Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Sukarno, A Political Biography by J. D. Legge: nationalism revisited.

I don’t read a lot of history, contemporary or otherwise, and when I do, it is usually in the area of political economy. In recent years, for instance, I have delighted at the scholarship and intellect of Eric Hobsbawm. But what always strikes me about history is how perfect our vision can be from the distance of time. Not so if you are closer, and so I can forgive J. D. Legge my single criticism of his book, Sukarno – A Political Biography, which is its lack of overview. Legge published the book in 1972 and so did not have the luxury of 35 years of clarifying hindsight that we have today.

J. D. Legge’s biography charts the life and career of Sukarno in intricate detail. Particularly strong are the descriptions of the internal machinations and wheeler dealing amongst the Indonesian political elite. Sukarno is presented as one of the major political figures of the twentieth century. If anyone should doubt this, then recall that the terms “Third World” and “Non-Aligned”, terms that structured our thinking about the world for decades and perhaps still do, would probably not have existed if Sukarno had not promoted them. The former arose out of the 1955 Bandung conference, which Sukarno hosted, and the latter out of continued initiatives involving the Indonesian president. Furthermore Sukarno’s significance for the century is also underlined by the fact that the aftermath of the coup that ousted him led to the murder of 250,000 people, while the president himself was allowed to live out his last years and die a natural death. Legge stops short of laying the ultimate responsibility for these deaths at Sukarno’s door, and neither can he be certain about the president’s relation to the coup. True, he lost power as a result, but he did not lose his life. He lost most of his dignity, but remained such an esteemed figure after 50 years in politics that he retained at least a figurehead status up to his death.

A point that Legge underplays, however, is the relationship between the nationalism that formed the basis of Sukarno’s politics and the pragmatism that sought inevitably loose alliances to both define and promote it. One such Sukarno initiative in particular, NASAKOM, may have been responsible ultimately for precipitating the coup and even causing the slaughter.

Sukarno was almost as old as the century, being born in June 1901 in East Java. Legge makes an interesting point about his parents, who met in Singharaja, Bali, while his father was a teacher there. The father was Javanese, a member of the aristocratic priyayi class, but his mother was Balinese and not even a Muslim. I have visited Bali and Singharaja and East Java and can fully appreciate the fundamental differences, both cultural and religious, between these places. And yet, from this mixed parentage there was born a figure who consistently espoused nationalism as a defining ideology. But from the start, and perhaps because of his background, it was a syncretic nationalism that tried to create unity by bridging difference.

Initially, of course, this nationalism was defined via opposition to Dutch colonial rule. It was a nationalism that brought the young Sukarno into conflict with the authorities, led to periods of imprisonment and exile. Nothing strange here. The twentieth century is full of such figures who struggled against externally-imposed colonial rule. In the Second World War, Sukarno, like Laurel in the Philippines, collaborated with the Japanese. But whereas to the north Laurel was eventually disgraced by the association, Sukarno found himself in 1945 the president of an independent Indonesia. And here, perhaps is where the nationalist ideology became, out of necessity, essentially pragmatic.

As an ideology, nationalism claims it expresses a single identity or culture, often defined by language or religion. And this despite the fact that there are almost no nations that actually display the homogeneity that the ideology assumes. It thus has the capacity to become an exclusive force in direct contradiction to its stated aim. Thus nationalism inevitably is an ideology that is easiest to define and promulgate by opposing what it is not, rather than defining precisely what it is. We only have to think of the agendas of the so-called nationalist parties and movements in contemporary Europe, and how they crystallize around opposition. In Britain, we have the United Kingdom Independence Party, UKIP, which is nationalist because it opposes the European Union. And we have the National Front, nationalist because it opposes immigration. The list could be a long one. So nationalism often must be defined in relation to what we are not, rather than via what we are.

If you live in a country subjected to colonial rule, it is surely easy to define nationalism around concepts of independence and self-government. One these things have been achieved, however, the focus that defined the nationalism is removed. If it is to continue as an ideology for an independent nation, it must change, one option is for it to be elevated to state-worship, almost to the status of a national religion. The North Korea of Kim Il Sung was this route in extremis. But in a country as vast as Indonesia, the social conformity this route requires could never have been achieved.

So Sukarno took the other route that can sustain nationalism as a state ideology, which was expansionism, coupled with attempts to create coalitions across political ideology and religion. The expansionist tendency led to the incorporation of West Irian into Indonesia. It also led to Sukarno’s opposition to the establishment of a Malaysian Federation and thus to several years of war in Borneo. It might be argued the same need for expansion to bolster nationalism led, under Suharto, to the invasion of East Timor. The point here is that the external positions are adopted in order to define internal political identity.

As well as promoting an external focus, alliances and coalitions must be erected internally to create at least a semblance of unity. Sukarno’s NASAKOM was such an attempt, an initiative to unite Nasionalisme, Agama and Komunisme, Nationalism, Religion and Communism. And so the Indonesian Communist Party, the PKI, was part of an equation whose result was always going to be a problem, given the ubiquity of the cold War and the proximity of China. When we consider the difficulty of creating unity out of such an admixture, we then appreciate the need for nationalism to retain its external focus. No nationalist agenda can cut across ideological differences that are global. In Sukarno’s case, effectively the Cold War won. The internal tensions had to be resolved and, in Indonesia’s case, it led to military action, the slaughter of 250,000 communist sympathisers and anyone else who got in the way, and the emergence of an initially pro-Western government under Suharto.

But despite this unsatisfactory end for Sukarno’s nationalism, J. D. Legge reminds us of his achievements. Modern Indonesia came into being under Sukarno’s leadership and vision. The politics of the region and of the century were influenced by him. And he was leader of one of the world’s most populous countries for over two decades. Certainly he was a great figure, but, because of his use of syncretic nationalism, he was not a contributor to political thought and so, perhaps, his influence died with him. J. D. Legge’s Sukarno – A Political Biography is a superb, scholarly and measured account of this life and career.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

A memory of Kyoto

It’s often that chance encounters, the unplanned events, linger, long after the excursions and the sights of a particular trip have faded. It was in 1998 when my wife and I visited central Japan, basing ourselves in Kyoto, having availed ourselves of cheap flights from Bandar Seri Begawan, courtesy of Royal Brunei. I can place the date exactly, because it was during the early group stages of the 1998 World Cup in France. I can remember vividly watching television in a bar and seeing David Beckham being sent off in the game against Argentina. And on the evening that the Japanese team was eliminated, beaten by Croatia, it seemed that the whole nation cried. And then they all got up for work the next day as if nothing had happened, all hubris presumably having been publicly and duly dispatched.

But of course it’s the differences that the ephemeral traveller notices. We had done our research and were resolved to experience something quintessentially Japanese. An essential part of this was to stay in a traditional small hotel called a ryokan. We couldn’t manage to arrange it right away, but did manage more than a week in the place we had earmarked, which was Ryokan Yuhara, right on the canal banks at the southern end of the Philosophers’ Walk. We even managed a room at the front with a balcony, overlooking the water.

And so to some of those differences, so carefully noted and recorded. It started, and perhaps finished, with the shoes. Outside shoes were left in the foyer, each room having a designated pigeon hole in a large wooden rack, a space that holds your corridor shoes. So the rack is really a large status board for the hotel. Outside shoes in the rack means that you are in, whereas corridor shoes in the rack means you are out.

Corridor shoes are exactly what their name suggests. They are worn only in those communal areas where there’s no water. In your room, you have your room shoes, which never go out. So if you go to the toilet, you change out of your room shoes to your corridor shoes, make your way to the loo and then change into your toilet shoes.

And then you confront the toilet seat, a remarkable computerised robot that can be programmed for individual preferences. It can be heated or cooled. It plays music. It wipes itself clean after use. It plays a recording of a toilet flush to hide the actual noise your own flush makes. It probably turns you upside down, sprays you with eau de cologne and announces, “Pleased to be of service,” if you wish. No wonder you need special shoes.

And then there’s the bath. This has to be booked. There are half hour slots and, having reserved your time, you don your dressing gown and await the knock on the door. The maitre d’hotel is there, waiting to frog-march you down to the bathroom where, of course, there’s another pair of shoes. It’s a house rule that occupants of a room bathe together, by the way. Think carefully before booking this place with your granddad. A conventional shower with soap and shampoo is followed by a ten minute soak in a deep tub, the hot water being merely replenished, not replaced, between slots, so everyone shares the same water. It’s an amazing place.

But the most enduring memory of the whole trip arose from a completely unplanned event. Kyoto’s temples were quite stunning, of course, and we tried to see as many as we could, so our itinerary sometimes required starting out quite early in the morning. It also meant that we could often wander through the beautiful gardens on the way and take our time. One morning in particular we had set out very early and walked some distance in the direction of a particular temple, Sanjusagendo, famous for its ranks of hundreds of Buddhas and boddisatvas, a veritable crowd of statues, each with no less than 44 arms. So it was still quite early when we sought out breakfast in an area of the city that was new to us. Many restaurants and cafes still had their shutters down, but, after quite a trek, we found one where the door was open.

Outside there was the customary large display board. These seemed to be a common feature of all Japanese eating establishments. They carry pictures of the dishes on offer so that they can be ordered by number, a far easier process than trying to list often complicated sets of ingredients. Imagine twenty different noodle dishes, all of which have vegetables and seafood. The numbering system works. My wife and I looked at the display, noted the illustrated breakfast and went inside. The pictorial menus were a complete godsend for us, of course, since we could not read a single character of kanji.

So we sat down. There was another menu card on the table. I took it to the bar, attracted the attention of the proprietor, who was bending down to restock a fridge, pointed to the relevant picture and indicated that we wanted two of them. We lived in Brunei at the time and were not too far from home, so we thought we were used to most things Asian. We were surprised when the owner replied in English, however, with an immensely polite, “Certainly, Sir, poach, scramble or fry, and with tea or coffee?” I ordered the coffee.

While we waited for the food to appear, we wandered around the room. We were the only customers and there were several interesting photos in frames on the wall. It was clearly a well known place. A framed letter signed by the all the Canadian members of Disney on Ice expressed appreciation for the food.

The food took a bit longer than expected, but it did eventually arrive. And it was excellent. A large and tastily-dressed salad of pickled cucumber and orange was topped with three poached eggs and croutons. We ate well.

And then we had a chat with the owner, who proudly showed us some more photos. He guessed we were British, which I think was not difficult, and explained how, in the 1960s, the Queen and Duke of Edinburgh had passed along the road outside as part of an official visit. And there was the photo, with the restaurant in the frame, as the royals processed.

We were in the cafĂ© for almost and hour, eating and chatting. It never crossed our minds to wonder why we were the only customers. And then I thanked our host, said we would have to move on and asked for the bill. I was immediately surprised when he said there was nothing to pay. After being lost for words, I managed to ask him why our breakfast was free and he answered, very pleasantly, “It’s because we are closed, Sir.” He pointed to the display board we had scrutinised on the way in, the one with the picture menu. It quite clearly said CLOSED in large English letters right across it. Expecting kanji, we had not seen it. He had a good laugh and wished us a pleasant sty in Kyoto.

As a tourist, it’s the differences you notice, but it’s the human similarities, the universal human values that endure.

A review of Mukiwa by Peter Godwin

Peter Godwin certainly has a story to tell. It’s a story of an idyllic, if unusual childhood, a disrupted but eventually immensely successful education, military service and then two careers, one in law, planned but aborted, and then one in journalism, discovered almost by default. Listed like this these elements might sound just a bit mundane, perhaps not the subject of memoir. When one adds, however, the location, Rhodesia becoming Zimbabwe, the result is a deeply moving, in places deeply sad, as well as quite disturbing account of a life lived thus far. Mukiwa, by the way, is Shona for white man.

The setting for Peter Godwin’s early years was a middle class, professional and, crucially, liberal family living in eastern Rhodesia, close to the Mozambique border. I had relatives in that same area, near Umtali and Melsetter, and they used to do exactly what the Godwins did regularly which was to visit the Indian Ocean beaches near Beira. We used to get postcards from there every year, usually in the middle of our north of England winter. Envy wasn’t the word…

Peter Godwin’s mother was a doctor and this meant that his childhood was unusual in two respects. Not many youngsters in white households had liberal-minded parents and even fewer helped their mothers conduct post mortems. Unlike most mukiwa, Peter Godwin had black friends. He learned the local language and got to know the bush. He also grew up close to death and then lived alongside it during the years of the war of independence. He describes how the war simply took over everything and labels himself as a technician in its machinations. It’s a telling phrase, admitting that he did not himself want to fight anyone. Like everyone else, he was caught up in the struggle, required to actively perpetrate the violence and that is what he did.

His education was disrupted. His family life was effectively destroyed. And how he managed to keep his sanity during the period I have no idea. He served most of the period in Matebeleland alongside other members of the Rhodesian armed forces and police who were not, to say the least, as liberal as he was. So in some ways he was already doubly a foreigner in that he was working in an area where he could not speak the language and was accompanied by fellow countrymen with whom he shared no beliefs or ideals. And yet he had to fight.

I have never served in a war and hope I never will. But my relatives from the same area as Peter Godwin were also called up into national service and also fought the war. I had not seen them for fifteen years or so when we met after they, along with many thousands of others, as recorded by Peter Godwin, had already fled south. But for them also memories of war were deep and resented scars. It was a bloody and dirty war where, if you were lucky, you could at most trust your closest colleagues. It was a vicious conflict at times and left everyone angry. No-one won. Everyone suffered.

Having eventually achieved the education he sought, Peter Godwin attempted to launch a legal career. But then, almost by default, he became a reporter. After independence, he learned of atrocities perpetrated by the Zambabwean army in the area where he had served during the war. He investigated. He reported. And then, on advice, he fled.

But he did eventually return to all of the areas he knew and the last part of the book is a moving and deeply sad account of how little he recognised in the places he loved as a child. But within this, there is a moment of hope as he meets a former freedom fighter and, with humour and new friendship, the two of them realise that they had not only been enemies, but had actually been two commanders trying to kill one another on opposite sides of the same skirmish.

But in the end, Peter Godwin is changed man, and his home and homeland, at least as he had experienced them, were no more. War had changed everything and everyone. No-one won.

Saturday, September 15, 2007

A Million Would Be Nice by Ken Scott

I don’t read many books that claim membership of a genre. In my humble opinion, a work of fiction should aspire to create its own world, describe it, communicate it and then live in it. I want a book’s characters to inhabit the events that are portrayed, events that are clearly influenced by the character’s presence, but which are also usually bigger than any individual’s contribution. Wars don’t exist unless people fight them. Crimes are not committed without criminals. Love stories are made by lovers and ghosts don’t exist.

For instance, in my own book, Mission, there are four wars, but it’s not a war novel. There are at least three love stories, but it’s not a romance. There are several deaths, one of which is a murder, but it’s not a crime novel or a thriller. And then there’s a character who comes back from the dead to haunt an old man, but it’s not a ghost story or a fantasy. In short, it’s Mission, a novel set in Kenya.

So I approached Ken Scott’s crime thriller, A Million Would Be Nice, as a reader unused to the genre’s codes and forms.

Unlike general or literary fiction, I recognise that learning what happens in A Million Would Be Nice is one of the main reasons for reading the book. My review, therefore, cannot reveal too much of the plot. Suffice it to say that there has been a bank robbery. It was an inside job and the scenario for its execution is carefully concocted and inventively created. The perpetrator gets away with it and scarpers with the loot to live it up in Spain.

On an apparently separate thread, we meet Donavan Smith, a quite incredibly vile piece of humanity from Newcastle, of which I hope he is not representative. He’s a successful young thing, a kind of nouveau riche moron, who apparently defines his identity by surrounding himself with requisite items of designer consumption, clearly knowing the price of everything and the value of nothing. He has everything, does our Donavan, but he is never satisfied. He wants more.

There isn’t a lot to endear us to Donavan Smith. He’s a misogynist, and occasionally indulges in some quite bizarre behaviour in the bedroom. He justifies everything with quotes from the Bible, a source of justification that was beaten into him by an abusing mother. He lets nothing get in his way. He has his ideas, knows how to achieve them and then ruthlessly destroys anything that might resist. In some ways, he is quite creative.

But one of his conquests becomes an accomplice, because she has inside information about that money that went missing in the bank raid. He needs her and together they visit people all over the prestigious bits of Europe, Paris, Cannes, London, the Costas, Newcastle, to pursue and realise their dream. And believe me, this Donavan is nothing if not resourceful and he certainly has a knack when it comes to making things happen.

The story moves at a fast pace. Different characters are drawn into the thread and many are inevitably cast aside by Donavan Smith, our single-minded, calculating anti-hero. And that is as much as I will relate. A Million Would be Nice claims to be a crime thriller, and a crime thriller is exactly what it is, fast paced, and packed with greed, obsession and ruthlessness.

Ken Scott’s own background as an employee of a major British bank provided him with much of the detail surrounding the original robbery. Since the back cover of the book shows him, like the robber in the book, living it up in Spain, I can only hope that this is as far as the similarity goes.

A Million Would be Nice will appeal to readers of thrillers and crime fiction. It has all the elements you would expect and, in the relationship between Donavan and his mother, perhaps something extra as well.

View this book on amazon A Million Would be Nice