Short Breaks in Mordor – Peter Hitchens

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For many in the Western world, hating Peter Hitchens is easy.

At least he thinks so.

As an anti-drug, anti-abortion, and vehemently Christian journalist, his opinions are increasingly seen as out of the mainstream. Furthermore, his small c conservative politics, paradoxically, anger many politicians on his side of the political spectrum. This is different from his late brother Christopher, who after an unexpected pitch for the 2003 Iraq war, still found Leftist support in attacking organized religion. Simply listening to Peter is a good way to glean his anomalous view and appreciate his sardonic wit. However, it is his journalism that has been lauded with awards such as the Orwell Prize.

Thus Living with Literature seeks to better understand Peter, and his unique brand of conservatism, with 2014’s Short Breaks in Mordor.

Short Breaks in Mordor is a chronicle of Peter Hitchens’ most tumultuous years as a foreign correspondent. The time spans from the fall of the Soviet Union, the 2003 invasion of Iraq, and beyond. Despite the typical perception of Peter as personified English snobbery, his reporting is not from the proverbial ivory tower. Locations include Chinese human-rights abusing mines in Africa, stategy-less American and British missions in the Middle East, and run-ins in with the KGB. Hence, invoking Tolkien’s hellish inferno in The Lord of the Rings, Peter gives readers a detailed and personal glimpse of experiences in a non-fiction Mordor.

The world of geopolitics is predominately brushed off by the general public. Topics are seen as too convoluted and complex to understand. Even those dedicated to comprehending popular international questions, such as the Palestine-Israel conflict, are confronted with an increasingly literal mountain of treaties and history. Knowing this, Hitchens consolidates knotty geopolitical conflicts into pithy and personal passages. Not only are the situations made simple for the reader, but they are accented with biting grace.

“In the days of Soviet power, [the African National Congress] happily supported every grotesque show trial, Red Army invasion, and KGB repression that was available and would have supported more if asked. Its complete devotion to the Kremlin, and its leading position in the ANC, was one of the main reasons for the long survival of the repulsive Apartheid system. Western powers feared that the end of Apartheid would necessarily mean the establishment of a Soviet satellite on the strategic southern tip of Africa, in possession of its gold and diamond fields and much else besides. That is why the USSR had to fall before Apartheid did.”

George Orwell’s debut novel Burmese Days highlights British imperialism in South Asia by the then-expatriate writer. Naturally, these depictions of the world are a product of personal bias. As Orwell demonstrates, one can condemn imperialism while also appreciating its benefits. Hitchens engages in a similar style. For example, while realizing that North Korea is undoubtedly a police state, the author believes that Western policy should dissuade authoritarianism rather than demonize it. This nuanced approach allows readers to understand that such geopolitical distinctions must be made at a microbial level. Especially when delicate countries like North Korea are concerned:

“But where Orwell’s [Ministry of Truth] was a glittering white, the abandoned Ryugyong Hotel is a dingy dung-brown, its hundreds of glassless windows like sockets gazing at what its maker, the Great Leader Kim Il Sung, has wrought. And what he has wrought is hopeless failure, a long, grim joke that has yet to reach its punchline. Kim’s city is the capital of a state that is far more of a danger to its own people than it is to the rest of the world. I think the evidence is sketchy that North Korea has a nuclear bomb. What is certain is that it has almost nothing else. It cannot any longer even fake success at its very heart. Its great propaganda festival, the Arirang Games where thousands of young Koreans create vast pictures with eerily synchronised movements, is a pathetic remnant. It is the only show I have ever been to where the cast is far bigger than the audience.”

Being the loudest anti-drugs, sex, and rock n’ roll voice of the U.K. (and likely the Western world), it is expected that the personal views of the author occasionally permeate the text of Short Breaks in Mordor. Yet Hitchens’ is under no false assumption that his politics appear contemporarily unfashionable. He has even gone so far as to title himself ‘Britain’s obituarist‘. Despite holding to such traditional sentiments, Hitchens is cynical about and begrudgingly acquiescent to the changing world.

“Until [Fidel] Castro, communism was about tanks crushing romantic revolts in the streets, and dreary, potato- shaped, middle- aged men in hats and overcoats saluting rockets on Red Square. After Castro it was about romantic revolts and guerrilla bands, featuring young bearded heroes and smoldering, beautiful revolutionary women, overthrowing corrupt dictatorships in a festival of the oppressed. And it began in Havana, Ernest Hemingway’s ‘great white city on the bay’, perhaps the most perfect backdrop on the world with its happy music, its picturesque, easygoing people, its enjoyably grotesque mobster hotels, its cigars and rum. Marx and Lenin, dressed up in fatigues, were suddenly fun and sexy, freed from the Kremlin puritans. Castro was to revolution what Mick Jagger was to rock, and his image (and Guevara’s) had a lot to do with the strange student revolt that destroyed Charles de Gaulle’s conservative France in 1968, and with the wave of cultural revolution that changed the morals and attitudes of the Western world and has now subsided into the weary swamps of political correctness. Interestingly, the student revolutionaries who loved Castro and Guevara got Fidel wholly wrong. He loathed rock music as degenerate and only in recent years has he recognized it as an ally, permitting a John Lennon memorial park in Havana. They got a lot of other things about him wrong, too.”

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While Peter Hitchens may be a ‘Burkean‘, or paleo-conservative conservative, cultural relevance fails to avoid his work and voice. This is likely why he appears regularly on television and engages in various Twitter fights. His encounters in Short Breaks in Mordor contain as much apocalyptic excitement and tension as any espionage novel. Albeit a post-colonial one. His political sentiments too, when presented, beg for a counter-argument. I’ve referred to Peter as Britain’s answer to William F. Buckley. Why? The sentiments may not be agreeable, but the razor-sharp analysis is important for Left (and Right) to reckon with. As well as read.

Burmese Days – George Orwell (1934)

0108_Burmese_days__Penguin_book_cover_-_1969_with_borderThese days the term Orwellian is overused and almost without meaning. So much so that conspiracy-minded thinkers could develop a theory that the term has acquired mainstream usage and thus dissuades further investigation into authoritarian political action. Nevertheless, the term Orwellian was not born with the publication of 1984. Nor should the radical politics and writings of George Orwell be solely subject to the contemporary news cycle. So, in an effort to better understand the man and etymology behind the term Orwellian, Living with Literature is looking at Orwell’s first novel, Burmese Days.

Burmese Days examines British imperialism in the Burmese town of Kyauktada. The story centers around the lonely English expat John Flory and the nasty domestic politics which ensnare him. While power is predominately designated to the ruling British, a corrupt local Burman named U Po Kyin seeks to aggrandize his personal authority within the country’s existing bureaucratic structure.. His method? Pit the virulently racist British in Burma against Flory and the growing Nationalist movement that he (unassumingly) represents. Ironic and paradoxical? Yes, but so is the world of Burma under British rule.

The most obvious characteristic in Burmese Days is the transparency in Orwell’s motives of criticism and themes. Empire. Imperialism. Power structure. The characters in the novel are important, yes, but in the same way chess pieces are important to the player. Orwell, who spent five years as a police officer in Burma, translates this reality without regard for nationality or personal association:

“Since then, each year had been lonelier and more bitter than the last. What was at the centre of all his thoughts now, and what poisoned everything, was the ever bitterer hatred of the atmosphere of imperialism in which he lived. For as his brain developed — you cannot stop your brain from developing, and it is one of the late tragedies of the half-educated that they develop late, when they are already committed to some wrong way of life — he had grasped the truth about the English and their Empire. The Indian Empire is a despotism – benevolent, no doubt, but still a despotism with theft as the final object. And as to the English of the East, the ‘sahiblog’, Flory had come so to hate them from living in their society, that he was quite incapable of being fair to them.

In one of the (highly recommended) Arena episodes chronicling Orwell’s life, a friend mentions that while the writer despised imperialism, he saw it as a necessary evil to educate primitive cultures. An argument can be made to substantiate that such sentiments were had. However, such a thesis is still too elementary to detail Orwell’s understanding and vicarious connection with native Burman life. While the friend continues to detail the writer’s problem with ‘ridicule from Buddhist monks’, passages in Burmese Days illustrate such conflicts were unavoidable as a result of imperialism — and that the culture can be appreciated despite of them:

“‘I knew this would interest you; that’s why I brought you here. You’ve read books and been in civilized places, you’re not like the rest of us miserable savages here. Don’t you just think this is worth watching, in its queer way? Just look at that girl’s movements — look at that strange, bent-forward pose like a marionette and the way her arms twist from the elbow like a cobra rising to strike. It’s grotesque, it’s even ugly with a sort of willful ugliness. And theres something sinister in it too. Theres a touch of the diabolical in all Mongols. And yet when you look closely, what art, what centuries of culture you can see behind it! Every movement that girl makes has been studied and handed down through innumerable generations. Whenever you look closely at the art of these Eastern peoples you can see that – a civilization stretching back and back, practically the same, into times when we were dressed in a woad. In some way that I can’t define to you, the whole life and spirit of Burma is summed up in the way that girl twists her arms. When you see her you can see the rice fields, the villages under the teak trees, the pagodas, the priests in their yellow robes, the buffaloes swimming the rivers in the early morning, Thibaw’s palace.'”

What Orwell obviously understands is power. Whether it be from his English home or as a Burmese transplant, how to achieve and keep control over others is his grand thesis in Burmese Days and (from what I’ve read) his other literature. As many have read in 1984 and Animal Farm, it is not through kind motives that such control is implemented. Rather, in Orwell’s view, it is through fear and manipulation:

“U Po Kyin had even sent one of his anonymous letters to Mrs. Lackersteen, for he knew the power of European women. Dr. Veraswami, the letter said, was inciting the natives to abduct and rape the European women – no details were given, nor were they needed. U Po Kyin had touched Mrs. Lackersteen’s weak spot. To her mind the words ‘sedition’, ‘Nationalism’, ‘rebellion’, ‘Home Rule’, conveyed one thing and one only, and that was a picture of herself being raped by a procession of jet-black coolies with rolling white eyeballs. It was a thought that kept her awake at night sometimes. Whatever good regard the European might once have had for the doctor was crumbling rapidly.”

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Labeling an act as Orwellian is, of course, citing an example of arbitrary power. However, contemporary usage forgets the depth of the man behind the label. Orwell did not simply see and describe dystopian socialist worlds as a malignant display of power. Rather an accurate use of Orwellian would encompass the entire scope of social injustice, from individual to institution, the bad as well as the good. Anything else is a rewriting of biography.

‘1919’ – John Dos Passos

livro-1919-john-dos-passos-21201-MLB20206812462_122014-OThe second installment of John Dos Passos’ U.S.A trilogy is a world apart from its predecessor. Or, well, an ocean apart. 1919 moves from away the 42nd Parallel‘s rambunctious pre-war American landscape to post-World War I Europe. It is expected to be a time of peace. However, as echoed by various characters in the 1919, “If you thought the War was bad, wait until the Peace.”

While the narrative setting in 1919 has changed, Dos Passos’ intoxicating Modernist style has not. Or, as I like to call it, his “lighting prose”. Dos Passos exceptionally synthesizes individual experience with the then-contemporary cultural atmosphere. While this skill is prevalent in the previous book, the author has matured for a more concise presentation in 1919. Some wonder if Dos Passos actually shared the “historically correct” racial slurs of his characters. Knowing his deeply Leftist sentiments, I find it doubtful. Nevertheless, this atmospheric rendering not only stands as an entertaining historical artifact, but one without any painfully archaic feeling:

“Nedda wouldn’t get undressed, but wanted to see Joe’s money. Joe didn’t have any money, so he brought out the silk stockings. She looked worried and shook her head, but she was darn pretty and had big black eyes and Joe wanted it bad and yelled for Charley and Charley came up the stairs and talked wop to the girl and said sure she’d take the silk stockings and wasn’t America the greatest country in the world and tutti aleati and Presidente Veelson big man for Italia. But the girl wouldn’t go ahead until they’d gotten ahold of the old woman who was in the kitchen, who came wheezing up the stairs and felt the stockings, and musta said they were real silk and worth money, because the girl put her arms around Joe’s neck and Charley said, ‘Sure, pard, she sleepa with you all night, maka love good.'”

Another noticeable improvement in 1919 is the Camera Eye sections. These stream-of-consciousness interludes were undoubtedly the most underdeveloped portions in The 42nd Parallel; even if they were enjoyable and, as many believe, autobiographical. Some blogs, so incensed by the Camera Eye sections, even decry the narrative intrusions as a reason to remove the U.S.A. trilogy from the Canon. In 1919, while the prose remains irreverent, the vision becomes vicarious. The subject is the reality of World War I and the horrors of mustard gas and trench warfare — which any high school graduate knows about. Not to mention, Dos Passos also tackles the nefarious Versailles Peace Treaty that laid the groundwork for World War II. These sections, undboutedly, illuminate readers on why 1919 is labeled the most “anti-war” of the trilogy:

“[R]emembering the gray crooked fingers the thick drip of blood off the canvas the bubbling when the lungcases try to breathe the muddy scraps of flesh you in the ambulance alive and haul out the dead”

I have yet to read The Big Money, the final installment of U.S.A., but hear that Dos Passos noticeably pivots to the political Right. Many credit this ideological shift to the contradictory actions of the Communists in the Spanish Civil War; specifically the murder of José Robles (which irrevocably broke the friendship of Dos and Hemingway). Dos Passos was also turned off by the lockstep adherence of American Leftists to Soviet policy — even under Stalin. Nevertheless, 1919 sees Dos Passos at his farthest Left. Like the anti-war Camera Eye sections, a rigorous strain of pacifism is obvious in the writing. Dos Passos is unequivocally blunt in his sentiments that war is encouraged by potential profiteers (e.g. munitions dealers) and the conflict’s victims are, inevitably, “the working class“:

“Joe got to talking with two guys from Chicago who were drinking whiskey with beer chasers. They said this wartalk was a lot of bushwa propaganda and that if working stiffs stopped working in munitions factories making shells to knock other working stiffs’ blocks off with, there wouldn’t be no goddamn war. Joe said they were goddam right but look at the big money you made. The guys from Chicago said they’d been working in a munitions factory themselves but they were through, goddam it, and that if the working stiffs made a few easy dollars it meant that the war profiteers were making easy millions. They said the Russians had the right idea, make a revolution and shoot the goddam profiteers and that ‘ud happen in this country they didn’t watch out and a damn good thing too. The barkeep leaned across the bar and said they’d oughtn’t talk thataway, folks ‘ud take “em for German spies.”

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Opinion on 1919 remains divided. This is the usual consensus on every middle piece of a trilogy, as the narrative is neither a beginning nor an ending. However, middle pieces, especially in the case of U.S.A., are an integral part of the narrative and authorial tapestry.

Dos Passos’ sharp turn against Soviet Communism and its long tentacles seeking to control the American Left would seriously affect his writing. The author’s reaction and political re-alignment was so fierce that he penned op-eds against Roosevelt’s New Deal actions and, eventually, wrote for arch-conservative Bill Buckley’s National Review. This monumental transformation was occurring while Dos Passos’ penned the second installment of U.S.A. and it would permeate throughout the rest of his literature. In fact, many believe that after The Big Money, the author had lost his imagination.

Thus, the importance of this particular middle piece, 1919, is a radical confronting his optimistic idealism for Soviet Communism with the increasingly horrific execution by Stalin (pun heavily intended). And that makes for good literature.