Reading fiction in a time of political populism
What to read now in this dangerous time of political populism? It seems to me that many people have less than a passing awareness of history and politics and no interest in learning about it from non-fiction books. Fiction can step into that gap and encourage people to reflect on the lessons history and politics can offer. For that reason, I’ve always regarded it as an important part of fiction writing to raise historical and political truths. Now that seems more important than ever.
Rodney Hall’s 2000 novel The Day We Had Hitler Home, Barbara Kingsolver’s 2009 novel The Lacuna, and Richard Flanagan’s 2006 novel The Unknown Terrorist all facilitate critical thinking about the dangers of the sort of political populism currently sweeping several countries. The Day We Had Hitler Home and The Lacuna do so through the lens of history, while The Unknown Terrorist shines a light on the role of government, law enforcement and the media in contemporary politics. All three novels make for eerie reading in the present political climate.
After a brief introduction to each of these novels, quotes from each will illustrate that eerieness.
The Day We Had Hitler Home
Rodney Hall is one of Australia’s most exciting writers. In his novel The Day We Had Hitler Home he plunges his young protagonist Audrey McNeil into life in Munich during the early days of Hitler’s rise to power, drawing on Joachim C. Fest’s biography Hitler. A single day proves pivotal to Audrey’s coming of age.
In the afternoon she attends one of Hitler’s speeches in an auditorium holding 7000 people. After Hitler rages against communists and Jews, she comes to an important realisation:
He pumps himself up with his arms… And a totally unexpected idea electrifies me: without us he would be nothing. We actually create him. Yes. By provocation and flattery. We create him. He is our voice. And when he speaks, all he does is give vent to our ordinary grumbles. Which he transforms into dogma. And does so with our permission. Opinions, once muttered darkly across kitchen tables, take on the ring of universal truth…
He crosses his arms on his chest and stares at us with imbecile smugness. Those who love him cry out. And so do those who are willing to go along with it, just for now, because they don’t want to be left behind. But motives are not material. Darkness digests us all alike. I understand the truth, burning in me like a religious visitation, that if every person here… stopped clapping, held back, withdrew from this delirium and let him go on alone, he would fail. His movement would fail.
Later the same night Audrey witnesses a show being staged in a restaurant:
The entertainment is to be a kind of zoo without bars. The exhibits arrive on stage. Each person… is a stereotype: The dwarf, the gypsy, the Jew, the mongoloid child, the cripple clumsily managing a club foot, the negro. Dressed in ill-fitting finery, baggy dinnersuits and gaudy gowns, they settle together, miming animated conversations… The dumbshow now involves food and drink: under glaring floodlights the unfortunates guzzle champagne. They investigate the silverware, tongues between their teeth, gripping forks and knives the wrong way round, dropping things, clashing their goblets in such clumsily judged toasts that shards of glass tinkle among the cruets and candles. The comedian playing the Jew lights his cigar while simultaneously stuffing his mouth with slippery oysters. And the negro reaps gales of laughter for repeatedly failing to lodge a monocle in his eye in order to ogle the puffy little child with her back to us.
And late that same night, when she reaches the house of her lover, a black African man, she finds him battered to death on the street outside:
On the footpath under the planetrees… human shapes stoop over what has been done. Silence uttering a single syllable of shock. A concussion of violated air. Who are these stooping figures? These intruders. What is their intrusion? When they begin straightening the bent rocks of their backs and thighs, they unfold as mere boys, so shockingly boyish in the grey air they might have lost their way to college… In the grey transparency, they dust their uniforms.
Barbara Kingsolver’s novel The Lacuna tells the life story of Harrison Shepherd, son of an American father and a Mexican mother. His mother raises him in Mexico. In his late teens, he cooks for artists Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo during the time when they are at the peak of their careers, and when they provide shelter to political exile and refugee from Stalin, Lev Trotsky, Shepherd becomes his secretary. In adulthood, Shepherd moves to a small town in the United States where he lives as a reclusive successful author of historical novels set in Mexico. And then, in the late 1940s and 50s, the US government through its main agents J Edgar Hoover and Senator McCarthy begins to pursue alleged communists in America.
For Shepherd the witch-hunt against him begins with a letter from his publisher, asking him to sign an affidavit of anti-Communism. While discussing the affidavit with his agent, Shepherd asks him about rumours that foreigners are being deported in New York. The agent tells him:
“Mr Hoover and Mr Watkins at the INS are becoming very enthusiastic with their housecleaning. Some of the deportees have been living in this country since Homer was a pup… Shepherd, you have a birth certificate, do you not?”
“I do… I have both passports, US and Mexican… no criminal record as yet.”
“Who needs crimes? The INS has a stable of witnesses, professionals. Very well paid, very talented, they can produce a testimony for any occasion. If a man is not a Communist, they’ll prove he is.”
Then he is visited by special agent Melvin C Myers from the FBI who questions him about his work for “a painter in Mexico City, a well-known Red.” Towards the end of that interview, Shepherd says:
“I thought the Constitution gave me the right to know the charges against me. And who was bringing them…”
“Whenever I hear this kind of thing,” [Myers] said, “a person speaking about constitutional rights, free speech, and so forth, I think, ‘How can he be such a sap? Now I can be sure that man is a Red.’ A word to the wise, Mr Shepherd. We just do not hear a real American speaking in that manner.”
Two months later Shepherd receives a letter from J Edgar Hoover, advising him of evidence against him indicating that he is “a member, close affiliate, or sympathetic associate of the Communist Party”. The purported evidence listed includes that he has been a close associate of “Mr Deigo Riveira” [sic] and that his name has appeared in multiple magazines, including “statements to the effect that you believe in the overthrow of the United States government” – these statements constituting quotes of words spoken by a character in one of his novels.
The campaign against Shepherd intensifies from false newspapers reports to calls for the boycott of his novels, and finally culminating in his being called before the House Committee on Un-American Activities.
The Unknown Terrorist
The Unknown Terrorist is Richard Flanagan’s most political novel. While portraying an Australian society focused on consumerism, he focuses on the government, the police and the media in their blind pursuit of suspected terrorists. After a bomb explosion at the Olympic stadium, the government wants to show it is in charge, and the media jump on the bandwagon in the pursuit of television ratings and newspaper sales. All of them focus their witch-hunt on a young lap dancer who was seen in the company of a man suspected to be an al-Qaeda terrorist. The dancer wants to go to the police, but realises they will not believe in her innocence. Her flat is raided and her money confiscated, her best friend, a single mother, is jailed as a terrorist associate.
At a party held in a fancy mansion in Double Bay, journalist Richard Cody pontificates:
“If you think the death of innocent people doesn’t mean anything, say whatever you like,” said Richard Cody, who liked saying whatever he liked, and who – if others spoke when he had things to say – experienced a strange sensation that was at once rage and jealousy.
‘The era of sentimentality is over,” he continued. “Our civilisation is under attack …”
Richard Cody then argued for the necessity of torture, properly managed. Proper management, sensible policies, agreed procedures – it was possible, after all, to civilise something as barbaric as warfare with the Geneva Convention, and now we needed a Geneva Convention on how we might conduct torture in a civilised fashion.