Monday, 22 September 2014

Hilary Mantel's Plot to Assassinate Maggie Thatcher

There is a growing body of opinion, which is gaining momentum in the right wing press, that the double Booker Prize winning novelist, Hilary Mantel, has gone bonkers. There are those who are prepared to concede—never let it be said that the right wingers cannot be reasonable—that Mantel might still have some links with reality, but (imagine them nodding their heads sadly) the connection is faulty. Mental illness can strike anyone, and being a talented artist does not make you immune from succumbing (it’s a strange word, succumbing; it denotes that it is somehow the fault of the succumbee that they have succumbed, say, to cancer or to alcoholism; and only if they had the strength of the character, more will power, they would have seen the threat off) to mental conditions. Indeed some might argue that being a genius might even make you vulnerable to losing your mind. It is always sad when a once talented artist’s once talented mind disintegrates into lunacy, but these things happen. When the Swiss psychoanalyst Carl Jung analysed James Joyce’s daughter when she was beginning to lose her marbles, Jung felt compelled to diagnose schizophrenia in not just her but also in her father. There was that mathematician—I forget his name; you know whom I mean; the one on whose life the Oscar winning film Beautiful Mind was based—who was an absolute genius and also a schizophrenic. Perhaps these things are related. (I should point out that the reverse is not necessarily true: just because you are a schizophrenic, you are not a genius.)

Is Hilary Mantel a genius? I think she is. And I say this not having read either of her Booker winning novels. A friend of mine told me that Wold Hall, Mantel’s 2009 Booker winner, was one of the worst books she had ever read. (My friend, that is, not Mantel. I do not know what Mantel thought of her own novel, but I doubt very much if she thinks it is one of the worst novels she has read, although I have also read that many authors choose not to read their own novels; so I don’t know.) She could not go beyond the first ten pages, apparently, my friend. However, since my friend’s literary appetite is more than adequately assuaged by the free Waitrose kitchen magazine, I am not sure that her withering verdict of Wolf Hall is necessarily a reflection on the quality of Mantel’s novel. Why do I think Mantel is a genius? I have based my verdict on two (non-Booker winning) novels of Mantel I have read, both of which, I thought, were superb.

So we agree that Mantel is a genius. This, we also agree, makes her more vulnerable to developing a mental illness than Mr. Shabuddhin, who owns a corner-shop round the corner from my flat. Mr. Shah (as he is known in the area) has not written any book to the best of my knowledge. He once told me that he had never read a book in his life, as he could not see the point, and considered the activity to be a waste of his time which he would rather spend in his shop. (Although I have not directly asked him, I don’t think Mr. Shah would consider himself a genius. While there are downsides of not being a genius, if it protects you from going mad, it has got to be regarded as a plus.)

In addition to Mantel’s (deserving) claim to being a genius, are there any other vulnerability factors that make Mantel more prone—than Mr.Shahabuddhin—to succumbing to mental illness? I have heard that those who go doolally are frequently remembered by their friends as always being a bit weird. Is Mantel weird? She might be. I have read a non-fiction book of Mantel entitled Giving Up the Ghost , which I thought was very readable; but I also remember thinking, when I finished it, that, no offence, but the woman was a bit weird. (Mantel describes in the book a childhood experience—which has stayed with her all her life—when she encountered evil in the back-garden of her house; and she is not talking metaphorically).
Who has diagnosed mental illness in Hilary Mantel? A chap called Timothy Bell—who is a Lord—is convinced that Mantel is a dangerous lunatic. Lord Bell—a friend and a former PR advisor to Margaret Thatcher, according to Independent (and to a number of disgraced celebrities, dodgy companies and third world dictators, according to another article in the Guardian) thinks that Mantel should (a) be investigated by the police and (b) see a therapist. Why is Lord Bell moved to suggest such drastic measures? Lord Bell’s (unsolicited) advice to the police (that they should investigate Mantel) and to Mantel (that she should see a therapist) is in response to a short story Mantel published on line in the Guardian this month, entitled The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher, which is one of the short-stories which will be published in a compilation at the end of the month (also titled The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher). The short story depicts a scene in which a Scouser (a bit of a regional stereotype here; why couldn’t the would-be assassin be from Berkshire?) enters the house of an ordinary woman whose kitchen window looks on to the back-garden of the hospital where Thatcher has come for a minor procedure on her eye. In an interview given to the Guardian Mantel admitted that she had a “boiling distaste” for Thatcher. The kernel of the story, she also revealed, occurred to her more than thirty years ago when she spotted an unguarded Margaret Thatcher from a window in Windsor and apparently thought that if she (Mantel) were someone else she (Thatcher) would be dead. (In other words Mantel lacked the guts to kill Thatcher or, like Gandhi, decided that violence does not solve anything.) So Thatcher survived (only to succumb to Alzheimer’s decades later, but not before she had brought ruination on working class communities); but it did not stop Mantel from fantasizing about murdering Thatcher, and she decided to sublimate her murderous instinct through the creative avenue open to her. She wrote a story. Mantel said that it took her more than thirty years to complete the story, a case of a very long writer’s block, although we can’t really say that, seeing as the woman published several novels (two of which went on to win the Booker) and non-fiction work in the intervening decades while she was wrestling with the technicalities of the story.

The right wing, Tory-loving, press has gone nuts after the Guardian published the story. Lord Bell felt—and he should know—that the story was “unquestionably in bad taste”.  Another Tory MP, Nadine Doris—who I believe has written a novel which she is flogging for 77 p or some such price on Amazon Kindle—is “gutted” and “shocked”.  Why? Because the publication of Mantel’s short story is so close to Thatcher’s death. Thatcher, Doris reminds Mantel, still has a living family. Doris concludes—to make this issue absolutely clear—that Mantel’s story has a character, Thatcher, whose demise is so recent.  (Would Doris have minded had Mantel waited for ten more years to publish this story? She had waited for thirty years already; would ten more years have been such a disaster?) Another Tory MP, someone called Stewart Jackson, is convinced that Mantel is a weirdo and her “death story” is “sick and deranged”. A Conservative activist called Tim Montgomery is disappointed that the Guardian chose to promote Mantel’s story full of hateful words about Mrs. Thatcher, his hero.

Is writing a short story about a recently diseased former prime minister of the country who—shall we say?—a divisive figure in the history of twentieth century British politics, in which the author depicts a scenario of the impending assassination of the said prime-minister suggestive of a mental illness in the author? Is it a criminal act? That depends, one would assume, on what is written. I read the short-story on line. Now I am no psychiatrist; neither am I columnist in a right wing, Labour-bashing broadsheet; nor a champagne swigging, minority-hating, homophobic Tory supporter; but Mantel’s short story struck me as a very well written piece with glimpses of Mantel’s trade-mark dark humour. You might accuse Mantel of bad taste or of sick mind but not of a criminal act that would have police arrive at your doorsteps with a search warrant for your mind, or social workers and psychiatrists wanting to put you on a community order unless you accepted antipsychotics. Mantel may be ideologically diseased and suffering from incurable hatred of Maggie Thatcher on the dubious grounds that Thatcher was a disaster for the country, but mad and a criminal? 

Everybody has a good and bad side. However, when one is judging a dead person, I see no good reason why only the best self-manifestations of the diseased should be the basis of the final judgement.

I am currently in the midst of writing a couple of short stories. The premise of the first one is as follows: David Cameron gets kidnapped by an army of cockroaches which tickles his privates with their hairy legs and giant antennae until he either agrees to recommend the cockroach-chief as the next leader of the Tory party, or dies of laughter-induced exhaustion. The second one, which is still in the conception phase, is an erotic fantasy revolving around the love affair between Teresa May and a giant cucumber.  However, I am worried now. I should perhaps wait until Cameron and May are six feet under for twenty years before I attempt to publish it.

Sunday, 7 September 2014

Book of the Month: The Betrayal (Helen Dunmore)

In 1952, an ageing and paranoid Joseph Stalin decided that it was time to put the doctors in Soviet Union to the sword. The deaths of high-positioned Soviet apparatchiks convinced Stalin that doctors were agents of the Western powers, out to assassinate Soviet leadership by poisoning it. (The truth, of course, was more prosaic. The men died from natural—and in some cases self-inflicted—reasons such as advanced alcoholism and heart failure; and nothing that the doctors could have done would have saved them.) The last grisly and gruesome episode of Stalin’s “terror” was unleashed, which ended, mercifully, after only a few months with his death.  Innocent doctors—several of them Jewish (Stalin was not anti-Semitic for religious reasons, but he considered Jews to be potential Fifth Elements), were arrested, and confessions were obtained from them by Stalin’s usual tactics (beat, beat, and beat some more). The numbers, initially small, quickly swelled up to hundreds.  Public opinion against the arrested doctors was mobilised; preposterous articles were published in Pravda about the “doctors’ plot”—uncovered by the vigilance of the loyal party members—designed to kill top Soviet leadership including Stalin himself. (The headline of the article, which set the tone of the article, was: “Vicious Spies and Killers under the Mask of Academic Physicians”). The idea was to build up public fervour, leading to show trials. The arrested doctors were lucky in comparison with the millions who perished in Stalin’s ‘terror’ of the 1930s (which probably inspired Mao Tse Tung’s “Cultural Revolution”  in the 1960s) because the dictator died suddenly of a brain haemorrhage in March 1953. (According to Simon Sebag Montefiero’s excellent Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar, Stalin was alone in his study at night when he suffered a “cerebrovascular accident”, and his death was perhaps hastened because no medical help was immediately available.)  The new Soviet leadership quickly distanced itself from Stalin’s last, mostly pointless, act of vengeance. The trials—set to start in March 1953—were cancelled, and the doctors released.

The short-lasting episode against the Soviet doctors, in the last days of Stalin’s dictatorship, is the inspiration behind the Orange Prize winner Helen Dunmore’s 2010 novel The Betrayal.
Dunmore, who won the inaugural (1996) Orange Prize for A Spell of Winter, enjoyed success of another sort with her 2001 novel The Siege which was commercial success. The Siege tells the story of the first (and the harshest) winter during the three-year siege of Leningrad by the Germans during the Second World War.

In The Betrayal we meet some of the characters in The Siege. It is almost ten years since the siege of Leningrad. Stalin, apparently immortal, is still ruling the Soviet Union. Andrei is a young paediatrician (with special interest in arthritic conditions) working in Leningrad’s hospital. His wife, Anna, works in a children’s nursery. Andrei and Anna live together with Anna’s younger brother, Kolya. We learn that Anna’s mother (also a physician) died in childbirth while her father, a writer and poet who fell out of favour in the 1930s and was ostracized (but was lucky enough not to have been sent to Siberia), died, together with Marina—a woman who probably became his partner after his wife’s death—, during the siege of Leningrad. Andrei and Anna are slowly building their lives from the wreckage of the Second World War, in Stalin’s Russia, taking care—as most under Soviet dictatorship did—not to do anything that would make them conspicuous. Then one day Andrei is approached by Russov, a highly positioned doctor in Andrei’s hospital, for a second opinion on a ten year old child who has been admitted with a swelling under his knee. The child is the son of a high ranking KGB officer named Volkov. Andrei senses a trap. Years of living under Stalin have taught Andrei that he should do his utmost to steer clear of anything that has to do with the party officials. He suspects that the child’s condition is potentially serious and Russov is trying to pass on the buck. Anna advises Andrei to call in off sick on the day he is supposed to see the boy. Andrei declines (did I forget to tell you that he is a conscientious doctor?) and examines the boy. His suspicions are confirmed. The child, he reckons, has a tumour growing on his bone. This is not his area of expertise at all and he decides to tell Russov who—Andrei knows—must have known this even before he asked Andrei for an opinion.  What the boy needs, Andrei thinks, is a good surgeon. However, any hopes Andrei might have had of wriggling out of the case are dashed when he is summoned to meet Volkov, the boy’s father. Volkov informs Andrei that his son has taken a liking for Andrei and he, Volkov, wants Andrei to be the doctor overall in charge of the case, never mind that he is not an expert in the field. Andrei recommends a biopsy of the swelling, which, he tells Volkov, is most probably a tumour. The biopsy is performed by a Jewish female surgeon called Brodskaya. The biopsy shows that the tumour is of a particularly malignant variety (called osteosarcoma) with poor prognosis. The only option which has a chance of saving the boy’s life is amputation of leg. Which is what Brodskaya—another conscientious, hard-working doctor—recommends. Andrei conveys the “expert opinion” to Volkov and suggests that in Leningrad Brodskaya is the best surgeon to carry out the operation (thus unwittingly doing to Brodskya what Russov did to him). Volkov is not happy. He is not happy that his son is going to lose his leg; and he is not happy that the surgeon who will carry out the operation is Jewish. In the end he agrees, threatening vaguely that there would be hell to pay if anything goes wrong. The operation is carried out; the boy is discharged; and Andrei thinks his ordeal is over. But it is not (we are only half-way through the novel). Within months the boy is back with symptoms that strongly suggest that the tumour, despite Brodskaya’s extensive surgery, has spread to lungs. The boy is going to die. Volkov is incandescent with rage. It is doctors’ fault; indeed it is more than just incompetence; it is a conspiracy, and the Jews are involved. His son is dying and the doctors will have to pay. Thus begins the nightmare for Andrei and Anna.  I shall not reveal how the plot develops for not wanting to give away too much, but anyone familiar with the “doctors’ plot” will have an idea the direction the novel is going to take.

The Betrayal is not an excessively complicated novel. Dunmore leaves the readers in no doubt as to which side she wants them to be on. It is a novel in which the characters are either black or they are white; there are no shades of grey. It is a battle between those who are beyond reproach and those who are ignorant, paranoid and vengeful. (Vulkov does show some promise at being more than just a two-dimensional, stereotypical KGB monster, but only fleetingly). Andrei and Anna are so perfect—hard-working, idealistic, conscientious, so very understanding of each other (Anna “understands” why Andrei would want to get involved with the Vulkov case even if that means trouble), and so much in love with each other—that you wish at times for them to have at least one good fight, or, failing that, unsatisfactory sex life; but no!, these two enjoy brilliant sex-life. The supporting cast of characters, like the protagonists of the novel, are neatly divided into good (Andrei and Anna’s friends) and weaselly (Russov who lands Andrei in trouble, and Maslov, the professor who refuses to stand by his protégée after Andrei’s fall from grace). As you read the novel, you do feel sorry for the plight of Andrei and Anna, but not excessively—and you feel guilty about it—because you find—there is no kinder way of saying this— them a bit dull.

The Betrayal is a novel of two halves. The first half of the novel is brilliantly paced. There is a sense of urgency and foreboding right from its first sentence (“It’s a fresh June morning without a trace of humidity, but Russov is sweating”) and the tension builds up from there on. Dunmore has done her research thoroughly (there is a page-long bibliography at the end of the novel and the reader is urged, in case he wants to know what other books Dunmore researched, to read the bibliography of The Siege) and she conveys superbly the atmosphere of oppression, suspicion, mistrust, and antagonism that many characters in the novel find themselves in the midst of, and which no doubt engulfed the Soviet society during Stalin’s dictatorship. The mindless drudgery, petty bureaucracy, and obsession of small-minded officials with numbers and statistics (which, they hope, will further their careers) that seem to have been endemic to many a Communist dictatorship, are described very drolly. The exhortations of Anna’s boss (at the children’s nursery) to collect more pointless data and deluge the mothers—tired by the daily grind of hard-work—with simplistic advice and information provide the only light relief in a novel which is grim almost till the end. 

By comparison, the second half of the novel drags a bit. As Dunmore describes, with obvious relish, Andrei’s ordeal in the Lubyanka prison in Moscow (where he is transferred), when he is interrogated, the reader can be excused for feeling a tad impatient, wanting to know how it all ends for him. While there is no doubt that the descriptions of Andrei’s torture in Lubyanka are authentic, they do tend to slow down what until then is an exquisitely paced novel. The end, when it comes, is a bit anti-climactic, but is probably in keeping with the resolution of the historical doctors’ plot. The ending also suggests that the reader shouldn’t at all be surprised if in due course a third novel featuring Andrei and Anna and their child(ren)—Anna gives birth to a daughter when Andrei is in prison— appears.