MONSTERS AND THE DARK
Plus: Looking back at Old Blue Eyes and Australia’s really ancient history
MAO: The Unknown Story
By Jung Chang and Jon Holliday, Jonathan Cape, $59.95
This is how this large and extraordinarily well-researched book begins: ‘Mao Tse-tung, who for decades held absolute power over the lives of one-quarter of the world’s population, was responsible for well over 70 million deaths in peacetime, more than any other twentieth century leader.’ Apart from the bogglingly high total of deaths, the other shocking word is ‘peacetime’. Surely only a world war like that started by Adolph Hitler is needed to kill so many? Not so, it seems. And how is it possible – and what is the point – of killing or causing so many to perish?
The answer, which unsurprisingly isn’t at all rational, was given by Mao himself in Moscow in 1957: ‘We are prepared to sacrifice 300 million Chinese for the victory of world revolution’. He repeated much the same statement in 1958. Of course the ‘we’ is Mao himself. ‘Deaths have benefits,’ Mao once callously declared. ‘They can fertilise the ground.’ Hence crops were ordered to be planted over burial grounds which caused ‘intense anguish’. Naturally, Mao suffered from no such qualms.
While his cohorts were Communists with similar aims, some of the minions were slightly more ‘reasonable’. As the authors put it, ‘Whereas Mao had been using terror for personal power, Chou En-lai employed it to bolster Communist rule’. Liu Shao-chi, Mao’s No. 2, was like his master, interested in industrialisation and superpower status but wanted these goals ‘at a more gradual tempo’ by ‘building a stronger economic foundation and raising living standards first’. Mao seemed to take sadistic pleasure in making the populace suffer. His early predilection for public torture and executions to create public terror, as well as his own enjoyment of it, is grimly detailed. Even Stalin and Hitler tended to have their terror performed off stage, as it were (Siberia, Auschwitz).
While the folly of Mao’s Great Leap Forward to make more steel at any cost (burning homes for fuel, melting down farm tools and cooking utensils) is well known, less well known is that all the while China was exporting grain and soybean on a huge scale to east European countries and to Russia either in exchange for arms – or even sometimes as a donation. Indeed, the percentage of foreign aid reached a staggering 6.92 per cent of the GNP, proportionately 70 times that of the United States. The result was in the peak year of famine (1960), 22 million died. In all, 38 million died from hunger in 1958-1961. Yet so tight was Mao’s control, he was able to convince both the CIA and Francois Mitterrand, along with many other gullible western observers, that there was no famine. All in the name of Mao trying to convert China into a world superpower in a few years. The supreme irony is that today China is headed for economic superpower status, but not as a result of following Mao’s policies.
What this monumental biography makes stunningly clear is that though China seemed isolationist at the time, Mao was constantly badgering the Soviets to supply him with nuclear technology and missiles and made a surprising number of aggressive overtures towards other countries – three million troops were sent to Vietnam, for example.
Developing the atomic bomb, which he had earlier hypocritically described as a paper tiger, cost a staggering $4.1 billion – at 1957 prices! In the authors’ view, China’s nuclear bomb cost more than 100 times the deaths caused by the two American bombs used on Japan.
In early pre-communist dominant times he was never keen to fully engage with Japan as Stalin wanted. Mao wanted the Japanese to destroy Chiang Kai-shek so Stalin could then carve up China, leaving Mao as ruler of the remainder. Nor, as is commonly supposed, was Mao even fully engaged with the Nationalists until much later on – when his sleeper-spy generals betrayed them. In fact, it suited Chiang Kai-shek’s strategy to allow the Communists rag-tag army to pass through relatively unopposed. (Furthermore, his son was being held to ransom by Moscow.) Even the notion of Mao’s personal courage during the Long March turns out to be a myth – the authors reveal he was carried in a sedan chair.
Alongside the other mental disorders that have been identified there should be one called Dictator Disorder – the most deadly of all. Those who suffer from it torture kill and murder their enemies (including family and friends), waste economies on vainglorious schemes, try to destroy the past (Mao hated Chinese architecture) and while making sure that the populace suffers, enjoy as much food, luxury and sex as they can. While Hitler is often described as having been ‘mad’ and psychiatrists have tried to diagnose Hitler and Stalin as manic-depressives, no one seems to have done the same exercise with Mao. He was horribly sane and unrelentingly evil. At one point, he even considered the ultimate de-humanising strategy of removing people’s names and giving them numbers. Mao’s perverse code: ‘Do to others precisely what I don’t want done to myself’.
Taken as a whole, I found this book with its long catalogue of crimes against humanity a depressing read. However, the authors have done an astonishingly thorough job. They interviewed people who knew Mao in 38 countries. Corpses and all, this will be the definitive biography of Mao.
By Paul Theroux, Hamish Hamilton, $49.95
One – though not the only – disconcerting thing about Theroux is his prolificity. Seemingly after a few short months, he pops out yet another book. Justly renown as a leading travel writer, he’s a captivating novelist as well and I was surprised (well, not really) to note that this is his 27th novel.
Blinding Light’s central character is a highly successful travel writer (like Theroux) who is suffering from that weird American condition called ‘writer’s block’ (very unlike Theroux). I say weird because if there is such a thing as writer’s block why haven’t we heard of painter’s block, architect’s block or composer’s block? On closer examination, writers who are ‘blocked’ are usually suffering from depression, alcoholism or simply find that their talent has run dry.
Slade Steadman is a one-book wonder with good reason – his first and only book was about a guy (himself) who crossed countries without a passport and without luggage – ever since then he has lived off the lucrative spin offs: leather jackets, sunglasses, pens, knives. It’s such a good idea I’m thinking of trying it myself and hope that the customs officials of the world’s 227 or so countries will cooperate.
As the book opens, Steadman is on his way to South America in quest of a chemical cure – a psychoactive plant that will extend his mental horizons and clear his creative blockage. He tries first ayahuasca and then a more deadly concoction, datura. The insights that the plant’s ingestion brings comes at a high price – Steadman first experiences a kind of ‘darkness visible’, along with insights into his oafish fellow travelers, but eventually the controlled blindness becomes permanent. There is much heavy though successful symbolic play and irony by Theroux on the various meanings and types of blindness – and the punning title resonates throughout the text.
Steadman’s desire to write fiction – in particular, a recapitulation of a richly erotic life – is excuse enough for Theroux to saturate the book’s middle section with much ingenious and at times perverse sexuality. It has to be said Theroux has a gift for this kind of writing though it may seem an excuse for self-indulgence to some readers. By contrast, he is even more gifted in writing about relationships that persist in a savage limbo-like aftermath – yet can still mysteriously rekindle – such is the perversity of human attraction. In the end, Steadman is a tragic and doomed figure. Presumably, it is Theroux’s successful deeper intention to show us that salvation by dark means leads to a dark end.
SINATRA: The Life
By Anthony Summers & Robbyn Swan, Doubleday, $49.95
Sinatra was one of those perennial entertainers who seemed indestructible and ever-present, so it is almost a surprise to be reminded that he is no longer with us in person – though very much so in records and films and from time to time on the radio.
Ambition and achievement are close to alignment in the singer’s life. Sinatra said, ‘I’m going to be the best singer in the world, the best singer that ever was’. The authors more or less concur that Sinatra was indeed ‘… the most celebrated popular singer in history’. Today, the early crooning Sinatra who sounded a bit like Bing Crosby – the singer Sinatra set himself to surpass – has been overtaken by the later Sinatra with that street-wise, nightclubby voice that makes the Sinatra timbre instantly recognizable. For a guy who boozed so heavily, it is astonishing that his singing voice lasted as well as it did – but then Sinatra was often described as a man of astonishing energy and stamina. His lineup of performances would make some younger fry quail – in 1946 he was on stage 45 times a week, singing one hundred songs per day while also doing 36 recording sessions and 160 radio shows.
Sinatra was no angel – he punched out bothersome photographers and in later years was always accompanied by heavies who would beat up people at Sinatra’s signal. On the good side of the ledger, he was a generous man – he gave away 300 gold cigarette lighters and helped pay medical bills for poorer entertainers and hated racial prejudice of any kind. Rumour, apparently supported by fact, has it that Sinatra was buddies with many of the powerful gangsters of the day such as Lucky Luciano and Sam Giancana. The authors inform us that Sinatra’s grandparents came from the same small Sicilian town as Luciano; that Sinatra once acted as courier in taking a satchel with a million dollars from Giancana to Joe Kennedy on behalf of Jack Kennedy’s presidential campaign; that Harry Cohn was threatened with death unless he gave Sinatra lead role in the film version From Here to Eternity. All these statements are encyclo- paedically footnoted and so they may well all be true. My only reservation is that Summers was one of the main protagonists for the widely held belief that Marilyn Monroe and Jack Kennedy had an affair – a connection that been seriously challenged by some biographers.
What is indisputably true is that Sinatra had affairs (and marriages) with some of the most beautiful women in America including Ava Gardner (his most lasting but doomed love), Mia Farrow, Zsa Zsa Gabor and Juliet Prowse plus many others less known though some of them – judging by photos – were even more beautiful than the better known names. The much-publicised adoration of bobbysoxers was according to George Evans, Sinatra’s press agent, 98% synthetic.
Faults and all, Sinatra was a guy who is hard to dislike – at least from a distance. His lasting achievement was to turn pop music into an art form. As for the now much vaunted ‘I Did it My Way’ as a biographical theme statement – hotly denied by Sinatra himself – his own son said it summed up his father exactly.
DIGGING UP DEEP TIME
By Paul Willis and Abbie Thomas, ABC books, $34.95
This book has a resonant title – what could be more romantic than finding the fossilised remains of strange and unknown animals from the distant past? That our earth and the universe is so ancient seems appropriate in the grand scheme of things. Currently, scientists believe the earth is 4.6 billion years old and the universe at least 13 billion years old. A five-decade-plus living fossil such as myself has no business feeling old.
Australia is one of the oldest chunks of terra firma and is particularly fossil-rich. This book visits fifteen of the most well known sites. At Marvel Bar, the hottest place in the country, are the microscopic remains of bacteria known as cyano- bacteria believed to be 3.465 billion years old. Also long in the tooth are stroma- tolites found at Shark Bay, Western Australia, which resemble stone cauliflowers. The Marble Bay fossils are not accepted by all scientists; Martin Brasier of the University of Oxford thinks the ‘fossils’ are just tiny clumps of impurities in the rock.
The theory that life on earth could have originated from Mars – prompted by the finding of an Antarctic meteorite in 1996 – is given an airing but no firm conclusions drawn. Until we find better or indeed some evidence of life on Mars itself, the Martian hypothesis, drawn only from objects found on earth, looks shaky.
In 1979, myoscolex, the world’s oldest fossilised muscle tissue, was discovered on Kangaroo Island. Also located – and boxed in high relief – is the World’s Oldest Poo though tantalisingly, the age of this Methuselah-style dung is not given. At times the prose of the enthusiastic authors waxes poetic – the elegant (!) lungfish (it was news to me that some fish had lungs) is described as ‘graceful and beautiful as an exotic dancer in flowing gowns’. Beauty is in the eyes of the beholders.
Arguably, some of the most colourful finds were found at the Wellington caves which were water-colour sketched by Augustus Earle of the HMS Beagle. This New South Wales site yielded up two of my favourite beasties – Thylacinus Carnifex, better known as the marsupial lion, which could snap off an arm with one bite, and the buffalo-sized Diprotodon, the largest-known marsupial (which was originally mistaken for an elephant.)
Boxed biographies of leading fossil finders and locations indicating where to view the fossils are appended to the end of each chapter in this highly informative book which is a must for school-aged paleontologists or anyone interested in fossils.
SURVIVING WITH WOLVES
By Misha Defonseca, Portrait, $49.95
At first viewing, it sounds like a fairy tale or extract from a mediaeval bestiary: One snowy morning a Little Girl’s Mother and Father are taken away by Bad Men to a Far-Off Land. The little girl is adopted by a nasty godmother. One day the little girl decides to run away and find her parents. She gets lost in the woods and is adopted by a mother wolf who brings her food … and the little girl survives to tell her tale, though unlike a fairy story she does not find her missing parents.
Surviving with Wolves is one of those heroic harrowing stories that makes me reflect on what a soft, hardship-free life I’ve been lucky enough to lead. Defonseca survived freezing weather with no shoes, encounters with brutal German soldiers (including one who tried to rape her whom she stabbed to death) wild gypsies, a primitive terrain all but bereft of food. She began her journey with two apples, a loaf of bread, some gingerbread and a compass. She was eight years old.
A prominent role model and undoubtedly one who gave her an example of courage was her grandfather, who said of Hitler, ‘… he’s a madman who wants to repaint the world in his own colour’. It is, of course, Hitler who is behind the disappearance of her parents. From he grandfather she learnt much about nature, how to use a compass, and how to laugh while from Virago, her bullying foster ‘mother’, she learnt how to hate. During her privation when she would eat the pine needles, bark of trees and even dirt, she would lift her morale by talking to her painful feet, telling them that they must go on.
This soul-warming story of heartbreak and perseverance draws the reader in so that when she finds bread and a piece of bacon we too feel as though we are enjoying a banquet. The scenes with wolves are deeply moving and in my view are yet another illustration of how mammals at large often show the unlikely capability to form a bond with other mammals. The key is to be neither aggressive nor afraid.
Her mother had read her stories of wolves which did contain any notion that wolves were dangerous. When she read Little Red Riding Hood she was outraged by its false notions of human cannibalism. In the end, she smelt of wolf which made it easier for other wolves to accept her. Acting submissive around the top wolf and even rolling on her back with her limbs in the air in imitation of a lolling pup also earned her wolverine approbation.
After surviving such a barbaric environment, the sight of a young American soldier handing out chocolates, sweets and tinned beef must have been a surreal experience. Surviving with Wolves is an honest and moving account of how an angelic-looking little girl showed extraordinary physical and moral courage in a quest for love and belonging.