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Sunday, December 30, 2012

AFTER THE BOMB: The Best Cold War Novels (21)

Over the next year or so, I will use this page to provide a brief overview of the best Cold War novels published- both East and West. At a later date, I will try to rank the novels in terms of their intent, literary merit and how the narratives dramatise the conflicting ideas and values of the time. 



Graham Greene The Quiet American (1955)


This cautionary tale is told by Thomas Fowler, a cynical and vain English war correspondent in his fifties. The character is probably based on Greene who was a journalist in French Indochina between 1951 and 1954, the year the French colonial occupiers were defeated by the Vietminh, the Communist guerrilla fighters. The novel shows the increasing American eagerness to involve itself in Vietnam which was characteristic of the Eisenhower administration.

The “silent American” is the 32 year old idealist Aiden Pyle who has swallowed the works of York Harding.  In his books The Challenge to Democracy and The Role of the West Harding advocates the need for a “third force” to bring freedom to the region, a sort of ground-swell of democracy which will counter and sweep away French Colonial and Communist influences. Pyle is apparently modelled on the CIA agent Colonel Edward Lonsdale, who is more positively represented in William J.F. Lederer and Eugene Burdick’s novel The Ugly American (1958): https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Ugly_American

Pyle’s blind obedience to Harding’s theories and his naivety in understanding the underlying motivations and brutality of General The make him expendable, especially after the bombing of civilians outside the Continental Hotel in Saigon. Pyle’s immoral justification of the slaughter can be sharply contrasted with Alec Leamas’s redeeming act of love at the conclusion of John Le Carre’s The Spy Who Came In Out of the Cold.

More interesting than the political battle is the war between Fowler and Pyle over Phuong, a 20 year old Vietnamese woman. She becomes a kind of metaphor for the struggle for possession of Vietnam between the former colonialists and an emerging America.

Overall, this is a complex and excellently structured book. The period’s fascination with gender relationships and marriage is dated but Greene has his finger on the pulse in revealing the nastiness and stupidity of human behaviour and insightfully foreshadows the mire of the upcoming American participation in the Vietnam War (1961-1974).

Resources:

Essay
(This is a highly insightful overview of the novel and its relevance to more recent American invasions)

Andrew J. Bacevich Best Intentions: An Appreciation of Graham Greene: http://www.worldaffairsjournal.org/article/best-intentions-appreciation-graham-greene

Note Index
A very impressive overview of the novel with a high school audience in mind).

Melbourne High School Graham Greene The Quiet American; http://resources.mhs.vic.edu.au/quietamerican/index.htm


Jack Finney Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Simon & Schuster, New York, 1978 (original publication 1954-1955) 216 pages

On a recent trip to the North America I came across this novel in a L.A. airport bookshop. I thought the book was out of print. Jet-lagged, I flipped open the book in a lounge with a beer & momentarily glanced up at a clock as I took a heavy swig. Shit, it was only 8 am. I began reading...

The story is narrated by Miles Boise Bennell, a 28 year-old medical doctor. He begins ominously, "I warn you what you're starting to read is full of loose ends and unanswered questions. It will not be neatly tied up in the end, everything resolved and satisfactorily explained. Not by me it won't, anyway." A central motif in the novel is that human experience cannot sometimes be adequately rationalised. It helps to massage the reader into dropping their armoured scepticism and for a time entering the world created by the author. As Jack Belicec explains to Bennell after he showed him the bizarre newspaper clippings, Frogs Fell on Alabama and Man Burned to Death; Clothes Unharmed, "I think they prove at least this; that strange things happen, really do happen, every now and then, here and there throughout the world. Things that simply don't fit in with the great body of knowledge that the human race has gradually acquired over thousands of years. Things in direct contradiction to what we know to be true. Something falls up, instead of down."

The novel is set in Mill Valley, California about twenty years in the future in 1976 and begins oddly in chapter 1 when Becky Driscoll tells the doctor that her cousin Wilma has some serious concerns about her Uncle Ira: "She's got herself thinking that he isn't her uncle...she thinks he's an imposter, or something. Someone who only looks like Ira." He "looks, sounds, acts, and remembers exactly like Ira" but "inside he's different...his responses aren't emotionally right." Uncle Ira was like a father to Miles and he knew him from infancy and he always had "a special look in his eyes." When he examines Ira that look is gone. It is if he is "talking by rote"and their is no feeling, no emotion in his words, only the pretence of it.

As the novel progresses more folks in the town become suspected of being imposters, including an English teacher and a nine-year-old boy's mom. The mystery unfolds further when the writer Jack Belicec rings Bennell to have a look at something strange. On a table in Belicec's basement is the body of a naked man about five feet ten inches tall. It is well-built but waxy-white and "vague."Miles is amazed," I've never seen a face like that before in my life. It wasn't flabby; you certainly couldn't say that. But somehow it was formless, characterless. It really wasn't a face: not yet." We soon learn that the nude body is Jack's double.

Of added interest is Bennell's evolving relationship to an old high school flame, Becky Driscoll which reflects the sexism of the 1950s. After rescuing the real Becky from her horrible parody, she jibes, unaware why Miles is rushing her out of the house, "Are you kidnapping me? Carrying me off to your den, or something." She looked down and saw that under my unbuttoned coat I was wearing pajamas. "Miles," she muttered mockingly, "couldn't you wait? Couldn't you at least ask me, like a gentleman." I found it rather beguiling that each time the couple were to cuddle or kiss, the clones would disrupt their love-making. In chapter 9 they are seriously making out finally, "Then I was kissing her again, and suddenly, instantly, I didn't care what happened. I'd never in my life experienced anything like this, and my hand dropped down, tight on her thigh, and I knew I was going to take this woman upstairs with me if I could." Some racket downstairs from 4 blank pods hose down their unbridled enthusiasm as they are forced to investigate.

Invasion of the Body Snatchers is essentially about how the familiar becomes strange and how the ordinary becomes a source of fear & pure panic (see page 103, 121, 157-8). You will also find allusions to fascist round-ups for people not wearing the Jubilee button (162-3), a Brave New World vision of the aliens (182-3) ,an intense criticism of the self-destructive capacity of human will (185) and even a parody of Churchill's famous World War 2 speech to denote the defiance & resilience of humanity (214).

This novel is worth reading but I easily preferred the original film version (1956) which is far more ambiguous and interesting in its representation of Cold War paradigms.

Updated: 27 October 2015



Brandon Keith The Man FRom U.N.C.L.E. and The AFFAIR of the GENTLE SABOTEUR. Whitman Publishing Company, Racine Wisconsin, 1966 (210 pages).

This novel was one of about three dozen which tried to take advantage of the popularity of the Man from U.N.C.L.E. TV series (1964-1968) and its spinoffs. The book is written in a clever formulic but dumbed-down style to appeal to young or reluctant readers. The print is large (much like you will find today)- with only about 120 words per page. You will also find twelve monochrome illustrations by Tom Gill.

The story begins with the evil TRUSH British agent Albert Stanley arriving in New York City. He is put under survelliance by U.N.C.L.E. agents Napoleon Solo and Illya Kuryatkin and is caught red-handed trying to plant a small nuclear device, known as a exitron, on the granite base of the Statue of Liberty. The baddies kidnap Steven Winfield, the 17 year old son of an important U.N. official and Agent Kuryakin through an ingenious cigarette lighter and immediately negotiate for an exchange of captives. 

The book is enjoyable to read but somewhat predictable. What really annoyed me was its phoney politics. The acronym U.N.C.L.E. stands for United Network Command for Law Enforcement (page 67) and represents an amalgam of secret agents from around the world which have assembled together regardless of ideology to combat the evils of TRUSH. Thus you will find the American agent Solo working with Soviet agent Kuryatkin to defeat THRUSH.

Not much else is revealed about THRUSH in this novel. We learn that the destruction of the shrines "were the purpose" (104) but we are never given any info about which shrines and why. In a frank discussion between Albert Stanley and U.N.C.L.E. chief Waverly, Stanley says that the intention of planting the bomb at the Statue of Liberty (the first of many) was "to create confusion and terror within the United States" and "to precipitate the U.S. into unwise and unfortunate acts" (70) and thus influence "uncommitted nations in Asia, Africa and South America who are trying to decide who to support in the Cold War: America or the Soviet Union? 

TRUSH appears to be a terrorist organisation who has sympathies for the Soviet Union but it has no direct links. The organisation is fuelled by propaganda & an unquestioning loyalty to authority and it suggests that innocent civilians may have to die in the completion of their plans.

You have to search elsewhere to find that they seek worldwide domination. According to an entry in Wikipedia THRUSH stands for the very ugly phrase Technological Hierarchy for the Removal of Undesirables & the Subjugation of Humanity: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Man_from_U.N.C.L.E. THRUSH is essentially equivalent of an terrorist organisation today who will perform any activity, however immoral, to further its cause.

Usually the U.N.C.L.E. films & novels focus on a naive character so the reader or viewer can empathise with him or her. In The Affair of the Gentle Saboteur the focus is on a young female THRUSH recruit Pamela Hunter who in a moment of truth realises that she has been brain-washed by the organisation & understands that someone will have to die for the cause as a consequence of her actions:

"The truth struck now like a tremendous gong. She was not a soldier but a mercenary, a paid professional. She was not a part of an army but a member of a world organisation of professional criminals, covering their crimes by a pretence of political activity, earning huge sums of money as the lackeys, without conscience, of governments that desired unrest and world turmoil. And she had become one of them, lured by the lower echelon of their experts, the speechmakers, the lecturers in their high-flown slogans. And now their was no turning back."

Alternatively, the good guys U.N.C.L.E. are far more moral and don't kill for a living. In the final shootout, a baddy's weapon is characteristically shot out of his hands & he is forced to surrender.

In any event, don't expect much literary merit from the books in the U.N.C.L.E. sub-genre. They are collector's items but don't yet fetch much cash unless they are in perfect condition.







E.L. Doctorow The Book Of Daniel. Penguin Classics, London. (1971)

This is an outstanding Cold War novel which is told from the point of view of Daniel Isaacson, the son of Paul and Rochelle Isaacson who were electrocuted for conspiring to commit espionage. The story alternates between the present- 1967 in which Daniel is working on a PhD & trying to raise a young family and his flashbacks to the 1950s when as a child his parents were arrested & eventually executed. Obvious parallels can be drawn between the Isaacsons and the Rosenbergs.

What makes this novel great is its sprawling, inventive power and in its representation of the contrast between the conformism of the 1950s with the radical disenchantment of mainstream values which emerged with the anti-Vietnam War protests in the late 1960s in America.

This is a highly subversive Cold War novel which will keep you guessing & will astound you with its brilliant conception, structure and word play.



Philip K. Dick Dr Bloodmoney (1965)

This is the craziest, most astoundingly inventive apocalyptic Cold War novel that I have read. What makes Dr Bloodmoney particularly special is the incredible array of characters, such as the Afro-American Stuart McConchie, the phocomelus Hoppy Harrington and the seven year old Edie Keller and her conjoined twin Bill.

On the surface, the novel is similar in form and structure to John Hersey’s Hiroshima. Set in California, it reveals events from the third person perspectives of a multitude of characters, before a nuclear war (chapters 1-4), during a nuclear attack (5-6), and later, when the community is attempting to rebuild (7-16).

The novel begins in 1981 in Berkley, California and America is involved in the Cuban War against China. After a brief introduction of some of the main characters, the nation is annihilated by an atomic attack, known later as E Day or the Emergency. Subsequent chapters are set in 1988 in the small community of West Marin. The people experience food shortages, most technology has been destroyed and many bear the scars and genetic defects of the war. This is the most engaging section in the novel.

Philip K. Dick wrote the book in 1964 when the world was on the brink of nuclear war. As Dick says in his Afterword to the 1980 edition of Dr Bloodmoney, “Back in 1964 I was expecting {the End of the World} at any time; I kept checking my watch. Horace Gold, who edited Galaxy magazine, once chided me for anticipating global wipeout within the next week. That was back around 1954; I anticipated it by 1964. Well, such were the fears of the times.”

There is certainly a strong cautionary message in Dr Bloodmoney.  In the backstory to the novel, in 1972 the American emigrant physicist Bruno Bluthgeld (German for Bloodmoney) had triggered an atomic atmospheric test and the “enormous masses of radioactive clouds had not drifted off but had been attracted by the Earth’s gravitational field, and had returned to the atmosphere.” The limitations and fallibility of science is critiqued by the terse, ironic tone of the omniscient narrator, “Many trained people, and the finest apparati, the foremost computers of the day, had been involved in the faulty calculation- not faulty in terms of the body of knowledge available in 1972 but faulty in relationship to the reality situation.”

In his Afterward, Dick makes explicit his views on Dr Bluthgeld, whose arrogance and blind ideology has lead to world destruction, “I hate him and I hate everything he stands for. He is the alien and he is the enemy. I cannot fathom his mind; I cannot understand his hates. It is not the Russians I fear; it is the Doctor Bluthgelds, the Doctor Bloodmoneys, in our own society, that terrify me.” He later states, “Doctor Bloodmoney is sick, and sick in a way that is dangerous to the rest of us. And much of the evil in our world now emanates from such men, because such men do exist.”

At the beginning of the novel Bluthgeld is being diagnosed by the psychiatrist Doctor Stockstill. Stockstill having seen him interviewed on TV and having heard his anti-communist speeches quickly surmises,  “Bluthgeld had a profound hatred for people, deep and pervasive enough to make him want, on some unconscious level, to err, to make him jeopardize the lives of millions.” As Bluthgeld explains to Stockstill that he has God on his side, Stockstill thinks, “Our enemy. Who is our enemy…isn’t it you? Isn’t it you sitting here rattling off your paranoid delusions? How did you ever get the high post that you hold? Who is responsible for giving you power over the lives of others- and letting you keep that power even after the fiasco of 1972? You- and they- are surely our enemies.”

Bluthgeld is also smeared with McCarthy like tendencies,” In his public statements there had been an obsessiveness, a morbidity, a tormented expression that had drenched his face, convoluted his manner of speech. And Bluthgeld had talked about  the enemy, with its infiltrating tactics, its systemic contamination of institutions at home, of schools and organizations- of the domestic life itself. Bluthgeld had seen the enemy everywhere, in books and in movies, in people, in political organisations that urged views contrary to his own.”

The original extended title Dr Bloodmoney, or How We Got Along After the Bomb was a ripoff of Stanley Kubrik’ s subtitle for his film Dr Strangelove: or How I learnt to Love the Bomb and was later dropped. In his Afterword, Philip K. Dick states that despite the bleak subject matter the novel is essentially hopeful in its representation of humankind’s ability to adapt and power to survive: “In my opinion this is an extremely hopeful novel. It does not posit the end of human civilisation as a result of the next war. People are still around and they are still coping. Those who survive, anyhow, are fairly lucky in their new lives. What is interesting is the subtle change in the relative power status of the survivors.”

Overall, Dr Bloodmoney is a strong and highly enjoyable After the Bomb read. You get the feeling that Philip K. Dick make this stuff up as the novel progressed and he had a lot of fun doing it.

Resources:

Updated 2 April 2015

 David Ireland The Glass Canoe (1974)



A couple of years ago I reviewed Ireland’s novel The Glass Canoe here: http://georgedanderson.blogspot.com.au/2013/09/book-recommendation-david-ireland-glass.html

I originally did not seriously consider the novel to be a valuable Cold War text but perhaps the following student analysis might make you think differently: 

Richard Hooker MASH: A Novel About Three Army Doctors. New York, Harper Perennial, 1968 (219 pages).

This is the novel which spawned the full-length film M*A*S*H (1970) and the long-running tv series ( 1972-1983).  Richard Hooker is the pen name of Dr. H. Richard Hornberger who was drafted as a surgeon into the Army Medical Corps during the Korean War. The novel took Hornberger about ten years to write and is loosely based on his war experiences while based at the 8055th Mobile Army Surgical Hospital (MASH) in South Korea.

The main focus of the novel is on the exploits of three young unconventional surgeons of the fictious 4077th MASH unit who live in a tent known as “the Swamp” – Captain Benjamin Franklin Pierce (based on Hornberger himself- according to his son), Captain Augustus Bedford Forrest and John MacIntyre, also known as Trapper John. These guys are mischievous & anti-authoritarian but in their 18 month tour of duty in Korea they develop into outstanding battle-hardened surgeons.

The novel is episodic and weaves between the doctors' playful banter, sexual antics, their sophisticated pranks & scams and their grim but life-saving task of stopping blood loss and patching severe body wounds of the soldiers who sporatically flood their hospital.

The writing is mildly satirical in parts but is essentially apolitical. The action in Korea does not come across as an allegory of the Vietnam War as do the novel’s spin-offs- in particular, the 1970 film M*A*S*H starring Donald Sutherland, as Hawkeye Pierce. The film also more potently and creatively realises the conscious dissent of the 3 Swampies.

As an After the Bomb text, rather than study the novel as an additional text, you are better off examining the 1970 film or a key episode from the excellent tv series. In Sydney, Channel ONE still shows two episodes each weekday between 630-730 pm.

RESOURCES:
Book to Film: http://whatculture.com/film/book-to-film-mash.php

Updated: 27 Feb 2015



Christina Wolf The Quest For Christa T. Farrar, Straus & Giroux, New York, 1970 (185 pages).


This important Cold War novel was written by East German writer Christa Wolf (1929-2011) and was originally published in 1968 and later banned in the GDR. The unnamed narrator is a childhood friend of Christa T- who attempts to piece together Christa’s life after her death at 35 through her journals, letters, stories and poems.

This is a complex, delicately stitched together portrait of a woman who resists and questions an authoritarian system which seeks to overly define and trap her, “the whole world like a wall” facing her. It is a cautionary tale which mirrors Wolf's own anxieties about how to adjust to post-WW2 ways of thinking.

The Quest For Christa T. is a difficult, nuanced, post-modern novel which will require at least two close readings. Due to communist censorship, the allusions to Christa's personal rebellion can sometimes be cryptic to the young reader and will certainly require further research.



RESOURCES:

Find an excellent review of the novel by Leora Skoliin-Smith here: http://www.readysteadybook.com/BookReview.aspx?isbn=9780374515348


A 2005 interview with Christa Wolf. The second part includes some of her comments on The Quest For Christa T.http://www.signandsight.com/features/417.html

Christa Wolf Wikipedia entry: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Christa_Wolf

Updated: 5 January 2015




Tim O’Brien The Nuclear Age. Penguin Books, New York City, 1985 (312 pages).

This Cold War novel is ambitious but uneven. Despite its brilliant start it becomes a book in search of an ending. As the narrator admits in the last chapter ‘Quantum Jumps’: “At this late hour, how do I make a happy ending? The odds, I know, are poison.”

The Nuclear Age is set in 1995 and tells the story of William Cowling, a paranoid 49 year old American, who begins to dig a large hole in his backyard to shelter from the approaching apocalypse. Much of the novel consists of flashbacks to his earlier life- as a kid in the late 1950s, to a draft dodger during the Vietnam War and beyond to the 1980s as a millionaire. Meanwhile, as the novel progresses, the size of William’s hole vastly increases, and takes on varied and complex associations and symbolism (see in particular page 298).

Easily the best chapter in the novel is ‘Civil Defense’ in which William describes his Cold War anxiety. He sees the conflict as real and dangerous, not like others who ignore or under-estimate its potential fury: “I understood that there was nothing make-believe about doomsday. No hocus-pocus. No midnight fantasy. I knew better. It was real, like physics, like the laws of combustion and gravity. I could truly see it: a sleek nose cone, the wiring and dials and tangled circuitry. Real firepower, real danger. I was normal, yes, stable and levelheaded, but I was also willing to face the truth.”

William has visions of the world blowing up and decides to build a shelter under the Ping-Pong table in his basement. It is a naïve, desperate attempt at safety, probably inspired by the lunacy of the ‘Duck & Cover’ Civil Defence alerts shown to American school children during the 1950s (see the link below): “I began piling scraps of lumber and bricks and old rugs onto the table, making a thick roof, shingling it with a layer of charcoal briquettes to soak up the deadly radiation. I fashioned walls out of cardboard boxes filled with newspapers and two-by-fours and whatever basement junk I could find. I built a ventilation shaft out of cardboard tubing. I stocked the shelter with rations from the kitchen pantry, laid in a supply of bottled water, set up a dispensary of Band-Aids and iodine, designed my own little fallout mask.” William concedes that “the shelter was no professional job- I knew that- but wasn’t it better than nothing?”

William’s mother giggles about his obsession but his father is worried. William is confused: “It didn’t make sense. What about the facts? The countdowns and the silos- a question of simple jeopardy. Wasn’t my father always telling me to be careful crossing the street? Safety first, he always said. It baffled me.” Later in the day at the dinner table his father blurts out: “Here’s what disturbs us…is the way you’ve been brooding. The Ping-Pong table, that episode at the library today. It’s not healthy, William, and that’s what we care about- your health.” William quips sarcastically: “Fallout…I suppose that’s healthy.”

The irony of the situation is obvious but striking- in that it takes a child to sense real terror of the late 1950s: “Lying in bed, pillow tucked up against my belly, I couldn’t push the terror away. I wasn’t nuts. I wasn’t seeing ghosts. Somewhere out there, just beyond the range of normal vision, there was a bomb with my name on it.”

In the last chapter ‘Quantum Jumps’ when the middle-aged William resumes digging his bomb shelter, he feels incredible grief and remorse because is helpless to save his family. He rails against public apathy and governments who have lead their people to a real and possible end: “Why is there no panic? Why aren’t governments being toppled? Why aren’t we in the streets? Why do we tolerate our own extinction? Why do our politicians put warnings on cigarette packs and not on their own foreheads? Why don’t we scream it? Nuclear war!”

Written in 1985 The Nuclear Age doesn’t anticipate the fall of the Berlin Wall or the breakup of the Soviet Union. Most of the novel consists of William’s experiences as a draft dodger and protester during the Vietnam War. The most  significant chapter of this subject matter is ‘First Strikes’ (Chapter 6) which covers William’s life between and 1964 and 1969. Overall, the writing in this section appears patchy and focuses on his relationships with the ex-cheerleader Sarah and later the elusive ex-flight attendant Bobbi.

Rather than study the entire novel, I recommend you use Chapter 2 ‘Civil Defense’ as an additional text.

Resources:


Find an extract from the chapter ‘Fusion’ and a NY Times review of the novel here: http://www.illyria.com/tobhp.html


Updated: 20 September 2014 


Tim O'Brien Going After Cacciato (1979)

In terms of significance, in regard to Tim O'Brien's three explicit Vietnam books, Going After Cacciato sits between his brilliant collection of short stories The Things They Carried (1990) and his 'memoir' If I Die in a Combat Zone (1973). The novel amazingly edged out The World According to Garp to win the National Book Award in 1979.
The third person narrative is largely told through the eyes of a young infantryman Paul Berlin. After a fellow grunt, Cacciato, inexplicably leaves his squad for Paris in 1968, a rag-tag of seven soldiers make the decision to pursue him through the mountains. 

The structure of the novel alternates between their search for Cacciato through Vietnam, Burma, Afghanistan, Iran & Europe and flashbacks to Berlin's recruitment into the Army and his exploits in Vietnam. 

The writing is highly experimental and is a mixture of graphic realism, self reflexive post-modernism and dream-like surrealism- but somehow holds together. The underlying intent gradually unfolds, especially in the chapters 'Atrocities on the Road to Paris', 'The Things They Didn't Know', 'By a Stretch of the Imagination' and 'The Observation Post' (Chapter 42) to make some profound comments  about the nature and morality of war.

This is an outstanding novel and sometimes reminds me of the absurdities of war represented in Heller's Catch-22. The chapters noted above can easily fuel a sophisticated discussion of Cold War ways of thinking.

Updated 9 August 2014




Kazuo Ishiguro An Artist of the Floating World. Faber and Faber, London, 1986 (206 pages).

This novel will appear for the first time in the After the Bomb elective during 2014-2015. It is written in the form of a memoir by the artist Masuji Ono. It consists of five extended reflections between October 1948 and June 1950 while Japan is recovering from the disaster of the war and is attempting to resurrect itself.

The novel documents a nation in transition through Ono’s eyes. While negotiating for the wedding of his younger daughter Noriko, he is compelled to think back on his development as an artist in the 1920s and on his involvement in propaganda campaigns as a member of the Cultural Committee of the Interior Department and as an adviser to the Committee of Unpatriotic Activities during the Second World War.

After the war there was a widespread resentment amongst the younger generation for the military and political leaders who took them to war and many committed suicide, including the popular singer Yukio Naguchi in the novel, to atone for their mistakes of the past. Ono tells his daughter, “Let me assure you, Setsuko, I wouldn’t for a moment consider the sort of action Naguchi took. But then I am not too proud to see that I too was a man of some influence, who used that influence towards a disastrous end.” In her reply, Settsuko implies it is time for the nation to move on: “Forgive me, but it is perhaps important to see things in a proper perspective. Father painted some splendid pictures, and was no doubt most influential amongst other such painters. But Father’s work had hardly to do with these larger matters of which we are speaking. Father was simply a painter. He must stop believing he has done some great wrong.”

This acceptance of one’s guilt is juxtaposed with a sense of renewal at the conclusion of the novel. As Ono looks at the young office workers emerging from shiny new buildings, he writes, “I feel a certain nostalgia for the past and the district as it used to be. But to see how our city has been rebuilt, how things have recovered so rapidly over these years, fills me with genuine gladness. Our nation, it seems, whatever mistakes it may have made in the past, has now another chance to make a better go at things. One can only wish these young people well.”

Despite the diappointingly didactic ending, An Artist of the Floating World is a beautifully written and an aesthetically pleasing work. The complex structure and the seamless integration of Ono’s personal, artistic and political lives made this a highly enjoyable read.

An Artist of the Floating World sadly replaces Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 which is easily the superior text for Cold War paradigms. Much of the context of Ishiguro’s novel is focussed on Ono’s development as an artist in the 1920s under his teacher Mori-san and his eventual rejection of his ‘floating world’ aesthetics.

Updated: 3 July 2014

BOOK REVIEW: Richard Brautigan In Watermelon Sugar. London, Picador Books, 1970 (142 pages). Originally published 1968.

My recent interest in Cold War literature has drawn me back to Brautigan’s highly inventive novella In Watermelon Sugar, first written in 1964. It is his third prose book and further established Brautigan’s reputation amongst young readers who were challenging traditional ways of thinking at the height of America’s involvement in the Vietnam War. When he started writing the book, Brautigan was living in the small coastal Californian village of Bolinas. He used the communal, back-to-nature values of Bolinas as the basis of his post-apocalyptic town of iDEATH.

This is an experimental, early stab at post-modernism. The nameless narrator directly addresses his audience and meta-fictionally lets them know he is writing this book. 

At the beginning of the novella the community has fragmented into two distinct camps. There are about 375 people who live in the town of iDEATH. The folks are gentle and live a simple subsistent existence with watermelon being their staple crop. Watermelon sugar is used in the production of practically everything- including clothes, houses and bridges. The people live in shacks and share meals together. They speak in naïve, matter-of-fact sentences. They live a kind of idyllic but empty existence. Fed up with life at iDEATH the rebel iNBOIL and about twenty followers leave the village and set up camp in the Forgotten Works, a gigantic dump which holds the debris of the past world. They distil whiskey and get drunk and do evil things. When sober they sometimes dig up relics and books from the dump and sell them to the villagers.

Nothing is known about the outside world. Presumably society as we know it has been destroyed through nuclear war and pockets of people have leant how to survive. The book that the narrator is working on is only the twenty-fourth in 171 years and the first in thirty-five years. Similarly, not much is known about the past, apart from the idea that talking tigers used to roam the area and ate no name's parents before being wiped out by humans.

Although In Watermelon Sugar was written in 1964 and touches on some Cold War ideas and values, there are no explicit philosophical, religious, or political references to make it a significant Cold War text. It clearly establishes, for example, iDEATH as alternative hippy-like community which has close connections to the land but little else. The novella is more the product of Brautigan’s far-out  imagination. The village’s twenty or so giant vegetable statues, the underwater tombs, and the different coloured watermelons make for trippy reading but don’t say much about the times. At the dining table one night the rebel iNBOIL aptly points out to his brother Charley: ‘This place stinks. This isn’t iDEATH at all. This is just a figment of your imagination.’

I’m not sure what the conflict between the villagers and iNBOIL and his gang is meant to represent, if anything. iNBOIL is just a pisshead with no communist attributes or sympathies. The ending is very bizarre with iNBOIL and his mob cutting off their thumbs, ears and noses and bleeding to death. Perhaps it foreshadows Brautigan’s own descent into alcoholism and his eventual suicide at 49. Hemingway-like, he placed a .44 magnum shotgun to his head and pulled the trigger. His suicide note simply read, ‘Messy isn’t it?’ 

This novella is far from messy. It is carefully crafted and represents an important transitional text between the beats and the hippies.

The best site on Richard Brautigan is easily Brautigan.net where you will find extensive critical material on his writing. Find it here: www.brautigan.net/watermelon.html



Philip Wylie TRIUMPH (1963)

The Temperate Zone (the northern hemisphere) is destroyed around 1975 when the Soviet Union, hell-bent at world domination, launches an all out nuclear war. In Connecticut, 14 Americans from different backgrounds survive in an underground bunker for two years before being rescued by Australians unscathed by the insanity of war.

The narrative shifts between updating the reader on the latest world events as they unfold and the day to day routines and sexual tensions of the men and women forced to life underground because of the deadly radiation above. The relationships described are prude and corny and Wylie dumbly concludes the reason they survived was because of love (274).

As in his novel TOMORROW! the Russians are represented as satanic, mechanical fiends, who are prepared to destroy America and the vast majority of their own people, so they can rise from the ashes and seek to impose their mendacious Marxist beliefs and values on the rest of the surviving world.

The Australians are given a back-hander as well. Wylie says of the Australia's sensible decision to prevent further above ground testing of nuclear weapons at Woomera, "Blast and damn the Aussies, incidentally, for finally refusing to let England test there any more, and for making the poor dam' British take their stuff back home!"Australia is further castigated for not allowing the aircraft carrier Conner to dock at an Australian port and in turning a blind eye to the growing influence of communism around the world as in Castro's Cuba, ""There's just one objection to that theory. All else fits- the silence in places like Australia, where a lot of game guys life. But which was socialist, anyway, and had a lot of Red citizens. A point." Happily, though the Yanks don't mind being rescued by Aussies, even though they took their time. As part of the so-called "residual half" of the world, they were also "determined to establish peace forever and forever to stop war."

A highlight of the novel is chapter 10 in which Wylie describes the specific events leading up to the Third War and the terrible consequences the nuclear onslaught has on the United States. Particularly disturbing is the anarchy and rape which gallops head long down the unfettered streets of America. This is a highly graphic and frightening chapter. 

Wylie often implies that America should not have held back initially in launching its nuclear missiles and needed to be  better prepared for the Red menace- whether it be in the building of bigger nuclear weapons or in the construction of stronger bomb shelters.

Wylie is a warmonger and an apologist for conservative militaristic values of the early 1960s. He treats the Soviet Union with deep suspecion and fear. He does not trust them, nor believes that they can be negotiated with. They only understand one thing. Nukes! Unsurprisingly, Wylie never provides us with any Soviet perspectives. They are demonised, along with their Chinese compatriots. According to Wylie, only Americans understand the notion of freedom. 

Updated 1 January 2014




Eugene Burdick & Harvey Wheeler FAIL-SAFE (1962)
This is a Cold War thriller that was first serialised in the Saturday Evening Post during the Cuban Missile Crisis and was adapted into a film in 1964 directed by Sidney Lumet.
It is a cautionary tale about the over reliance on computer technology and the belief that the systems which have been designed by the military are infallible. This is a serious, straight version of Dr Strangelove. In the novel, a computer error orders a squadron of American bombers to drop nuclear weapons on Moscow. The tension in the novel is tied to the manoeuvring of the bombers as they head to Moscow. To avoid a fully-fledged Soviet retaliation, the President of the United States orders a nuke strike on New York City as a lone bomber sneaks through and approaches its target.

 ‘Fail-Safe’ is a term used by Strategic Air Command and is defined “as a fixed point in the sky where the planes will orbit until they get a positive order to go in.” In other words, the plane will not go in unless they receive a direct order by the President to do so. Burdick & Wheeler demonstrate the gaping holes in this system. In the chapter ‘The Conference Line’, as the loss of Moscow appears immanent,  Premier Khrushchev didactically tells Ambassador Lentov, “One thing I can say: at some point in the last ten years we went beyond rationality in politics. We became prisoners of our machines, our suspicions, and our belief in logic. I am willing to come to the United States and to agree to disarmament.” In a telephone conversation, the unnamed President, presumably Kennedy, tells Khrushchev, “ Today what we had was a machine-made calamity. And I’m thinking that today you and I got a preview of the future. We damn well better learn carefully from it. More and more of our lives will be determined by these computerized systems.” In the subsequent last chapter of the novel the black rain falls on Moscow and New York City.

Fail-Safe is full of detailed conversations and debates about Cold War paradigms. It is an engaging thriller and reflects the fear and paranoia of its time. But it is more a book of ideas than a fully realised novel. The characters are usually thinly drawn and are mere shadows of these ideas.

Updated 11 December 2013



Nevil Shute ON THE BEACH (1957)

This is the best Cold War novel written by an Australian. It has remained in print for over fifty years and has sold more than 4 million copies.  The novel was adapted for a film in 1959 starring Gregory Peck and Ava Gardner.

One the Beach is a cautionary tale set in 1963 which narrates the end of the world from the point of view of several people living in Melbourne. After a series of minor conflicts in Europe and the Middle East nuclear wars are sparked between  Russia & NATO and Russia & Chinese. It is estimated by seismologists that at least 4,700 nuclear bombs have been detonated, including many cobalt bombs. All life in the northern hemisphere appears to have been wiped out and as the poisonous radioactive clouds creep south hey kill all inhabitants within two or three days. Australia, New Zealand and the southern parts of South America are the last to survive. By September 1963 everyone on the planet will be dead.

An American nuclear-powered submarine, the USS Scorpion, sets out from Melbourne to determine whether there are any survivors on the west coast of the United States. The crew are under instructions to land and inspect the towns if the radiation levels are not excessive.

The most interesting aspect of the novel is how the various characters respond to the notion that they will soon die. Some, like the decent Commander of the submarine, Dwight Towers, find comfort in attending church but blindly refuses to acknowledge that America has been destroyed. Many others, like Moira Davidson at the beginning of the novel, deals with her inevitable demise by getting blind drunk and seeking the comfort of men. John Osborne, a CSIRO scientist, on the otherhand, doesn't mind taking great risks racing his Ferrari in contests in which many drivers will die. As he explains to Peter Holmes, "You've got six months more...Just make the most of what you've got left." Peter Holmes, an Australian  liaison officer on the sub is more realistic in his approach and grimly hands his wife Mary a suicide pill, "The thing is this, dear. There's no recovery. But you don't have to die in a mess. You can die decently, when things begin to go bad." Others, like the grazier, Mr Davidson are even more stoical and embrace the inevitable, "You know, now that I've got used to the idea I think I'd rather have it this way. We've all got to die one day, some sooner than later. The trouble always has been that you're never ready, because you don't know when it's coming. Well, now we do know, and there's nothing to be done about it. I kind of like that."

Nevil Shute  wanted to shake people in the late 1950s out of their complacency in his apocalyptic vision. He attempts to personalise how nuclear war would impact on our way of life. As Moira suggestively tells Dwight Towers while half-tanked, "I'll never have a family like Mary. It's so unfair. Even if you took me to bed tonight I'd never have a family, because there wouldn't be time."

This is an interesting, straight-forward novel which you can easily adapt to Cold War paradigms.

Updated 9 December 2013
           

Kurt Vonnegut Cat's Cradle (1963)

This is an excellent, highly inventive apocalyptic novel but it is somewhat difficult to articulate in terms of After the Bomb paradigms. Kurt Vonnegut is a shrewd writer and he uses satire and black humour to reveal the stupidity of America's scientific/military/ religious bureaucracy that had brought the world to the brink of extermination in the early 1960s.

The story is narrated by Jonah Hoosier who originally sets out to interview prominant Americans about what they were doing when the first atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. Like John Hersey in Hiroshima, he was going "to emphasize the human rather than the technical side of the bomb. He wanted to include Dr Felix Hoenikker, one of the 'Fathers' of the first bomb at Los Almos, but he had recently died so he asked his children about their recollections. Jonah eventually learns that that Dr Hoenikker had invented a deadly isotope ice-nine if dropped into the ocean could freeze the entire planet.

The novel can be read as a satirical attack on over-reaching scientists who fail to forsee the consequences of their inventions. In interviewing Dr Breed, a collegue of Dr Hoenikker, for his book, Breed says, "I gather you don't like scientists very much...All your questions seem aimed at getting me to admit that scientists are heartless, conscienceless, narrow, boobies, indifferent to the fate of the rest of the human race, or maybe not really members of the human race after all."

Also interesting is the critique of religion in Cat's Cradle. Jonah ends up in San Lorenzo, a Caribbean island, to interview Frank, a son of Dr Hoenikker. We learn that in 1922 Corporal MCabe, an AWOL American sailor and Johnson (later known as Bokonon) take over the island. They threw out the priests and then "cynically and playfully" invented a new religion Bokononism to bring the people hope. As the historian Julian Castle explains to Jonah, "Well, when it became evident that no government or economic reform was going to make the people much less miserable, the religion became the one real instrument of hope. Truth was the enemy of the people, because the truth was so terrible, so Bokonon made it his business to provide the people with better and better lies."

Jonah never gets to finish his book The Day the World Ended, instead he writes Cat's Cradle after the world has been decimated by ice-nine.

This is an extremely funny but dark novel which was published a few months after the Cuban Missile Crisis which came dangerously close to destroying the world.

Updated November 2013


Aldous Huxley Ape and Essence (1948)

This is a lesser known of Huxley's novels but is an extremely clever, and at times, presents a wickedly satirical view of the ape like stupidity of man. 

The novel is structured in two sections 'Tallis' and 'The Script'. In 'Tallis' Bob Briggs, an arrogant big-shot writer and the unnamed narrator are walking along a road in the back blocks of a Hollywood studio when a two-ton truck veers around them and spills a small pile of rejected scripts intended for the incinerator. One script Ape and Essence intrigues them and they decide to call on the author William Tallis to discuss it. They soon learn from his landlady Mrs Coulton that he had died six weeks ago. The rest of the novel consists of Tallis' script which is printed by the narrator "without change and without comment."

 The script is not actually in script form but is usually written in prose. An omniscient narrator regularly sticks his nose into the story and provides us with his opinions and sometimes outrageous observations or ideas. In the opening pages of the script, for example, he rails against the misuse of science and sees humans as ignorant, angry apes: "And I need hardly add that what we call knowledge is merely another form of Ignorance- highly organised, of course, and eminently scientific, but for that very reason all the more complete, all the more productive of angry apes. When Ignorance was merely ignorance, we were the equivalents of lemurs, marmosts and howler monkeys." A few pages later, Huxley uses the imagine of Dr Albert Einstein "behind a group of baboons in uniform" facing another Einstein under another flag across from no-man's land. Under the simultaneous command of generals the two sides mutually destroy each other.

 Technically, this intrusive narrative device helps Huxley to achieve his aim as a novelist which is to arrive at a perfect fusion of the novel and the essay.

 In Tallis’ apocalyptic script, we soon discover that in February 2108 members of the New Zealand Re-Discovery Expedition to North America have reached what remains of Los Angeles after World War III which occurred more than one hundred years before. Apart from a few isolated pockets,  most of the civilised world has been destroyed. Dr Alfred Poole, a botanist, is captured by ragged mob of men and he is introduced to a primitive devil worshiping society, which uses books to fuel bread ovens and which uses purification ceremonies to slaughter deformed babies on Belial Day. Dr Poole gets the hots for Loola and falls in love with her even though this is forbidden. 

 In Ape and Essence, Huxley has many satirical targets in his sight: the stupidity of mutually assured destruction, man's dominance over nature and the subsequent devastation of our natural resources, the notion that progress must be achieved at all costs, the belief in the innate goodness of man, how fear and paranoia can lead to mass panic and self destruction and the dangers of the misuse of science and technology. Despite the seriousness of the subject matter, Huxley must have had a lot of fun writing this novel and several scenes are hilarious to read.

Updated 2 October 2013


Morecai Roshwald LEVEL 7 (1959)

This story is told from the point of view of X-127 through a series of diary entries. He lives 4,400 feet underground in a self-sufficient chamber called Level 7 which is capable of sustaining life for over five hundred years in the event of a nuclear war. His job is to push the button to launch nuclear weapons upon command. The SF novel begins flat and implausible but gains in power and intrigue as it progresses. The novel acts as a cautionary tale and charts the moral transformation of X-127. 

You will find two excellent lengthy essays in the preface, ‘Introduction’ by David Seed and ‘Looking Back in Wonder’ by the author. In the latter, written in 2003, Roshwald makes his intentions clear: 'The immediate conscious reason for writing the book was concern about the international scene. It was a time when nuclear armament of the United States met with a similar build-up of military technology in the Soviet Union. It was a dynamic situation, as both sides were continuously expanding their weapon systems- atomic bombs, hydrogen bombs, airborne nuclear weapons deployed by airplanes and missiles, small A-bombs, megaton bombs, multi-megaton weapons, kill, overkill..."Any bomb you can make I can make bigger!" Roshwald viewed this 'mad competition' with horror and decided to write a book: 'I felt I had to do something about it, and decided to write a book that would frighten people into sanity. I thought a novel would reach a much wider readership than an academic and scholarly essay.' He had 'no experience in writing fiction, not even a short story' and therefore 'decided on the diary form' to propel his didactic narrative. He says of Level 7: 'The message of Level 7 was loud and clear: nuclear weapons coupled with the means of their delivery, as they are deployed in various countries and are at the disposal of actual or potential enemies, pose a threat of unprecedented proportions. It is time for mankind, or its political leaders, to awake and to do something about it.'

The book's cover appears to show the 23 kiloton atomic explosion from the underwater Baker test of 25 July 1946 on Bikini Atoll. This was the first test of an atomic weapon by the Americans since World War 2 and was roughly double the yield of the Hiroshima bomb.


Philip Wylie TOMORROW! (1954)

This novel is a third person narrative largely told through the eyes of Civil Defense ‘gallant’ volunteers to whom Wylie dedicates this book. The Conner family of Green Prairie, near Kansas City,  are ordinary folk who step-up to meet the challenge of a Soviet nuclear attack.

Structurally, the novel is propelled by a ‘told-you-so’ lecturing sense of dramatic irony and is divided unsubtly into five sections: X-Day Minus 90, X-Day Minus 60, X-Day Minus 30, X-Day and It. The commitment to civil defense of Green Prairie is sharply contrasted with its neighbor across the bridge, River City, who perish in vaster numbers & whose citizens lead much of the chaotic debauchment into rural areas after the 100 kiloton plutonium blast, one of dozens by the faceless, evil communists.

Wylie is a skilled writer and is clever at satirically examining long-term marital relationships. The best sections of the novel include Wylie’s horrific descriptions of the impact of the bomb on the civilian population (from page 268) and editor Coley Borden’s scathing editorial on McCarthyism (122-137) before he is vaporized.

After the Soviet Union is wiped out by a massive cobalt superbomb, Wylie’s concluding message of hope is over-shadowed by xenophobic, hawkish values. Scary shit!



Tim O’Brien If I Die in a Combat Zone: Box Me Up & Ship Me Home. Broadway Books, New York, 1999 (first published 1975), 209 pages.
In this excellent memoir about his experiences as a foot soldier during the Vietnam War, Tim O’Brien uses reportage and fictional narrative devices to add to its emotional impact on the reader. The book consists of twenty-three short chapters, each of which examines a specific aspect of O’Brien’s involvement in the war. ‘Beginning’, for example, is focused on the circumstances in which O’Brien was drafted into the US Army in 1968, his moral questioning of the war and the reasons why he eventually submitted and got onto that recruitment bus. ‘Under the Mountain’ looks at O’Brien’s basic military training at Fort Lewis and his relationship with his poet friend Erik. ‘Ambush’, ‘Assault’, ‘My Lai in May’, ‘Step Lightly’, ‘Dulce et Decorum’ and many others graphically recount some of O’Brien’s combat experiences and are among the most interesting in the book. The last chapter ‘Don’t I Know You’ is about O’Brien’s return to his parent’s home in ‘unchanged’ Minnesota.

This book is an intensely personal account and is acutely observational with an over-arching philosophical dimension. O’Brien explores the nature of goodness, what constitutes a ‘just war’, the nature of courage, of truth  and he includes many allusions to Plato, Socrates and Christ.

O’Brien combines a discussion of the terrors of war with an exploration of the personal and the political and a questioning of human values and institutions. We see a questioning of military authority, the relentless mutilating deaths of young American  soldiers, the senseless slaughter of innocent civilians, the moral ambiguity of distinguishing who the enemy is, GI’s whose ‘single obsession’ is to score a job out of the combat zone and the futile pursuit of a ‘wrong war’.

At the end of chapter Three ‘Beginnings’ O’Brien states, ‘I would wish this book could take the form of a plea for everlasting peace, a plea from one who knows, from one who’s been there and come back, an old soldier looking back at a dying war.’ But in the end, all he is ‘left with are simple, unprofound scraps of truth’ of his war experiences which he has tried to make sense of in this book. O’Brien sums up what he has learnt about the Vietnam War and the difficulty of converting his experiences into moral lessons:

‘Men die. Fear hurts and humiliates. It is hard to be brave. It is hard to know what bravery is. Dead human beings are heavy and awkward to carry, things smell different in Vietnam, soldiers are dreamers, drill sergeants are boors, some men thought the war was proper and others didn’t and most didn’t care. Is that the stuff for a morality lesson, even for a theme?

Do dreams offer lessons? Do nightmares have themes, do we awaken and analyze them and live our lives and advise others as a result? Can the foot soldier teach anything important about war, merely for having been there? I think not. He can tell war stories.’ 

Tim O’Brien’s Official Website includes a New York Times review of his book and a Study Guide here: http://www.illyria.com/tobhp.html


Peter Schneider The Wall Jumper, Penguin Books, London, 1982.

This is a highly sophisticated novel set in the East and West Germany in the early 1980s. At first, it appears The Wall Jumper is a journalistic account rather than fiction. The novel is told from an unnamed writer who is collecting stories about the Berlin Wall for his next book. He travels from one side of the wall to the other and we meet a motley collection of characters who have had to learn to live with the absurdity and tragedy of the wall. Most interesting are the stories of people such as Mr Kabe, Walter Bolle and Michael Gartenschlager who defy the system and work in different ways to ‘jump the wall.’ 

The narrator is from the West and through many of his barroom discussions he explores the personal and political cost of the Wall. Near the end of the novel, he visits an aunt he has never seen before in Dresden, in East Germany. His cousin is on a weekend furlough from the National People’s Army but he will not even stick his neck out the door to greet him because soldiers are forbidden any Western contact. The narrator is shocked and later wonders if he had grown up in the East whether he’d be like his cousin: ‘If I had grown up in the same circumstances, the same house, the same town as my cousin, could I have been brought to a comparable level of obedience? Do I imagine a flattering answer only because I’ve never been subjected to the same pressure? Or would I have rebelled precisely because of the pressure? If so, at what point would I have started rebelling?’ 

The flaws in both systems are discussed in a highly refined and intelligent way by Schneider. He is never didactic and rather exposes the stupidity of ideology through irony, subtle wit and nuance in his use of anecdotes.

 Ian McEwan writes an eloquent Introduction in which he establishes the context of the novel and provides shrewd insights into Schneider’s subtleties. He says for example in paragraph two: ‘The Wall, as everybody agreed at the time, was the most tangible symbol of the Cold War: two mutually suspicious., lethally armed economic systems stood nose to nose. Berlin became a pressure point- in Khrushchev’s memorable phrase, the city was “the testicles of the West. When I want the West to scream, I squeeze on Berlin". The divided city represented the state of play at the end of the second world war, frozen in time; and when the Wall came down in November 1989, it was widely said that only then had that war finally ended.'


The Wall Jumper is an excellent After the Bomb novel and is highly recommended.


A tale of two cities; East and West Berlin

Here’s an interesting radio program on the two Berlins, recently rebroadcast on Radio National’s Rear Vision: http://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/rearvision/a-tale-of-two-cities3b-east-and-west-berlin/4370922
Synopsis: On 3 October, Germany will celebrate 22 years of reunification. Rear Vision puts the spotlight on Berlin, a city that was for almost 30 years divided by a wall and these days is still coming to terms with what that meant and how it should be remembered. This program was first broadcast on 23 September 2012.


If you live in Australia, the cheapest place to buy new Cold War novels on-line is through the Book Depository (UK) http://www.bookdepository.co.uk/  They do not charge for delivery. Amazon typically charge about $12 for delivery alone.