democracies of the degenerate West. And yet it turned out to be those degenerate democracies which mobilised most effectively for war, and indeed won.

And Hastings points out that this was due to identifiable shortcomings not only in Japan’s economy, state organisation and military infrastructure – of which there were ample – but in its culture, traditions and even language.

  • Respect for superiors meant Japanese officers never questioned orders. Never. Whereas pluralistic meritocratic free-speech democracies discovered that a certain amount of critical thought and questioning helps an army or navy function better.
  • Rather than criticise or even question orders, Japanese prefer silence. ‘Faced with embarrassment, Japanese often resort to silence – mokusatsu‘ (p.42). The opposite of freedom of thought and enquiry.
  • Because the Japanese were convinced of their racial, moral and spiritual superiority to all other nations and races, they made no attempt to understand other cultures. A contributory factor was the self-imposed isolation of the country for centuries. The Japanese had little or none of the ‘intelligence’ operations which were so important in the West, which helped us to plan logistics and strategy, and this absence severely undermined planning and strategy. All they had was the samurai will to fight which turned out not to be enough.
  • The Western democracies, being less hamstrung by traditions of obedience and respect and the military spirit and Emperor-worship, were more flexible. Concrete examples the way that in the West civilian experts were pressed into work on a) building the atom bomb and b) decrypting German and Japanese signal codes. Both these stunning successes were achieved by eccentric civilians, tweed-jacketed, pipe-smoking academics. Compare & contrast the Japanese army and navy which had absolutely no place for anyone who hadn’t been through their rigorous military training or shared their glorious samurai code. ‘It is hard to overstate the extent to which Anglo-American wartime achievements were made possible by the talents of amateurs in uniform’ (p.50).

Thus the Japanese mindset militated against inquiry, analysis, adaptability and free expression.

Japanese atrocities

While the Japanese army and navy bickered, while the government failed to create a coherent industrial strategy for war, while their planners completely underestimated American resources and resilience, the one thing the Japanese, like all weak and inferior armies, excelled at was brutality and atrocity, especially against unarmed civilians, especially against unarmed women.

  • The book includes quite a few personal stories from some of the 200,000 plus sex slaves abducted into ‘comfort centres’ everywhere the Japanese army went, China, Korea, the Philippines, Burma etc. Organised and state-sanctioned gang rape.
  • ‘During Japan’s war in China, the practices of conducting bayonet training on live prisoners, and of beheading them, became institutionalised.’ (p.53) The book has quite a few photos including one of a Japanese officer swinging his sword to behead a blindfolded Australian prisoner. Nowadays we are appalled to watch videos of Western hostages being beheaded by Islamic fanatics. The Japanese did the same on an industrial scale.
  • Discipline in army and navy were severe, with routine heavy beatings of new recruits and officers allowed to kick, punch and abuse any men under their command. The culture of brutality went all down the line. When a destroyer’s cutter, rescuing survivors from a sunk battleship, threatened to be overwhelmed, those in the boat drew their swords and hacked off the hands of their fellow Japanese (p.54).
  • Colonel Masanobu Tsuji was responsible for brutalities and atrocities wherever he served. The most notorious anecdote is when, in northern Burma, he dined off the liver of a captured Allied airman (p.56).
  • The Japanese launched the ‘Three Alls’ policy in China, in 1941, a scorched earth strategy designed to break the spirit of the native inhabitants and bring the occupied country under complete control. The three alls were ‘kill all, burn all, loot all’. The operation targeted for destruction ‘all males between the ages of fifteen and sixty whom we suspect to be enemies’ and led to the deaths of over 2.7 million Chinese civilians.
  • Unit 731 was an experimental biological and chemical warfare research division, set up in occupied Manchuria which conducted experiments of unspeakable bestiality on Chinese victims. To quote Wikipedia,
    • ‘Thousands of men, women and children interred at prisoner of war camps were subjected to vivisection, often without anaesthesia and usually ending with the death of the victim. Vivisections were performed on prisoners after infecting them with various diseases. Researchers performed invasive surgery on prisoners, removing organs to study the effects of disease on the human body. These were conducted while the patients were alive because it was feared that the decomposition process would affect the results. The infected and vivisected prisoners included men, women, children, and infants.’ (Wikipedia)
  • Allied Prisoners of War. Large numbers of memoirs, histories and movies have familiarised us with the Japanese’ merciless treatment of Allied prisoners of war.
    • a) Appalling though they obviously were, they pale in contrast to the appalling treatment Japanese meted out to their fellow Asian civilians.
    • b) Not having to prove so much on this well-discussed issue, Hastings is freed up to include stories of the small minority of Japanese who actually treated prisoners decently – though it’s noticeable that these were mostly civilians or unwilling recruits.
  • Cannibalism. On page 464 Hastings gives specific instances of Japanese cannibalism, including soldiers eating downed Allied air crew and murdered civilians. They preferred thigh meat.
    • ‘Portions of beheaded US carrier flier Marve Mershon were served to senior Japanese officers on Chichi Jima in February 1945, not because they needed the food, but to promote their own honour.’ (p.464)

The war in China

Eventually it becomes physically hard to read any more about the war in China. Japan invaded the north-east province of Manchuria in 1931, establishing their custom of mass murder and rape, associated most with the so-called ‘rape’ of Nanjing, where up to 300,000 Chinese were massacred in six weeks of mayhem.

In 1937 the Japanese launched a further invasion of the entire coast of China. Mass murder, gang rape, forced labour, mass executions and germ warfare experiments on prisoners followed in their wake. Wherever they went, villages were looted, burned down, all the women gang raped, then cut open with bayonets or burned to death. Again and again and again. As throughout the book, Hastings quotes from eyewitness accounts and the stories of numerous survivors, who watched their families be bayoneted to death, heads cut off, forced into rooms into which the Japanese threw hand grenades, everywhere all the women were taken off to be gang raped, again and again, before being themselves executed.

The horror is difficult to imagine and becomes hard to read about.

More bearable, less drenched in blood, is Hasting’s fascinating high-level account of the political situation in China. After the overthrow of the last Qing emperor in 1911, China fell apart into regions controlled by warlords. The most effective of these was Chiang Kai-shek who emerged as the leader of the Kuomintang (KMT), the Chinese Nationalist Party, in the late 1920s, just before the Japanese took advantage of the chaos to invade Manchuria.

Chiang and his people were overt fascists, who despised the softness of liberal capitalist countries like the US and Britain. I didn’t know that the Americans poured an amazing amount of material aid, food and ammunition into Nationalist areas, hoping Chiang would create a force capable of stopping and then throwing the Japanese out. But Hastings shows how it was a stupendous waste of money due to the chronic corruption and ineffectiveness of the Chinese. It took American leaders at all levels four years to realise that the Nationalists were useless, their armed forces badly organised, barely trained, barely equipped and consistently refusing to fight the Japanese. Only slowly did fears begin to grow that the Kuomintang’s bottomless corruption and brutality were in fact paving the way for a Communist victory (which was to come in 1949).

The Philippines

More horror, compounded by American stupidity. US Generalissimo in the South West Pacific, General Douglas MacArthur, had lived in the Philippines before the war. US forces were driven out in 1942, after holding out in the Bataan Peninsula opposite Manila. Hence, once the tide of war turned and his forces had recaptured Papua New Guinea, MacArthur had a very personal ambition to recapture the archipelago.

Hastings is extremely critical of MacArthur’s publicity-seeking egotism, his refusal to listen to intelligence which contradicted his opinion, and above all his insistence on recapturing every single island in the Philippines, which led to thousands of unnecessary American deaths, when he could have bypassed, surrounded and starved them out with far fewer casualties.

Above all this obsession led him to fight for the capital Manila, instead of surrounding it and starving the occupying Japanese out. His predictions that it would be a pushover were proved disastrously wrong as the Japanese converted the battle for Manila into bitter, brutal street fighting comparable to Stalingrad or Berlin – with the extra twist that Japanese officers promised their troops they could enjoy their last days on earth by systematically gang raping as many Filipino women as they could get their hands on, and ordering them to massacre all civilians.

Hastings gives pages and pages of first-hand accounts of Japanese rape, butchery, beheadings, bayonetings, executions, murders and more rapes. It is quite sickening. Thus the ‘liberation’ of Manila (3 February to 3 March) resulted in the deaths of some 100,000 Filipino civilians and the almost complete destruction of the historic city.

Summary

Having struggled through the descriptions of the war in China (pp.207-240) and the Battle of Manila (pp.241-266) the reader turns to the next chapter — to find it is an unforgivingly detailed account of the brutal battle for the tiny Pacific island of Iwo Jima…. This book really is a relentlessly grim and depressing chronicle of man’s most bestial, inhuman, grotesquely violent savage behaviour to his fellow man, and especially to vulnerable women.

Nemesis is a comprehensive, unblinking overview of the war in the Pacific, and includes revelatory chapters on often-neglected areas like Burma and the Chinese mainland. It is so long because at every point Hastings includes lots of eyewitness accounts, recorded in letters, diaries, autobiographies, official reports and so on, to give a strong feeling all the way through of individual experiences and how it seemed and felt to people at the time.

And he goes out of his way to include all nations, so there are plenty of accounts by Japanese and Chinese soldiers and civilians, as well as the expected Allies. It is the civilians’ memoirs which are most harrowing, the Chinese and Filipino women’s accounts of the mass rapes of their families, villages and communities being particularly hard to read.

And the battle chapters chronicle the relentless Allied casualties which the well dug-in Japanese caused on every single island and hill and redoubt, on Guam, Iwo Jima, Okinawa and all the poxy little Pacific islands the Americans had to capture on their long odyssey towards the Japanese mainland. These chapters, with their grinding destruction of human beings, builds up the sense of tension, stress and horror experienced by all the soldiers. It is a nerve-wracking book to read.

Subsequent chapters describe in harrowing detail:

  • The bloody campaign to retake Burma.
  • The genesis of the horrific American firebombing of Japanese cities. (The 9 March firebombing of Tokyo killed around 100,000 people, destroyed over 10,000 acres of buildings – a quarter of the city was razed – rendering a million people homeless amid the smoking ruins. It is difficult to read the eyewitness accounts without weeping or throwing up.)
  • The battle of Okinawa – which involved the largest amphibious landing in history, after D-Day – and where the Americans encountered Japanese dug into another almost indestructible network of caves and bunkers.
  • The genesis, rise, effectiveness and then falling-off of the kamikaze suicide-pilot movement (with its less well-known cousin, the suicide boat and torpedo squads).
  • The rise of Mao’s communists. Hastings fleshes out the idea that, although they both received massive amounts of aid from the Americans, flown in from India and Burma, neither Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist army nor Mao’s Communist army was much interested in actually fighting the Japanese: neither of them had many guns, much ammunition, little or no military discipline or strategy. Both were focused on positioning themselves for the Chinese civil war they could see coming once the Americans had won. Everywhere the corruption and incompetence of the Nationalists alienated the population, whereas the communists were very careful to recruit and train the best peasants, and leave a good impression on villages they passed through. It took a long time for their American sponsors to realise that the Kuomintang was going to lose. Amusingly, American officials at the time and ever since have played down their support for Mao’s communists.
  • The Americans were really vehemently anti the European empires. Churchill fondly imagined he’d be able to restore the British Empire to the status quo ante the war, but the Americans did everything they could to spurn and undermine British efforts. Apparently, in the later part of the Pacific war a poisonous atmosphere existed between the American and British administrations in the region, as the British tried to squeeze in a contribution to the war, in order to justify their return to colonial mastery of Burma, Malaysia, Singapore etc, while the Americans did everything they could to keep them out. And not just the British. A short but riveting section explains how the Americans systematically undermined the French government’s attempts to retake control of Indochina i.e. Vietnam. The Americans supported the leader of the Vietnamese nationalists, Ho Chi Minh, giving him time to establish his Viet Minh organisation and recruit widespread support for anti-colonial forces. This set off a train of events which would come back to bite America hard twenty years later, as it found itself dragged into the effort to stop Vietnam falling to communism during the 1960s – the Vietnam War – which did so much to fracture and polarise American society (and whose repercussions are still felt to this day).

One of Hasting’s most interesting points is the idea that the single most effective weapon against Japan was the naval blockade and in particular the heroic efforts of American submarines in smashing the Japanese merchant marine. Japan is made up of islands which have few natural resources; everything has to be imported; American submarines were bringing Japan to its knees, bringing war production to a grinding halt and starving its population well before the firebombing campaign began.

But wartime leaders need dramatic results, and also the air force was jockeying for position and influence against its rivals, the army and navy, and so the firebombing continued – with an undoubtedly devastating effect on the civilian population but a less decisive impact on Japan’s commitment to the war.

The atom bomb

And this accumulated sense of endless nightmare provides the full depth and horror, the correct historical context, for the American decision to drop the atom bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which I read about recently in Jim Baggott’s excellent history of the atom bomb, Atomic.

You and I may reel with horror at the effect of the atom bombs but both these books make clear that millions of American soldiers, their families, the wider nation, the Allies generally, not to mention the scores of thousands of Allied and Asian prisoners of war, and all the peoples in the occupied zones of China – all felt nothing but relief and gratitude that the seemingly unending slaughter and raping and burning and torture had finally come to an end.

Hastings goes into considerable detail on the military, strategic, political and diplomatic background to the dropping of the bombs.

  • In his account, the idea that the bombs prevented the need to invade Japan in which scores of thousands of American troops would have died, is downplayed. In Hasting’s opinion, Japan was already on its knees and had been brought there by the effectiveness of the naval blockade. Its people were starving, its war industries grinding to a halt.
  • For the American military leadership the bomb didn’t (at first) represent a significantly new departure, but just a continuation of the firebombing of Japanese cities which had killed at least 200,000 people by this stage, and which was set to continue indefinitely. (It is grimly, darkly humorous to learn that Hiroshima was chosen as the first bomb site precisely because it had been left untouched by the firebombing campaign, and so would provide perfect experimental conditions to assess the impact of the new weapon. Similarly, it is all-too-human to learn that the general in charge of the firebombing, Curtis LeMay, was angered that the atom bombs robbed him of being able to claim that his firebombing campaign alone had won the war against Japan. Such is human nature.)
  • The second bomb was dropped because the Japanese hesitated and prevaricated even after Hiroshima, and this was due to at least two fundamental flaws in its leadership and culture:
    • Everyone was scared of the military. By now the Prime Minister and other ministers, backed up by information from the Japanese ambassador in Moscow, realised they had to surrender. But the cabinet of the ‘Big Six’ included the heads of the army and navy who refused. They insisted that Japan would rise up as one man and fight to the death. In their vision, all Japanese, the entire nation, should be ready to die honourably instead of surrender. And Japan had existed in a climate of fascist fear for over a decade. Anybody who spoke out against the military leadership tended to be assassinated. They all claimed to worship Emperor Hirohito as a living god but Hirohito was incapable, partly from temperament, partly from his position, to make a decision. He, like his civilian politicians and a lot of the population, obviously realised the game was up and wanted to end the war – they just didn’t want to end it by giving up their army or navy or colonies in Asia or existing political system or bringing war criminals to trial. They wanted to surrender without actually having to surrender. Thus hopelessly conflicted, Japan’s leadership was effectively paralysed. Instead of making a swift appeal to surrender to the Americans, they carried on pettifogging about the use of the phrase ‘unconditional surrender’, and so the second bomb was dropped, on Nagasaki. These sections are peppered with phrases like ‘delusional’, ‘in denial’, ‘gross miscalculation’
    • (As in the Jim Baggott book, Hastings reports the simple and devastating fact that the intended target, Kokura, happened to be covered in cloud when the B-29 carrying the bomb approached, so the flight crew switched to the secondary target, Nagasaki, where conditions were clear. Lucky weather for Kokura. Unlucky weather for Nagasaki. Thus the autterly random contingencies which determined life and death in the terrible twentieth century.)
  • The biggest revelation for me was the role of Russia. Russia remained neutral in the war against Japan until the last day. This allowed Japanese diplomats and politicians to pin their hopes on the Russians somehow being able to negotiate a peace with their American allies, whereby Japan could surrender and not surrender. Right up to the last minute they thought this was an option, not knowing that Stalin had asked Roosevelt if he could join the war against Japan once the war in Europe was finished and that Roosevelt had agreed (before dying in April 1945 and being succeeded by Harry Truman). Hastings chronicles the intense diplomatic manoeuvring which took place in July and early August, the Japanese with their futilely wishful thinking, Stalin calculating how much of Asia he could grab from the obviously defeated Japs, and the Americans becoming increasingly concerned that Stalin would award himself huge areas after having made next to no contribution to the war.
  • So, if you remove the motivation that dropping the bombs would save the lives of potentially 100,000 young American men who could be expected to be lost in a fiercely contested invasion of Japan’s home islands – then you are led to the conclusion that at least as important was the message they sent to the USSR: ‘America decisively won this war. To the victor the spoils. Don’t mess with us.’ The dropping of the A-bombs becomes the last act of the Second World War and simultaneously the first act of the Cold War which gripped the world for the next 44 years.

Soviet invasion of Manchuria

I didn’t realise that on the same day that America dropped the Nagasaki bomb, the Russian army attacked the Japanese across a massive front into Manchuria and the Sakhalin peninsula, with over a million men. Although the Japanese had feared a Russian invasion for years and knew about the massed build-up on the borders, once again ‘evasion of unpalatable reality prevailed over rational analysis of probabilities’ (p.534). And so, on 9 August 1945, the Red Army invaded Manchuria along a massive front, taking just seven days to shatter Japan’s Kwantung Army, achieving total victory in the Far East in less than 3 weeks. They killed or wounded 674,000 Japanese troops, losing 12,031 killed and 24,425 wounded themselves (p.582).

During the defeat Japanese colonists were ordered to resist and die. This especially applied to mothers, who were expected to kill their children and then themselves. They were often helped out by obliging Japanese soldiers. The Russians were held up in some spots by the same fanatical resistance and suicide squads which made Iwo Jima and Okinawa such bloodbaths, except this was a huge area of open territory, rather than a tiny island, and the Japs had run out of arms and ammunition – and so could be easily outflanked and outgunned.

As usual with Russian soldiers, there soon emerged widespread rumours of indiscriminate rape of all surviving Japanese women and random Chinese women – ‘wholesale rape’ as Hastings puts it (p.571) – though this has been fiercely contested by Russian historians. The very last battle of the Second World War was the Russian storming of a vast network of bunkers and artillery placements at Houtou. The Japanese resisted to the last until around 2,000 defenders were dead, including women and scores of Japanese children. The Soviet soldiers addressed the local Chinese peasants telling them they had been liberated by the Red Army and then set about looting everything which could be moved, including the entire local railway line, and ‘women were raped in the usual fashion’ (p.578).

This storming campaign showed that Russia’s victories in Europe were no fluke. The Russians now had an enormous and effective war machine, the most experienced in the world, given that it had been fighting vast land battles for three years, unlike the other Allies.

Up until this moment the Japanese had been hoping against hope that Russia would somehow intervene with America to manage a conditional surrender. Now they finally lost that hope and Japan’s leaders were forced towards the unconditional surrender, which they finally signed on 2 September 1945.

The Soviet occupation of Manchuria, along with the northern portions of the Korean peninsula, allowed them to transfer these areas to communist-backed regimes. This helped the rise of communist China and communist North Korea, laying the seeds for the Korean War (1950-53) and the ongoing nuclear threat from contemporary North Korea. Thus do geopolitical acts live on long, long past the lifetimes of their protagonists.

***

When I bought the book I thought the title, Nemesis, was a bit melodramatic. Having read it, I realise now that no words can convey the intensity, the duration and the bestiality of such horror. I am ashamed to have lived in the 20th century. At times, reading this book, I was ashamed to be a human being.

Nagasaki, after the Fat Boy atom bomb was dropped on 9 August 1945

Nagasaki after the Fat Boy atom bomb was dropped on 9 August 1945


Credit

Nemesis: The Battle for Japan, 1944-45 by Max Hastings was published in 2007 by HarperPress. All quotes and references are to the 2016 William Collins paperback edition.

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Every room in the Victoria and Albert Museum (part one)

Cousin Carlos was over from Spain and asked if we could have a go at visiting every room in the (vast) Victoria and Albert Museum. In one full day, from opening time at 10am to chucking out time at 5.30pm, we managed to visit the first 50 rooms, i.e the whole of the ground floor.

The highest-numbered room in the V&A, up on the sixth floor, is 146 – but it quickly becomes obvious that not all the rooms exist, or are accessible, and that entire sets of rooms seem to have gone missing. So maybe there are more like 120 accessible rooms.

The advantage of the ‘every room in XXX’ approach is it makes you visit parts of museums you’ve never visited before, didn’t even know existed, or usually walk past in a hurry to get to the latest exhibition.

Cosimo III de' Medici by Giovanni Battista Foggini (1718)

Cosimo III de’ Medici by Giovanni Battista Foggini (1718)

Rooms 1 to 7 Europe 1600 – 1815

These are next to the tunnel entrance and are relatively new. They show objects from Europe – mainly France – between 1600 and 1815. A gallery attendant was keen to show us the latest digital innovation, which is you can look up some of the objects on a smartphone app and listen to commentary about them.

But the most striking thing about these seven big rooms is the question – Why are they in reverse chronological order? Why don’t the rooms start in 1600 and proceed through to 1815, showing you the development of various styles of furniture, metalwork, silverware and cutlery etc?

Instead, you begin with busts of Napoleon and Josephine and some striking ‘First Empire’ furniture from 1805 or so, and then move slowly back in time through the neo-classicism of the late 18th century with elaborate clothes and enormous dinner services (1770), past attractive rococo paintings (1750) and on into the heavy, elaborate and melodramatic statuary, painting and metalwork of the Baroque (1600-1700).

Of the wealth of impressive objects on display I most liked the rococo paintings. I liked their delicacy and humour, especially so close to the heavy, grinding Baroque mirrors and furniture and the architect’s plans and paintings of the vast palaces designed to squash the viewer with their power and wealth.

The Alarm (La Gouvernante Fidèle) by Jean Francois de Troy (1679 - 1752)

The Alarm (La Gouvernante Fidèle) by Jean Francois de Troy (1679 – 1752)

The galleries include several spaces entirely recreating the inside of a rococo or Baroque room of the time. There’s also a fancy interactive video built around the characters of the commedia dell’arte, popular across Europe in the 18th century.

Towards the end was a space devoted to 17th century guns with an informative video showing how they were loaded and fired. Beautifully made with plenty of fancy scrollwork and decorative metal work, these are, nonetheless, instruments designed to blind, eviscerate and kill people. As I get older I find it harder to ‘enjoy’ the sight of such things.

Case of 17th century muskets

Case of 17th century muskets

Rooms 8 – 10 Medieval and Renaissance 300 – 1500

I’ve reviewed these rooms elsewhere.

Not enough late antique/Dark Age/early medieval stuff, for my taste. More Vikings, please! In line with the confusing room number policy, although the numbers indicate three rooms there are in fact six, numbers 8, 9, 10, 10a, 10b and 10c. I like the pagan motifs, the Dark Age animals, the hieratic postures of these pre-Conquest figures, and the strange forest animals and foliage woven into the capitals of the wooden columns on display.

11th century carved wooden columns and capitals

11th century carved wooden columns and capitals

I liked this 12th century Madonna and child because it is so modern. It looks like an Eric Gill.

12th century Madonna and child

12th century Madonna and child

I love the enormously solid but beautifully carved wellhead from 900. Although a Christian artefact it is decorated with classic ‘Celtic’ interwoven knots and is redolent of a strange dark time, full of pagan secrets and mysteries.

Carved stone wellhead from Murano, north Italy

Carved stone wellhead from Murano, north Italy (c.900)

Room 10c is dominated by an enormous work – the Devonshire Hunting Tapestry: Boar and Bear Hunt (1425-1430). The tapestry is impressive in itself but benefits enormously from a stylish touch-screen guide. This lets you select particular themes or parts of the image and then zooms in to give extra information about them, giving you time to really absorb the details and let the impression of this huge work really sink in.

On the whole, I prefer medieval art because I find it full of touching and humorous details, to Renaissance art which I find too austere and coldly perfect. Hence I liked the three wooden statues in this room, depicting a knight and squire and man at arms, quirkily thin and cartoon-like, missing bits of their arms and equipment.

Three standing English wooden figures (1450)

Three standing English wooden figures (around 1450)

Rooms 11 to 15

Missing, as far as I can tell.

Room 16a

A corner room between 27 and the café which contains one statue, probably by Tilman Riemenschneider of Wurzburg, Germany, made around 1510.

Carved limewood statue by Tilman Riemenschneider from Wurzburg, Germany (1510)

Carved limewood statue by Tilman Riemenschneider from Wurzburg, Germany (1510)

Along with the north European statuary in rooms 26 and 27, this makes me wonder if there is a distinctive northern Renaissance ‘look’ i.e. the faces seem longer and narrower, the figures slightly gaunter, than the smooth perfections of the Italy Renaissance. I find them more characterful, in their strange remote medieval way.

Rooms 17 to 19

Don’t appear to exist.

Rooms 20 to 24 The sculpture gallery

Room 20 appears to be closed off. You could be mistaken for not realising numbers 21 to 24 were rooms at all since they in fact constitute the long narrow corridor you cross when you step down from the shop and walk across a narrow space to get to the swing doors into the John Madejski garden in the centre of the museum.

Joshua Ward by Carlini, Agostino (1764)

Joshua Ward by Carlini, Agostino (1764)

The corridor is lined with, and has a long central row of, a great array of statues of all shapes and sizes. This is the first time I’ve ever stopped and read the wall panels here and so I realised for the first time that this is the V&A’s European statue collection. As I’ve sauntered through it towards the exhibition rooms, I never suspected that it was divided into categories – funerary statuary, portrait statuary, garden statuary. Nor that it is arranged chronologically.

In the usual V&A manner, the rooms are in reverse chronological order i.e. the oldest statues – Jacobean funeral images and wall monuments from churches – are in ‘room’ 24, while ‘room 21’ contains a surprising array of 20th century sculpture. So, as so often, if you start at the lowest number and go through them in order, you are travelling back in time.

I had no idea that the far left of the corridor, room 21, contained such brilliant highlights of 20th century Modernist sculpture.

Mankind by Eric Gill (1928)

Mankind by Eric Gill (1928)

By taking the time to stop and read the many wall panels, I learned that most of the statuary belongs to the neo-classical i.e. hyper-real style which dominated from 1700 to around the 1850s. Master of this style appears to be have been Antonio Canova, who was one of several European sculptors who immigrated here and made a living supplying tasteful classical statuary for the homes and gardens of members of the aristocracy who had learned about this sort of thing on their Grand Tours of the Continent.

The cut-off date of 1850 coincides with the rise of ‘Romantic’ sculpture, which for practical purposes is dominated by the French artist Auguste Rodin. Apparently, eighteen or so of his works were being shown in a London exhibition of modern art in the summer of 1914 just as the Great War broke out. As the British found themselves fighting the Hun alongside the French, Rodin made the magnanimous gesture of donating all the works to the British nation. And so here they are, the Rodin Bequest, on permanent display in room 21a.

Rooms 26 to 27

These form the corridor running between the exhibition shop with windows to the left onto the Garden, which you walk down to get to the café. They are statues, so sort of related to the earlier preceding rooms, but statues of the north European (German, Dutch) Renaissance, almost all figures of Christ, the Crucifixion, Mary, saints, from around 1500, so in fact more closely related to the medieval and Renaissance galleries. And mostly in wood, often cracked perished wood, compared with the impossibly smooth white marble of Canova’s 18th century creations.

Rooms 28, 29, 30, 31

Missing.

Rooms 32 and 33

These are the numbers of the corridor outside the main exhibition rooms. They have half a dozen huge mosaics commissioned by an early director of the museum from contemporary artists. The one that stood out for me was the figure of Pisano as created by Frederick Lord Leighton.

Rooms 34, 35, 36, 37

Missing.

Rooms 38a, 38b, 38c

The main exhibition rooms. 38b and 38c are closed while the curators take down the big Botticelli exhibition and prepare the 1960s Revolution show, which is due to open in September.

38a is hosting a temporary exhibition of photographs from the past century, which take the camera itself as their subject. Oooh, the self-referentiality! From kids in New York slums taking pics of themselves holding Kodak brownies to paparazzi shots of glamour models or Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor being hounded by press photographers, none of these really interested me.

Earlier this year it was announced that ‘The world’s largest and finest collection on the art of photography is to be created in London when more than 400,000 objects transfer from the National Media Museum (NMM) in Bradford to the Victoria and Albert Museum.’

Just from a few hours’ exploration I’d realised that the V&A is really pressed for space. Its collection is vast and the rooms and corridors and galleries which currently exist can only show a fraction of its artefacts.

So where on earth is it going to display an additional 400,000 photographs? A purpose-built photography museum would be a much better idea.

Room 40

This is a big stand-alone room in the west wing, just up the stairs from room 21 of the statue gallery. In the centre of the room is a big circular construction which you need a ticket to enter and which hosts clothes-related exhibitions. This is where they had the stimulating show of fashion shoes earlier in the year. Now it’s hosting the exhibition of underwear through the ages, which I whistled through a few weeks ago and found surprisingly boring.

Lining the walls of the room which surrounds it are big cases displaying historic European clothes.

Rooms 41 to 45 – The Asian galleries

These four rooms are each a world unto themselves, focusing on, respectively the art and culture of:

Room 43 is the central main V&A shop

  • China (44)
  • Japan (45) ‘The V&A has been collecting Japanese art and design since it was founded in 1852 and now holds one of the world’s most comprehensive collections, including ceramics, lacquer, arms and armour, woodwork, metalwork, textiles and dress, prints, paintings, sculpture and modern & contemporary studio crafts.’

These rooms are so large and so packed with stuff that they have their own diagrams showing how the displays are organised into themes and subjects. Whole worlds, thousands of years of tradition, can be sampled and enjoyed in each one and they are related to specialist rooms tucked away elsewhere in the Museum. From these rooms I liked the geometric woodwork of the Islamic galleries, like this 19th century window panel.

Islamic wooden carved screen

Islamic wooden carved screen

  • the numerous small 18th century watercolours from India, such as this depiction of Nawab Sikander Jah (1810) artist unknown
  • almost any of the lovely Japanese prints:
19th century Japanese print

19th century Japanese print

Rooms 47a to 47g – The Asian corridor

As with the sculpture galleries, I’d always thought of this as a corridor – architecturally it is the long corridor which runs to either side of the main entrance (47d). I’d never really realised that each division of the corridor counts as a ‘room’ and that these are arranged to showcase artefacts from South-East Asian countries such as Indonesia, Thailand, Cambodia, Sri Lanka and so on. There were no end of golden Buddhas from all these countries and a space dedicated solely to Buddhas. Among all these the delicate puppet figures from Indonesia stood out, for me.

Rooms 46a and 46b – The cast courts

At the east end of this long corridor is an entrance into the famous Cast Courts. There are usually two of these but room 46a is closed for refurbishment.

46b is an enormous room, well-lit by a glass roof, which contains monstrously enormous plaster casts of some of the great classics of the Italian Renaissance. The casts were created for the 1851 Great Exhibition and were an education for the great majority of the population, and the many artists, who couldn’t afford to go on the Grand Tour to Italy themselves. Obvious highlights include:

although many of the best things are the tiny details to be found among the vast friezes and reliefs copied from towns and cities across Renaissance Italy.

Room 48a The Raphael Cartoons

This is entered from the South-East Asia corridor – from room 47a to be precise – and is a vast darkened room containing half a dozen enormous ‘cartoons’ by the famous Italian Renaissance painter Raphael. These are ‘full-scale designs for tapestries that were made to cover the lower walls of the Vatican’s Sistine Chapel. The tapestries depict the Acts of St Peter and St Paul, the founders of the early Christian Church.’

Subsequently, they were bought by King Charles I and transported to Britain, to the royal tapestry manufactory at Mortlake, where they were used as templates to make tapestries, before eventually passing onto the V&A.

In this shrouded room we are intended to reverence the genius of the Renaissance in hushed tones. You can see the characteristic soft-focus outline of the angelic faces, and the bold physical gestures of the figures in a totally achieved three-dimensional space. All of this must have seemed like magic to its earliest viewers.

Room 49 Exhibition space

I’m guessing room 49 is the exhibition room to the left of the main entrance hall. This is currently displaying an exhibition of the life and work of Ove Arup, the engineering company.

Rooms 50a to 50d

50a and 50b are enormous rooms, big wide and very tall, containing original Renaissance statuary and entire stone pulpits and the entire facade of an enormous Italian church.

Room 50a: The Renaissance City 1350–1600

I disliked most of the things in room 50a, the bigger of the two spaces – the flawless pastiches of classical statues, the vast looming choir screen from the Cathedral of St John at Hertogenbosch which covers one wall, the numerous heavy, threatening church features such as pulpits, fonts and screens, all done with a leaden, heartless perfection. It is a spectacular space, no doubt about it, and individual items are beautifully carved and created – but I recoiled from its overbearing scale.

Vast Renaissance sculpture in the renaissance Gallery

Vast Renaissance sculpture in the Renaissance City Gallery

What I love in Dark Age and Medieval art is the sense of delicacy and mystery, not vague sentimental hints, but the real, solid, dark impenetrable mystery of the northern forests. What I dislike about a lot of Renaissance, especially public Renaissance art, is its oppressive projection of power and control, typified by the equestrian statue above.

50b: The Northern Renaissance

The smaller of the two rooms is still enormous. Its artefacts appear to come more from the Northern Renaissance and feature more painted altars and crucifixes than 50a. Overall, I prefer statuary from the Medieval or Northern Renaissance, as being less superhumanly perfect. It tends to portray the imperfections of the human form, and therefore be more capable of humour. Very roughly speaking, repeat visits to the V&A make it clear to me that I prefer ‘Gothic’ to ‘Classical’.

Gothic North European altar

Gothic North European altar

But also, strolling through these rooms, the 50s, the goal of our challenge to see all the rooms on the ground floor of the V&A – another reservation emerges. Compared to the timeless simplicity of much of the Japanese art, the heavenly serenity of Chinese jade sculptures, the geometric mazes of Islamic design – all these bloody crucified Christs and saints and martyrs being beheaded, crucified, burned, drowned and eviscerated seemed like the quintessence of barbarism. Compare:

with any of the hundreds of serene, unviolent Buddhas from China, India, Thailand and across Asia:

with the dainty paintings of graceful Japanese women, with characterful Chinese jade statues of horses, with the geometric beauty of Islamic design, with the watercolour depictions of life at the Mughal court in India.

It’s difficult not to be appalled at the bloodthirsty images which lie at the core of the Western Christian tradition. But maybe this guy should have the last word…

English carved sandstone corbel (12th century)

English carved sandstone corbel (12th century)


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Other museums

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