A Gentleman in Moscow

But as the elixir dissolved on his tongue, the Count became aware of something else entirely.  Rather than the flowering trees of central Moscow, the honey had a hint of a grassy riverbank….the trace of a summer breeze…..a suggestion of a pergola…..But most of all there was the unmistakable essence of a thousand apple trees in bloom.

The Mammoth Communist octopus is currently spreading its tentacles across all sectors of Hong Kong society.  The octopus is quietly choking the life out of the robust democratic and legal traditions enjoyed by the majority of Hong Kong citizens.  The Free World can only look on in horror as the dramatic destruction of free speech plays out before its eyes.51852304_401

In this context of communist China’s oppression of Hong Kong, Amor Towles novel, “A Gentleman in Moscow” is a refreshing reminder of the possibility of human survival and creativity under a totalitarian communist regime.

On 21 June 1942, Count Alexander Rostov is sentenced to permanent house arrest in the Moscow Hotel Metropol.  He is assigned a tiny room in the attic.  The novel wonderfully captures the mentality of the eccentric aristocrat who has enjoyed personal if unequal relationships with his “inferiors”.   He knows his barber, the waiter who serves the food, the chef who cooks it and the seamstress who repairs his clothes.  These relationship enable the Count to adapt to his new role as Chief Waiter in the Boyarsky dining room.

The surprise encounter with the precocious nine year old Nina Kulokiva, a fellow long-term hotel resident, allows the Count to form an usual and life-long friendship with his young protégée whom he feels obliged to educate according to the “old standards” of human decency and civility.

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We meet a host of other interesting characters working in the Hotel.  However the oppressive Communist menace of the Gulag is never far away and the Count finds many ways to diminish its oppressive power over his life and that of Nina.  The encounter with the beautiful model Anna Urbonova  shifts from romantic liaison into another permanent friendship.

The passing references to the “First Five-Year Plan”and the second “Five-Year Plan” indicate the extent of the tragedy that Russia is traversing while the Count endures his permanent “exile”.

Once the Count realizes that he has lost Nina to the Communist enterprise he climbs up onto the parapet of the hotel to commit suicide.  Here occurs one of the most moving scenes in the novel.  He is interrupted by Abram, the old handy-man from his former estate who happens to live in a shack on the hotel roof.  Abram is excited to tell the Count that the “bees have returned”.  Years before, the bees disappeared from the roof under which Abram and the Count spent many evenings reminiscing.  So the Count has to see their new hives and taste the fresh honey.

 

“Dutifully, the Count put the spoon in his mouth.  In an instant there was the familiar sweetness of fresh honey – sunlit, golden and gay.  Given the time of year, the Count was expecting this first impression to be followed by a hint of lilacs from the Alexander Gardens or cherry blossoms from the Garden Ring.  But as the elixir dissolved on his tongue, the Count became aware of something else entirely.  Rather than the flowering trees of central Moscow, the honey had a hint of a grassy riverbank….the trace of a summer breeze…..a suggestion of a pergola…..But most of all there was the unmistakable essence of a thousand apple trees in bloom.

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Abram was nodding his head.  “Nizhny Novgorod”, he said.  And it was.  Unmistakably so.  “All these years, they must have listening to us”, Abram added in a whisper.  The Count and the handyman both looked toward the roof’s edge where the bees, having traveled over a hundred miles and applied themselves in willing industry, now wheeled above their hives as pinpoints of blackness, like the inverse of stars”.   True human communion includes communion with nature.

So when Nina rushes off to Siberia to look for her husband who has been sent to the Gulag, she asks the Count to take care of her daughter Sofia until she returns.  Of course, she never does.  The Count begins his second journey as educational mentor which will last for the next twenty plus years until the decisive moment when the Count realizes he can help Sofia escape to the West.  He has maintained his capacity to act.

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The scene on the roof with Abram reminded me of a scene in the film “Gone with the Wind”.  The South is disintegrating and Scarlett O’Hara is running down the street of a chaotic town while a black confederate militia is marching up the street in the opposite direction.  Suddenly, in a moment of mutual recognition, Scarlett joyfully recognizes the black slave foreman, Big Sam from Tara.  The two huddle in a brief happy conversation. The rest of the world just passes them by. This gigantic, good-natured man says something like “No need to worry none, Miss Scarlett, we’re gonna stop them Yankees”.

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In other words, there is always a truth beyond the grasp of a philosophical analysis of the  Master-Slave relationship, which will never be subject to Marxist interpretation by dialectical materialism.  Suddenly for brief moments, there emerges the truth of a common shared humanity in the creation and preservation of a human community whose essence is not determined by the specific rules, structures and laws apparently governing it.  This is perhaps why the only person in the whole world with whom Abram can share his joy about the return of the bees is his former master, the Count Rostov, who sits attentively on a piece of wood beside him listening to the wonder of their common story.

 

The Ministry of Utmost Happiness

“At magic hour, when the sun has gone but the light has not, armies of flying foxes unhinge themselves from the Banyan trees in the old graveyard and drift across the city like smoke”.  So begins Arundhati Roy’s second novel about modern India, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness. 

“At magic hour, when the sun has gone but the light has not, armies of flying foxes unhinge themselves from the Banyan trees in the old graveyard and drift across the city like smoke”.  So begins Arundhati Roy’s second novel about modern India, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness.  The book is a literary master-piece full of evocative language and images that serve to communicate a teeming over-crowded world full of dislocated but unique individuals. Continue reading “The Ministry of Utmost Happiness”

‘Still Me’ by Jojo Moyes

It is striking that Lou remains faithful to her “London working class” perspective on social relations right through the three novels.  She always views society from the bottom up and comments on what she sees.  She is often blind to what people on the top see when they look down. 

In “Still Me”, the light-hearted and comic description of the life of the super-rich in New York shows how inhumane their society really is.  The London setting for the previous two Louisa Clark novels by Jojo Moyes, “Me Before You” and “After You” contrasted the Traynor’s life-style with that of the working-class Clark family.

It might be too easy to interpret each novel as a stage in Lou’s development towards a mature and stable love relationship with Sam.  One could easily focus on the dynamics of the love story by considering London and New York as simply the settings in which the love story unfolds.

However it is also possible to consider Lou’s love story with Sam as the context in which Jojo Moyes offers a reflection on social divisions.  It is striking that Lou remains faithful to her “London working class” perspective on social relations right through the three novels.  She always views society from the bottom up and comments on what she sees.  She is often blind to what people on the top see when they look down.  This allows Moyes to ensure a light and comical tone to the three novels.

However the social criticism hidden here is anything but comical.  It is a deadly serious reflection on the power of wealth to corrupt human goodness and empty persons until they become parrots or robots simple living in the way their social class demands.  Lou is naturally in solidarity with anyone who is poor or downtrodden.  It is her perennial, automatic, un-reflective response.  This is who she really is.  She imbibed it during childhood in a tiny council home which housed four generations of her family.

A few minor incidents in the novel can illustrate how this social criticism works in Moyes’ novels.  Lou’s aged grandfather finally dies at home in London while Lou is in New York.  The whole family is devastated.  He has been a friendly, kind presence in front of the “telly” with his “cup of tea” watching, maybe even betting, on the “races” for a long number of years.   He could be the real anti-thesis to Will Traynor.  “He accepted his lot” happily.

When Lou finds out that she has been framed for “stealing” by Agnes, her first instinct is not to protect herself but to protect Agnes who is her employer.  This is one of the surprising ways that Lou remains faithful to her working class origins.  She is employed to serve. So, she serves.  She understands the injustice of the situation but she is also understands Agnes’ predicament.   She puts Agnes first.  Justice can come later. Perhaps only people who have experienced real poverty, can find the spiritual freedom to act like this.

The family’s participation in the Christmas mass makes explicit what was implicit in the earlier novels.  Poor Lou’s parents may be poor and uneducated, but they know the source of their moral compass.

In the novel “After You”, it is clear that Sam lives and works happily on the underside of society in close physical contact with people who suffer from accidents, alcohol, drugs or violence.  This is his “real world” where Lou is also at home.  Yet, she remains available to help Lily Traynor, who seems destined to self-destruct but ends up later, saving Lou and Sam.

In the novel “Me Before You”, Lou constantly puts Will before herself and tries to love him back to life as it were.  But Will has made his decision and there is nothing that Lou can do to change the situation.  It might appear that Jojo Moyes has made the case for assisted suicide with her wonderful description of the limitations that Will experiences from his paralysis.  Lou’s moral confusion reflects that of the reader.  But it would be a mistake to miss the other side of the story.  Lou’s mother remains the one implacable and resolute moral voice raised against Will’s decision.  Grandfather is there, sitting in front of the “telly”.  In this way the novel quietly present both sides of the issue.  will and lou

Both Lou’s parents have to come to sudden terms with Lou’s sister gay relationship, half-way through the novel “Still Me”, but they do so with the surprising ease of those who have loved the outcast all their lives.  Their moral compass can shift in this area while it will never shift in the other area (i.e. life is a gift from God).

In short, it seems to me that the three novels poetically describe the corrupting power of wealth and the spiritual liberation that the solidarity of the poor can facilitate in a modern family setting.  It is the comic tone that disguises the serious reflection!

The Great Alone

However the real strength of this novel is in its second important characteristic.   Leni experiences the love relationship between her parents as a mystery at first.  She realizes that since Ernt returned from Vietnam, he is troubled and violent in a way that he was not before he went.  Cora loves him and tries to love him back to good mental health.  She fails. 

It was interesting to read “The Great Alone”, during this time of corona virus semi-lockdown in Battambang in Cambodia.  Kristin Hannah describes the life of one small family who decide to move to a remote region of Alaska.  They hope to begin a new life “close to nature” and far away from modern “civilization”.  Actually this family really just involves three people, Cora Allbright, her husband Ernt and their teenage daughter Leni.  Alaska

This novel rises above the level of a sophisticated romance story in two ways. Continue reading “The Great Alone”

Korean Justice

However despite the intricacies of this Korean plot, the décor in which the significant conversations take place are large rectangular rooms reminiscent of Greek architecture. While the drama is obviously about Korean society, its import is universal. The question of the corruption of the human soul by passions and by greed is discussed explicitly in the early stages of the drama.

One Saturday evening, while watching a live Premier League football match, which was being broadcast on a Cambodian television network, I switched to the KBS channel during the half-time interval.  On it, I discovered a Korean TV drama with English subtitles called “Justice”.  After ten minutes I was hooked and did not return to the football match.  The courts and the media in Cambodia are not independent, so it was interesting to see how a Korean drama deals with corruption of a similar type in a much more democratic and free society.

One recent example of this media-control in Cambodia was in a headline tweeted by The Phnom Penh Post recently.  The words used were “Three Supreme Court-dissolved CNRP activists have been placed in pre-trial detention…” which clearly imply that these men are criminals.  The Phnom Penh Post knows fully that the Supreme Court is not independent and has been used by the Government to suppress the legitimate legal opposition party.  Yet the newspaper simply chooses to ignore this truth and portray innocent men as criminals. So much for truth in the press.

So the Korean drama seems exceptional in many ways. It tells the story of a disillusioned and corrupt lawyer, Lee Tae-kyeong, who works for a rich owner of a building company, Song Woo-yong.  The violent death of his younger brother seven years previously pushed Tae-kyeong into the company of Woo-yong who deliberately sets out to corrupt his “soul”. This friendship turns into bitter animosity.  Meanwhile Tae-kyeong’s former girlfriend, Seo Yeun-ah, has become an incorruptible prosecutor secretly working to solve “cold” murder cases of vulnerable young women.  In a plot to help his powerful business partner, the psychopathic Tak Soo-hoo, of Jung-im Electronics, Woo-yong asks Tae-kyeong to defend the innocent victims of methanol poisoning at the Jung-im factories with a view to abandoning them all later.

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Woo-yong’s network includes powerful judges, media owners and politicians for whom he provides both bribes and high-class call girls.  His power is thus immense.  The opulence of the wealth of the rich elite is stunning but their moral degradation is even more stunning.  Woo-yong is clever at using lust, greed and the desire for “status” as bait to trap the powerful into doing his bidding.  He underlines the consequences of personal choice many times.

However despite the intricacies of this Korean plot, the décor in which the significant conversations take place are large rectangular rooms reminiscent of Greek architecture. While the drama is obviously about Korean society, its import is universal. The question of the corruption of the human soul by passions and by greed is discussed explicitly in the early stages of the drama.  At first the thirst for justice seems more like a thirst for revenge for injured family members.  Gradually the theme of true justice emerges largely due the fearless and honest Seo Yeun-ah.  Is justice possible in this world or does it exist at all?  How will we know? Socrates argued at his trial that one lie or unjust act harms the soul irreparably.

 

The drama could have created scenes of gory violence given the number of murders involved.  It could also have included graphic sex scenes given the number of sexual favours provided by high class call girls to Woo-yong’s business associates. However the drama is coldly sober in all its scenes.  Even the subterranean love relationship between Tae-kyeong and Yeun-ah is never expressed in a physical gesture, not even a kiss or a hug.  This sobriety allows the friendship between them to deepen into a “communion of souls” like Aristotle’s idea about perfect friendship.

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Each of the three main characters is passionately devoted to a family member; a young brother, son or father.  While this attachment seems to cloud calm judgment and allow passions to trouble the soul, in the long run, it is corrected by the truth that emerges in the search for justice.  For much of the drama, the search for justice is so clouded by passions that it appears the new world will only be a hellish new version of the old world.  This is where the drama resembles the Greek drama of Antigone who cannot find a way to respect both her dead brother and the state.

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However the drama allows this tragic world to be suddenly brightened by the simple genuine humanity of the smaller people in the story so that in the end it is the love of the crippled but honest son of Woo-yong, Song Dae-jin and the courage of the traumatised actress Jang Yeong-mi who allow justice to be found and confession and forgiveness to be contemplated.

The figure of Tak Soo-hoo epitomizes in the fashion of the Joker, the possibility of absolute evil or the “no soul” person.  If he is mad, he is human, but if he is not mad, what is he?  This question is also fairly posed but not answered.

There are minor irritations in the drama when each second episode ends on some mystery note to make sure that you want to switch onto the next episode.  There are some minor leads which go nowhere and are never tied up.  However the acting is in all cases superb, as if each person knows their role in what appears as an ordinary Korean soap-opera but is much more a Philosophical drama in the style of Ancient Greece.   The ending is a little bizarre given the extent of evil inflicted and suffered by the participants.  It is not karmic.

 

Kung Raiya, Hong Kong, the Church and Hannah Arendt

The coastal town of Sihanoukville has become a beach and gambling resort for Chinese tourists from the mainland. Many newly constructed buildings are already falling down, uncollected rubbish is piled high in the streets and the town floods because of blocked drains. Chinese workers are everywhere. The Government is allowing massive unsupervised Chinese investment in Cambodia. There is talk of a Chinese naval base at Ream.

The works of Hannah Arendt, the political theorist and philosopher, have furnished insights into  the political situation in Cambodia,  the Catholic Church and  Hong Kong which I will attempt to explain in this blog.   A recent court case in Phnom Penh reveals the truth about the political situation here.  The insights of Hannah Arendt could help to illuminate the issues around this case.  Perhaps her work can also be applied to the political situation of the Catholic Church, of Hong Kong and of Cambodia.

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Kem Ley Commemoration

Here in Cambodia on the 13th of August last, the Court of Appeal refused the bail applications of Mr. Kung Raiya and Mr. Suong Neakpaon.  The two were arrested in July for commemorating the anniversary of the political assassination of Mr. Kem Ley, a peaceful social analyst, on the 10th of July 2016.   Apparently, the former distributed tee-shirts with an image of Kem Ley on them and the latter distributed leaflets at the site of the murder.  Mr. Kem Ley had been shot in broad daylight at a Caltex garage shortly after penning an article outlining the amount of wealth and property amassed by the Prime Minister and his family over the last few years. Continue reading “Kung Raiya, Hong Kong, the Church and Hannah Arendt”

Kung Raiya, the silly twit!

The Phnom Penh Municipal Court charged activist Kung Raiya with incitement to commit a felony today for printing T-shirts with murdered political analyst Kem Ley’s image and words.

On the 11th of July, I read a ridiculous story from Cambodia.  I have decided to simply let it speak for itself.   The background is that on the 10th of July 2016, a Khmer social activist, Mr. Kim Ley, was shot dead in broad daylight at a Caltex petrol station in Phnom Penh.  The CCTV footage was handed over to the police but has never been been leaked to the media since. So there is not a shred of evidence to support people’s suspicions. Continue reading “Kung Raiya, the silly twit!”

Washington Black

The novel throws light on the warps in human personality caused by complicity with slavery. The shadows of this awful past still mark friendships today.

This novel, by Esi Edugyan, was short-listed for the Booker Prize in 2018.  It is an unusual novel by its attention to historical detail.  It is a novel about the limits of love and friendship set in the context of slavery.

Esi Edugyan for NOW Magazine.

It starts by describing the life of a young slave on a plantation in Barbados in 1830.  His name is Washington Black.  The prose descriptions of life on the plantation are vivid and harsh.  Washington experiences both wanton cruelty and motherly protection.  When the plantation owner’s brother (Titch) arrives to carry out further scientific research, Washington becomes his technical assistant.  The story of this relationship provides the central focus of the novel.

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In an extraordinary escape from a violent death, the unlikely pair flee the island in a balloon, land on a boat and end up searching for the long-lost father in the Arctic.  The wonderful descriptive and realistic prose help to carry the reader along this strange journey from extreme heat to extreme cold.  The wildness of nature is reflected in the wildness of emotions experienced by Washington as he finds himself abandoned by Titch.

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Yet Washington finds love and direction in the Arctic and with the help of another scientist and his daughter makes his way to London to set up a Marine Museum.   At the end of a journey, Washington rediscovers Titch in Morocco at the edge of the desert engaged in more scientific research.

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This novel reflects on the complexity involved in human friendships.  The expectations and hopes in the partner are never fulfilled and one is left with a frustrating sense of incompleteness.  It could be argued that while Washington was abandoned by Titch, Washington inadvertently abandoned Big Kit, back on the plantation, whom he finally discovers through old slave records, to be his own mother.

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The novel throws light on the warps in human personality caused by complicity with slavery.  The  shadows of this awful past still mark friendships today.

 

Milkman

While I was reading Milkman, I could only read a few pages at a time. Then I had to stop to think. I found that I could not read the novel quickly which struck me as quite unusual. Each minor, seemingly insignificant, incident in the story seemed to me pregnant with deeper meaning (the discovery of the cat’s head on the road home, for example).

Milkman is the most interesting Irish novel that I have read in years.  Three good friends of mine grew up in the troubled heartlands of Belfast.  I also spent some time in a home for young offenders in the early eighties in County Down and as a hospital chaplain in Belfast in the early nineties.  These experiences enabled me to appreciate that Anna Burns has captured a historical “truth” in her novel in a surprisingly similar way to Caroline Brothers in her novel, The Memory Stones, about the military dictatorship in Argentina. Continue reading “Milkman”

Cambodia’s Dirty Dozen

Given the serious accusations of involvement in corruption, torture and extra-judicial killings by senior members of the Cambodian security in this Human Rights Watch report, is it not surprising that the Government reaction has been so muted? 

Human Rights Watch recently produced a detailed report on twelve senior generals of the Cambodian Army, Gendarmarie and Police forces.  They added the provocative title “Cambodia’s Dirty Dozen”.

Continue reading “Cambodia’s Dirty Dozen”