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Titans of Transgression: Incendiary Interviews with Eleven Ultra-Icons of Über-Extremity, edited by Dr Miriam B. Stimbers and Dr Samuel P. Salatta (TransVisceral Books, forthcoming)

A further exclusive extract from this soon-to-be-published key compendium of core counter-culturalicity…

READERS’ ADVISORY: Interview extract contains strong language and explicit reference to perverted sexual practices strictly forbidden by Mother Church. Proceed at your own risk.

[…]

Miriam Stimbers: How did you meet David Slater [simul-scribe of seminal snuff-study Killing for Culture]?

David Kerekes: Well, it’s a fairly complicated story. In the Gypsy community we’ve always felt a close affinity with other oppressed minorities and we do our best to watch their backs. In 1982 or thereabouts, I was part of a Gypsy crew who lent a helping hand to a gay brothel in Stockport that was having a few problems with homophobic neighbours. My blood still boils when I think about it, to be honest. Totally out of order, the fucking neighbours were. I mean, the brothel was discreet, the clients were no bother to anyone, but these homophobes thought they had the right to stick their fucking noses in and disrupt the brothel’s business, hassle the clients, stuff like that. Fucking cunts. Anyway, to cut a long story short, me and the rest of the Gypsy crew sorted the neighbours out and then the proprietor of the brothel asked us if we’d like blow-jobs on the house, like, to thank us for our help, even though we hadn’t done it out of any thought of reward. I mean, it was just solidarity with a fellow minority, the sort of thing the Gypsy community has always been passionate about.

Miriam Stimbers: And you said yes to the blow-jobs?

David Kerekes: Well, me and a couple of my mates in the crew did. I’m always up for a new experience, as it were! And that’s how I met Dave Slater. ’Coz he was working in the brothel, as one of the rent-boys.

Miriam Stimbers: And he gave you the free blow-job?

David Kerekes: Yeah. And it was a fucking good one too. Not the best I’ve ever had, like, but in the top twenty, easily.

Miriam Stimbers: And you got chatting and discovered your shared passion for corpse-contemplation?

David Kerekes: Well, it’s natural you should think that, but no, not right then. Not on that first occasion. Dave didn’t say much, just got down to work, as it were. But as I said, it was a fucking good blow-job, so about a fortnight later, when I was in the Stockport area on business and had an hour or two to kill, I popped in at the brothel and asked for another one off him. Another blow-job, I mean, off Dave. I was ready to pay the going rate, like, but the proprietor recognized me at once and said it was on the house again.

Miriam Stimbers: And this time you got chatting with Dave Slater?

David Kerekes: Exactly. We got chatting after he’d given me the blow-job and discovered our shared passion for corpse-contemplation, as you so nicely put it. And the next time Dave was over in Liverpool, he got in touch and we had a few pints. It all sort of blossomed from there. We started meeting regularly to watch death-film and corpse-vids together. Most times, Dave would give me a blow-job at the end of the session. I mean, you build up a lot of tension watching corpse-vids, so a blow-job’s just the thing to unwind with. Very relaxing. And sometimes he’d give me a blow-job during the session too, if he noticed I was getting tense as I contemplated a particularly fine corpse or watched a particularly abhorrent death-scene, like. It was fucking funny at times, Dave trying to watch the screen at the same time as he had a nob in his gob!

They’ve contemplated more corpses’n you’ve had hot dinners...* Simul-Scribes Sam “Slayer” Slater and Dave “Doktor Nekro” Kerekes

Warming up for corpse-contemplation: Kerekes (right) and Slater (left)


Miriam Stimbers: And that’s how you came to write Killing for Culture?

David Kerekes: Yeah. Out of tiny oaks tall acorns grow! If me and my Gypsy mates hadn’t helped out that gay brothel in Stockport, I’d probably never have met Dave and probably Killing for Culture would never have been written. I’d had something in mind along those lines, but Dave’s help really was invaluable. Not just his knowledge and his contacts, but his very special relaxation techniques! I estimate that I received about two hundred blow-jobs, maybe two-fifty, off him in the course of research. When I saw that first review calling it a “seminal snuff-study”, I thought, “Little do you fucking know!” Dave was always on at me to bum him too, but I didn’t fancy that. I mean, obviously, I’m not homophobic or owt, but bumming a bloke is a big step up from getting a blow-job off him. But he still kept on at me to bum him.

Miriam Stimbers: Did you ever give in?

David Kerekes: Well, I used to say to him, “Dave, I’ll bum you after we’ve seen a snuff-movie together!”

Miriam Stimbers: So have you ever bummed Dave Slater?

David Kerekes (laughing): Well, I’ll say this, like. I’ve bummed Dave Slater as many times as I’ve seen a snuff-movie!

Miriam Stimbers: And how many times have you seen a snuff-movie?

David Kerekes (laughing again): As many times as I’ve bummed Dave Slater!

[…]

Miriam Stimbers: Who would you say has been the most important influence on your life?

David Kerekes: People often ask me this and, you know, they expect me to say that it was William Burroughs or Immanuel Kant or Sam Salatta or someone like that. And yeah, they have all been very important influences on me, but the most important influence on me was someone else. Not anyone famous, but someone very, very influential nonetheless.

Miriam Stimbers: Who was it?

David Kerekes: It was my Mom, Mirima Kerekes. People often say to me that they find me an unusually honest and ethical person, which is obviously a nice thing to hear, don’t get me wrong, but I take absolutely no fucking credit for it. It’s all down to my Mom. She brought me up to be passionate about three things. First, pride in my Gypsy heritage. Second, strict adherence to a painfully honest ethical code. Third – and I’ll put it in her own words, because I can hear her saying it to me now – “Don’t never never never act like a communist, Davy, because that would be like spitting in your poor Momma’s face.” And I’ve done my fucking best, I hope, to keep those three things at the forefront of my mind during both my working life and my private life.

Miriam Stimbers: Just to explain for people who don’t know – your mother was a refugee from communist Romania, right?

David Kerekes: Yes, absolutely right. She left Romania in the 1950s after the Russian invasion. Fled from there, rather, just ahead of the fucking tanks and the firing-squads. And she wasn’t a fan of communism, to put it mildly!

Miriam Stimbers: And what would, quote, acting like a communist, unquote, entail?

David Kerekes: Basically, she meant any kind of behaviour that violated individual autonomy, that placed the collective above the individual. The sort of fucking thing you saw all the time under communism, most obviously with the secret police. You know, the KGB in the Soviet Union, the Stasi in East Germany, the Securitate in Romania, and so on.

Miriam Stimbers: Torture, rigged trials, slave-labour camps, things like that?

David Kerekes: Yes, obviously that kind of thing, but other stuff comes under it too. I mean, if you think of the Edward Snowden revelations, the NSA over in the States and GCHQ here in the UK are behaving like communists, by my Mom’s criteria.

Miriam Stimbers: Surveillance, spying, treating the entire population as suspects?

David Kerekes: Exactly. After her experiences in Romania, my Mom hated that kind of thing, absolutely fucking hated it. And if I ever participated in anything like that, then I would be, in her words, “spitting in your poor Momma’s face.” So I don’t participate in it. Full stop.

[…]

Interview extract © David Kerekes / Dr Miriam B. Stimbers / TransVisceral Books 2017

Noxious Note: In November 2017 the Harris Central Library in Stockport, Lancashire, will be holding an exhibition engaging core issues around corpse-vids, corpse-contemplation, and the corpse-contemplation community. Sponsored by the Halifax Bank and entitled “Not Just for Necrophiles: A Toxic Tribute to Killing for Culture”, the exhibition is designed to accompany the TransVisceral Books publication of the same name. As part of the exhibition, David Kerekes will be delivering a keynote lecture entitled “Coming Out of the Cyber-Coffin: Necrophile Pride in the Internet Age”, accompanied by a keynote lecture by David Slater entitled “[the warped little fucker hasn’t even written the title of his lecture so far, so there’s fuck-all chance that he’ll get the whole thing done in time. i’ll get the title to you if a fucking miracle happens. – d.k.]”


Previously pre-posted on Papyrocentric Performativity:

Slay, Slay, Slay (Vot Yoo Vont to Slay)
Thiz Iz Siz-Biz…

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Passage of Arms, Eric Ambler (1959)

After I’d read Eric Ambler’s The Light of Day (1962), I knew he was a very good writer. But I didn’t know how good until I read this book too. It wasn’t his prose or his plotting that struck me, competent as they were: it was his ability to think himself into other people’s heads. People in different jobs from different cultures speaking different languages in different parts of the world.

In The Light of Day, he got into the heads of a Greek-Egyptian tourist-guide and a Turkish secret-policeman. In Passage of Arms, he did it with Chinese businessmen, Indonesian soldiers and a Bengali accountant living in Malaya. I was surprised: he’d shown such intimate knowledge of Greece, Turkey and Egypt in the first book that I’d never guessed he could show the same about a whole new region. And not only that: Passage of Arms proves that he knew a lot about the arms trade and shipping too. And about running a bus-service.

Arms and buses come together through the Bengali accountant Girija Krishnan, a clever, observant and ambitious young man who works on a rubber-plantation in British Malaya. His father, killed during the Second World War, had once been on a tour of a factory in London that made buses. Girija has inherited the “bus body manufacturer’s catalogue” that his father picked up as a souvenir. He’s pored over it until he knows it by heart and is now obsessed with managing his own bus-service.

But he would need a substantial sum of money to start it. He sees his chance to get the money after a British army-patrol ambushes and kills a party of communist guerrillas on the rubber-plantation where he works. He has to supervise the burial of the bodies and works out, using clues in what the guerrillas were carrying, that there must now be an unguarded arms-dump near a village called Awang. He searches for it, finds it, secures it, and sets about selling its contents.

It takes him three years, because what he’s doing is highly illegal and he’s proceeding with extreme caution. Girija is an engaging character, brought to life with many small details, from the bus-catalogue he treasures to “the lentil soup” he re-heats as he’s pondering how to find the arms-dump at the beginning of the book. I remember being disappointed on my first reading of this book when new characters came in and he took a smaller role, then left the stage altogether. But everything that follows was set in motion by him, because the new characters are Chinese businessmen, three brothers who are trying to find a buyer for the arms he can supply.

Tan Siow Mong, the oldest brother, is based in Kuala Pangkalan in Malaya, Tan Tack Chee, the middle, in Manila, and Tan Yam Heng, the youngest, in Singapore. Ambler brings them and their psychology to life with small details too. Yam Heng is the “disreputable brother”. He likes gambling, but doesn’t gamble well. That will prove important, as the brothers begin plotting to get the arms out of Malaya and sell them to the Party of the Faithful, a group of anti-communist Muslim insurgents in Indonesia. It’s a complicated business and, like Girija’s bus-service, very important to them. But it’s not important to the world at large or to one of the men who are part of their scheming:

Kwong Kee was a square, pot-bellied man with a cheerful disposition and a venereal appetite bordering on satyriasis. He was not greatly interested in the commercial reasons Mr. Tan gave him for switching the Glowing Dawn temporarily to the Singapore run. Nor was he interested in the cargo she carried. And if Mr. Tan’s young brother [Yam Heng] was foolish enough to want to go home by sea instead of comfortably by train, that was no business of his either. He was quite content to do as he was told. It was some time since he had sampled the brothels of Singapore. (ch. 4, pt. 3)

That’s all we learn about Kwong Kee, but it’s enough to bring him and another aspect of Eastern culture to life. As with all his other characters, Ambler doesn’t judge: he simply presents. And after Girija and the Tan brothers he has two more big characters to present: an American couple called Greg and Dorothy Nilsen from Wilmington, Delaware, where Mr. Nilsen is “owner of a precision die-casting business”. They’re on a cruise of the Far East and they’re about to be drawn into the plot set in motion by Girija. Mr. Tan in Malaya has asked his niece’s husband in Hong Kong to be on the look-out for a foreigner who can get around local restrictions by becoming nominee for “a shipment of arms” to Singapore. Thanks to his job, the husband meets a lot of foreigners:

Khoo Ah Au liked American tourists. He found them, on the whole, generous, easy-going and completely predictable. They were rarely ill-tempered, as the British often were, or eccentric in their demands, as were the French. They did not harass him with questions he had not been asked before, and listened politely, if sometimes inattentively, to the information he had to impart. They used their light meters conscientiously before taking photographs and bought their souvenirs dutifully at the shops which paid him commission. Above, all, he found their personal relationships easy to read. It was probably a matter of race, he thought. His own people were always very careful not to give themselves away, to expose crude feelings about one another. Americans seemed not to care how much they were understood by strangers. It was almost as if they enjoyed being transparent. (ch. 3, pt. 3)

He reads and exploits the relationships between the Nilsens and Arlene Drecker, a lone American tourist who has attached herself to them, to Mr. Nilsen’s increasing displeasure. He carefully introduces news of the arms shipment to Mr. Nilsen and manoeuvres him into becoming the nominee for a percentage of the profits. Mr. Nilsen sees it as an adventure and as a way of striking back at communism, because the arms are going to be sold to those anti-communist insurgents in Indonesia (or Sumatra).

What he doesn’t bargain for is that he will have to go to Indonesia himself to get a signature on the shipment from the insurgents, who don’t fully trust their agent in Singapore. But he sees it as part of the adventure and goes there with his wife:

Their first impression of Labuanga airport was the smell of steaming mud.

It was the most favourable impression they received. (ch. 6, pt. 2)

The officials at the airport are surly and unpleasant, and it takes a long time to clear customs. Then they encounter some of the local wildlife: “a thing like a soft-shelled crab with black fur flopped onto the floor at their feet and began to scuttle towards the wardrobe”; large grasshoppers that “crunched sickeningly underfoot” after invading the Nilsens’ hotel-room at night. In this new environment, the woman who is guiding them, a beautiful Eurasian called Mrs. Lukey who is married to the insurgents’ agent in Singapore, has “suddenly become more Asian than European … It was a disconcerting transformation.”

Then things get much worse. Although Mrs. Lukey is travelling on a passport in her maiden name, the Indonesian authorities have worked out why she’s been visiting the town of Labuanga with so many foreigners. This time they’re ready: the delay at the airport was deliberate, allowing them to put the Nilsens under surveillance. The Nilsens meet the insurgent chiefs, including a Polish called Voychinski who served in the Wehrmacht and has fought communism in “Russia and Italy and Viet-Nam”. Now the authorities pounce and everyone is arrested.

The adventure has turned into a nightmare. General Iskaq, who commands the Indonesian military in Labuanga, is a “cunning and ambitious man” who hates whites because of the way his father, a “Javanese coolie”, was treated by them in colonial days: “All through his childhood, the General had seen his father kicked, bullied and shouted at by white men, or mandurs working for white men.” (ch. 6, pt. 3) If not for his hatred of whites, the General would have gone over to the insurgents, who are commanded by one of his former army comrades. But the insurgents are financed and supported by whites, so the General remains loyal to the communist government for the time being and appoints a sadistic communist as his personal aide: “Major Gani was an able and astute officer with a glib command of the Marxist dialectic and a keen eye for the weaknesses of other men.”

Gani thinks he understands General Iskaq and can control him, but he’s wrong. After the arrests and jailing of the prisoners, the General does not like seeing “his old friend Mohamed Sutan lying on the stone floor in a pool of bloody water, moaning and choking with blood running from his mouth and nostrils.” Ambler supplies another small and telling detail to the beating: “the proudly smiling men” who had carried it out. From bus-catalogues to brutality: Ambler understood the world and could re-create it.

Later on Voychinski, who, unlike the Nilsens and Mrs. Lukey, has no consulate to defend his interests, is beaten to death during interrogation. The Party of the Faithful then strike back and the Nilsens and Mrs. Lukey manage to get out and fly back to Singapore. Then there’s a twist rather like the twist in The Light of Day, when a manipulated man turns the table on his manipulators. Finally, Girija is back on stage, ready to start his bus-service. Would he have tried to sell the arms if he’d known the death and suffering that would result? Of course he would: they were arms and he knew they were destined for use. One way or another death and suffering would follow.

But he remains a sympathetic character. Everyone in the book does, from the satyr-like Kwong Kee to the “proudly smiling” thugs in the Labuanga jail. As I said, Ambler doesn’t judge: he presents. This is an imperfect world with imperfect people acting on imperfect knowledge. But it’s also a rich and fascinating world. Ambler can convey that too. When the book was first published in 1959, it captured the present. Now it captures the past. But the past is also the present: Muslim insurgents are still in the news.

So are plots and intrigue in Turkey, which Ambler wrote about in The Light of Day. I enjoyed that book more than this one, partly because the most interesting character is centre-stage throughout, but this one is even better at portraying the complexity of the world and the role that chance and judgment play there. After reading these two I was badly disappointed by some of Ambler’s other books, like A Kind of Anger (1964). But « Seuls les médiocres sont toujours à leur meilleur » – “Only the mediocre are always at their best.” At his best Ambler is very good.

Much better than Graham Greene, who’s the obvious comparison. Amblerland is much bigger than Greeneland. Much richer and more detailed too: in languages, cultures, races, ideologies. In objects too. Even “the wheels from an old [child’s] scooter” have a small but important part to play in Passage of Arms. Ambler had a male eye for mechanism and a female eye for psychology. It’s good that this edition of Passage of Arms was re-printed in 2016 with a brief but interesting introduction by Martin Edwards, chairman of the Crime Writers’ Association, who says that Ambler was trained as an engineer. Stalin said that writers were “engineers of souls”. It’s an ugly term, but it works well for this book.


Proviously post-posted on Papyrocentric Performativity:

Sympathetic SinnerThe Light of Day, Eric Ambler (1962)

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I Am A Kamera

Front cover of Mezzogiallo by David KerekesMezzogiallo: Ferality. Fetidity. Eastern Europe., David Kerekes (TransVisceral Books 2014)

August 1956. Teenage anti-communist Mirima Kerekes flees to the West as Soviet tanks rumble into Bucharest to crush a desperate popular uprising. A month later, Mirima is in the sea-side town of Bootle, north-west England, finding her feet in a new country and a new culture. Soon she will have a son, David, future editor of Headpress Journal and author of acclaimed counter-cultural texts Killing for Culture (1992), Sex Murder Art (1998) and Backstage Bootle (2011).

But Mirima left a brother behind in Bucharest, also called David. He remains a distant enigma, a mysterious, rarely mentioned figure throughout his nephew’s childhood and teens. It is not until thirty years later, following the fall of feral dictator Antonin Ceauşescu, that the British David Kerekes is able to travel to Eastern Europe and meet his uncle for the first time.

Mezzogiallo is the story of that momentous meeting and its continuing consequences, an extended meditation on fate and free will as the British David struggles to come to terms with the horrific family secret he uncovers behind the former Iron Curtain. As he writes in his introduction:

Once I gained my uncle’s confidence he began to open up to me, but it was not till near the end of my initial stay in the country that he finally revealed the truth about his life under communism. I was aghast to discover the reason for my mom’s silence about her brother all those years: my namesake, my uncle David, had worked for the secret police throughout the years of Ceauşescu, photographing and recording people without their knowledge for the files of the brutal regime that had crushed private life without remorse or conscience. He told me that he had once driven 150 kilometres to look inside someone’s bathroom and take some hairs from their comb. But there was worse to come – a confession that shook me to my core.

Despite himself, my uncle revealed, he had enjoyed the spying and the prying and the sense of power they gave him. In stumbling words, racked by a deep sense of shame and futility, he confessed to me that photographing people, recording their private conversations, keeping files on their quotidian activities, had given him serious thrills. He described how he had once quivered with excitement as he hid under the floorboards of a private home, listening to someone exercise on a rowing machine. In short: he had been a dedicated voyeur, filling the emptiness of his own life by spying on the lives of others.

Securitate archive

Securitate archive


My horror was unbounded. Anyone who knows Headpress, the Journal of Strangeness and Necrophilia, knows that I have devoted my life to offering a fiercely intelligint, passionately non-normative alternative to the ever-increasing voyeurism of the British mainstream – the spying-and-prying peddled by The Daily Mail, by the über-ennui’d teens who take secret photographs and videos of others, then exchange them online with their like-minded peers. And yet here was my mom’s brother doing the exact same thing as had horrified me for so long in Britain. But could I condemn him for it? What if I myself had been born under communism? Might I too not have worked for the secret police? Might I too not have become a dedicated voyeur, gloating over secretly obtained photographs and recordings, relishing the sense of power they gave me?

I could not deny the truth: perhaps I might. Shaken and disturbed, I constantly pondered the words of the great Romanian philosopher Eric Hoffer: “A man is likely to mind his own business when it is worth minding. When it is not, he takes his mind off his own meaningless affairs by minding other people’s business.”

Did this not help explain my uncle’s behaviour? Had not communism, by destroying his individuality and sense of purpose, rendered life meaningless to him and forced him, in compensation, to become the voyeur he confessed he was? Deep questions. Dark ones, also. I knew that it would be years, even decades, before I could process them to my own satisfaction and write the book that they deserved. (Introduction, pg. viii)

Mezzogiallo is the book in question. David goes on to describe how, on future trips to Eastern Europe, he was able to examine the thousands of files created by his uncle for the secret police using cameras and microphones hidden not only in private homes, but also in libraries, banks, courts, schools, hospitals and more. He will be shocked by both the detail and the futility of his uncle’s activities – the prolonged, obsessive recording of the most minor details of everyday life. Yet David points out that capitalist society has gone in the exact same direction, both at the level of the state and at the level of the ordinary voyeuristic citizen. All David Kerekes’s books are characterized by feral intelligence and fetid honesty. But Mezzogiallo: Ferality. Fetidity. Eastern Europe. is arguably his ferallest, fetidest interrogation of the human condition to date…


Coming soon on Papyrocentric Performativity…

• A review of Nekro-Feral: The David Kerekes Story, David Slater (TransVisceral Books)

Press Release: Divided into three throbbingly thrilling thanato-themed sections – “Nekro-Kid”, “Nekro-Teen” and “Nekro-Dult” – Nekro-Feral is an intimate and revealing portrait of a transgressive icon by the man who was his simul-scribe on Killing for Culture, inarguably the most sizzlingly seminal survey of snuff-stuff ever set to cellulose…


Thiz Iz Siz-Biz…

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Paradoxes in Probability Theory and Mathematical Statistics, Gábor J. Székely (1986)

A fascinating book in a number of ways. First the obvious way: probability contains some of the strangest and most counter-intuitive mathematics that amateurs can easily understand. I could cope with a lot of this book, but it still stretched and even re-shaped my mind and my understanding of the world more deeply than almost any art has. There are very odd things to be found even in something as simple as the patterns of heads-and-tails in coin-tossing. For example, although HH and HT are equally likely to occur first when you start tossing a fair coin, “more tosses are necessary, on average, for HH than for HT to turn up”. That just doesn’t make sense at first glance. It’s a paradox, in other words, and if you can understand it you’ve taken a step even the most intelligent human beings were once unable to take.

Much less subtle, but probably much more important in life, is this:

Consider two random events with probabilities of 99% and 99.99%, respectively. One could say that the two probabilities are nearly the same, both events are almost sure to occur. Nevertheless the difference may become significant in certain cases. Consider, for instance, independent events which may occur on any day of the year with probability p = 99%; then the probability that it will occur every day of year is less than P = 3%, while if p = 99.99%, then P = 97%. (ch. 1, “Classical paradoxes of probability theory”, pp. 54-5)

Then there’s the question of why buses always seem to run “more frequently in the opposite direction”. The mathematics gets much trickier here, but that’s an example of how maths, unlike so much of the modern humanities, can extract deep meaning from apparently simple things because deep meaning is actually there. Mathematics is both the most fundamental and the purest of all subjects, and is something that can unite minds across barriers of language, culture, and politics.

This book is a good example of that, because it was first published not only in a communist country but in what is, to most Europeans, a very strange language: Hungarian. Hungarian isn’t part of the Indo-European family spoken almost everywhere else. If this book had been written in French or German or Spanish, its original title would look more or less familiar to an English-speaker. But its original title in Hungarian ― Paradoxonok a véletlen matematikában ― looks very odd. Even without being told, you could guess from some of the English that the book is a translation, but that adds to its charm and helps prove the universality of mathematics. A Hungarian can speak mathematics to anyone without an accent, and vice versa ― though I suspect that the mathematics here occasionally stutters because of typos. The English certainly does, but then the book was printed under communism, which did not encourage efficiency and attention to detail. Communism is gone now, Hungarian and maths both continue, but maths will outlast Hungarian, just as it will outlast all other languages spoken today.Vivat regina!

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George Orwell: A Life in Letters, selected and annotated by Peter Davison, (Penguin 2011)

Christopher Hitchens was influenced by George Orwell rather in the way Leon Trotsky was influenced by the Buddha. That is, Hitch no more followed Orwell’s literary example than Trotsky followed the Buddha’s ethical example. Hitch was a highly pretentious and verbose writer, not a master of clarity and concision like Orwell. But the former did make a good point about the latter in his book Why Orwell Matters (2002): Orwell was not extraordinary in intellect or learning, but he managed to write two extraordinary books, Animal Farm (1945) and Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949). That is part of why these letters are valuable and interesting, because we can see those books in gestation, in production, and in publication. Here is Orwell explaining his motives for writing Animal Farm:

I don’t think I could fairly be described as Russophobe. I am against all dictatorships and I think the Russian myth has done frightful harm to the leftwing movement in Britain and elsewhere, and that it is above all necessary to make people see the Russian regime for what it is (ie. what I think it is). But I thought all this as early as 1932 or thereabouts and always said so fairly freely. I have no wish to interfere with the Soviet regime even if I could. I merely don’t want its methods and habits of thought imitated here, and that involves fighting against Russianizers in this country… The danger is that some native form of totalitarianism will be developed here, and people like Laski, Pritt, Zilliacus, the News Chronicle and all the rest of them seem to me to be simply preparing the way for this. (letter of 11th December, 1945 to Michael Sayers)

Orwell described in “Why I Write” (1946) his “desire to push the world in a certain direction, to alter other people’s idea of the kind of society that they should strive after.” He also said that what he had “most wanted to do throughout the past ten years is to make political writing into an art.” In Animal Farm, he achieved that art. But just as no book can be entirely free of political bias, so no work of fiction can be purely political. Peter Davison, the editor of this book, notes that “one of the origins of Animal Farm was Beatrix Potter’s Pigling Bland, a favourite of Orwell’s” in his childhood (“1946 and 1947”, pg. 281). Davison is a good editor, setting the context of the letters and explaining even minor references as the obscure Eric Blair becomes the world-famous George Orwell. There are also a “biographical list” of important figures in Orwell’s life, a chronology of that life, and a comprehensive index. Finally, Davison introduces some “New Textual Discoveries” from Orwell’s novels A Clergyman’s Daughter (1935) and Keep the Aspidistra Flying (1936). These discoveries, about changes to the novels in proof, will disturb and even shock some readers, because the “most significant” in A Clergyman’s Daughter are to “the character of Mr Blifil-Gordon, the Conservative Candidate, so as to remove any trace that he is a Jew who had converted to Catholicism.” Davison then lists the changes, with the original text in bold. These will be the most disturbing to some devotees of Orwell:

Even more Jewish in appearance than his father ] Given to the writing of sub-Eliot vers libre poems… And to think that that scum of the ghetto ] And to think that that low-born hound… For the beastliest type the world has yet produced give me the Roman Catholic Jew. ] And that suit he is wearing is an offence in itself. (pg. 491)

Moreover, some of the final letters are to or by Celia Kirwan (1916-2002), who was Arthur Koestler’s sister-in-law and worked for the Information Research Department, a government organization that tried to counter communist propaganda. Orwell passed recommendations to her about those he felt should or should not be allowed to participate in this work. And in his now famous, or infamous, list of unreliable people, he sometimes noted the ethnicity of a suspected or probable communist sympathizer or agent. Yes, the secular saint George Orwell was saintly in more ways than one, because there is, of course, a long tradition of anti-semitism in Christianity and among Christian saints.

Your reaction to these parts of the book will be a test of your goodthinkfulness and of whether or not you need to be watched by Big Brother. I must confess that I wasn’t disturbed by them. Orwell’s prejudice against Catholicism and Catholics is a much stronger motif in any case:

Mrs Carr [a friend of Orwell’s from Southwald] sent me two books of Catholic apologetics, & I had great pleasure in reviewing one of them for a new paper called the New English Weekly. It was the first time I had been able to lay the bastinado on a professional R.C. at any length. (letter of 14th June, 1932 to Eleanor Jaques)

That sort of thing doesn’t disturb me either, but this did, in a letter to an editor who had enquired about Orwell’s life:

After leaving school I served five years in the Imperial Police in Burma, but the job was totally unsuited to me and I resigned when I came home on leave in 1927. I wanted to be a writer, and I lived most of the next two years in Paris, on my savings, writing novels which no one would publish and which I subsequently destroyed. (letter of 26th August, 1947 to Richard Usbourne)

I was sorry to read about the destruction of those novels. They would certainly be published now and would shed more light on the development of Orwell’s writing. His pre-war fiction was not special and Orwell himself disowns A Clergyman’s Daughter and Keep the Aspidistra Flying here, not wanting them to be re-published with Burmese Days (1934) and Coming Up for Air (1939). But each novel is powerful in some way and I’ve read all of them several times. Coming Up for Air, for example, contains what seems to me an accurate and moving re-creation of a semi-rural, part-Victorian life Orwell himself had never led. None of his pre-war fiction does more than hint at the excellences of Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four, but it all helps explain how Orwell came to write those classics. So do these letters. I haven’t yet given them the attention they deserve, because the book is more than five hundred pages long, but anyone who wants to understand Orwell better should start here. There’s even food for biological thought, because Orwell was part French on his mother’s side and that heredity, which you can see in his face, may be relevant here:

It has been a few years since I lived in France and although I tend to read French books I am not able to write your language very accurately. When I was in Paris people always said to me “You don’t talk too badly for an Englishman but your accent is fantastic.” Unfortunately I have only kept the accent. (letter of 9th October, 1934 to R.N. Raimbault)

In a much later letter, Orwell describes a lunch-appointment with Camus at the Deux Magots in Paris: “but he was ill and didn’t come” (20th January, 1948). He then analyses another of France’s literary giants: “I think Sartre is a bag of wind and I am going to give him a good boot” (22nd October, 1948). These letters illuminate his literary tastes, his linguistic skills, his love-life, his gardening, cooking, and DIY, and reveal his interest in everything from nursery rhymes, political pamphlets and ethnology to newts, boots and fungi. And milking goats. Orwell didn’t have an extraordinary intellect, but he wasn’t an ordinary man and his letters prove it.

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Escape from Camp 14: One Man’s Remarkable Odyssey from North Korea to Freedom in the West, Blaine Harden (2012)

Under Nazism, people got killed for belonging to the wrong race. Under communism, people get killed for belonging to the wrong species. That is, in North Korea you don’t have to do or be anything wrong to be killed by the state. The system there isn’t designed to be just: it’s designed to be terrifying. But it doesn’t just kill people deliberately, in slave-labour camps and torture-chambers, it also kills them through inefficiency and incompetence. Even people high in the favour of the communist party have starved to death there during famines. If the capitalist world hadn’t supplied aid, even more would have died. The promise of communism, according to Trotsky’s Literature and Revolution (1924), was this:

The shell in which the cultural construction and self-education of Communist man will be enclosed, will develop all the vital elements of contemporary art to the highest point. Man will become immeasurably stronger, wiser, and subtler; his body will become more harmonized, his movements more rhythmic, his voice more musical. The forms of life will become dynamically dramatic. The average human type will rise to the heights of an Aristotle, a Goethe, or a Marx. And above this ridge new peaks will rise.

The reality of North Korea, according to Blaine Harden, is this:

Nearly all [young refugees from North Korea] struggle with basic reading and maths. Some are cognitively impaired, apparently from acute malnutrition as infants… As young children, they grew up eating bark off trees and thinking it was normal. (ch. 21, pg. 188)

Shin Dong-hyuk, the subject of this book, grew up grubbing desperately for food in a slave-labour camp. He was born there and stayed there, guilty of being the child of two political prisoners, one of whom was guilty of having a brother who escaped to South Korea. The struggle to survive was so acute that he had little or no feeling for his family, according to Harden. His mother and elder brother were executed after he informed on them for attempting to escape. If he hadn’t done, he himself would have been in trouble, because any escape is blamed on the relatives. That includes suicide: in North Korea, the state owns everything, including its citizens’ lives. I’m not sure Marx himself was a psychopath, but he certainly helped create a lot of psychopathic governments. North Korea, which keeps Stalinism alive more than fifty years after Stalin’s death, is one of the worst. After Shin had informed on his mother, he was imprisoned underground and tortured anyway, because the guard to whom he reported the escape-attempt tried to claim all the credit for himself. Even when he convinced the camp authorities that he had been loyal to the state, rather than to his blood-relatives, he remained in that prison-within-a-prison until he was let out to see them executed.

How old was he then? He “had just turned fourteen” (ch. 8, pg. 75). And how did he feel about what had happened?

…he hated his mother and brother with the savage clarity of a wronged and wounded adolescent. As he saw it, he had been tortured and nearly died, and his father had been crippled, because of their foolish, self-centred scheming. (ibid., pg. 77)

Later, after he escaped, first to China, then to South Korea and America, he began to learn how to feel properly human, which meant he began to tortured by guilt. It was irrational for him to feel that way, but you can’t blame him. And who can you blame for what goes on in North Korea? The system has a life of its own, or rather a living death. North Korea is a zombie-state, lurching on down the highway of history even as it decomposes and disintegrates. There will be no happy ending there. Even if the regime collapses without launching attacks on Japan and South Korea, the costs of draining the cesspit of communism will be huge:

South Koreans have paid close attention to the price tag of German unification. The proportional burden on South Korea, some studies have found, would be two and a half times greater than on West Germany after it absorbed the former East Germany. Studies have found that it would cost more than two trillion dollars over thirty years, raise taxes for six decades and require that ten per cent of the South’s gross domestic product be spent in the North for the foreseeable future. (ch. 22, pg. 199)

The North Korean system has been as efficient at immiseration as the South Korean has been at enrichment: “South Korea’s economy is thirty-eight times larger than the North’s; its international trade volume is two hundred and twenty-four times larger” (ibid., pg. 197). The peninsula of Korea has been like a huge experiment in economics and sociology, and the results are visible from outer space. At night, South Korea blazes with light and North Korea is blacked out, because of electricity shortages. Something similar is true of Haiti and the Dominican Republic, which share the island of Hispaniola in the Caribbean. The Haitian side is stripped bare of vegetation and, like North Korea, Haiti is propped up by outside aid. But that Caribbean difference seems to have something to do with race: Haiti was the first black republic and showed the way for failed black Zimbabwe and failing black South Africa. The Korean peninsula is occupied by a single highly intelligent race: it’s the different systems that explain why one is a dazzling success and the other an abject failure.

The Korean peninsula viewed from outer space

North vs South Korea

The border between Haiti and the Dominican Republic

Haiti vs the Dominican Republic

But this book describes how success in the south comes with a price. South Korea’s “obession with achievement” has harmed its society: “Although the suicide rate in most other wealthy countries peaked in the early 1980s, it continues to climb in South Korea, doubling since 2000” (ch. 22, pg. 201). Paradoxically, Shin coped better with life in a slave-labour camp than many of his contemporaries in the free and affluent South: he felt no inclination to kill himself because suffering was normal to him. Never having known a better life, he didn’t compare his present with his past: it had always been bad and seemed as though it always would be. He didn’t think about escape until he befriended a new arrival in the camp, Park Yong Chul, who “had lived abroad”, had a “well-connected life”, and “knew senior people in the North Korean government” (ch. 13, pg. 113). Park’s stories about the outside world gave Shin a point of comparison: “He suddenly understand where he was and what he was missing. Camp 14 was no longer home: it was an abhorrent cage” (ibid., pg. 122). The abhorrence of the cage is revealed by a vignette that isn’t in itself very horrific. It’s a small thing that symbolizes a lot:

In the middle of a night shift on the floor of the factory, Park alarmed Shin by bursting into song.

“Hey! What do you think you are doing?” Shin asked, fearing that a foreman might hear.

“Singing,” Park said.

“Stop at once,” Shin told him.

Shin had never sung a song. His only exposure to music had been on the farm, when trucks with loudspeakers played military marching music while prisoners picked weeds. To Shin, singing seemed unnatural and insanely risky. (ch. 13, pg. 119)

Park did not survive the escape attempt: he was killed trying to pass the camp’s electrified outer fence. The weight of his corpse “pulled down the bottom strand of wire” (ch. 15, pg. 134), creating a small gap, and Shin was able to crawl through, using the corpse “as a kind of insulating pad”. He still suffered severe electric burns and he knew that his father, still in the camp, would be punished for his escape. Readers familiar with World War Two escape stories will know that escapees found it difficult to pass undetected once they were out among civilians. Shin didn’t: North Korea is so poor and short of everyday materials that poorly dressed, half-starved slave-labourers don’t attract attention when they escape. He eventually found his way across the northern border to China, which is communist but not a slave-state, although it employs slave-labour in its Gulag, the Laogai. It still bears some responsibility for the horrors of North Korea, however, because it props the regime up as a “buffer” against South Korea. This means that it sometimes deports North Korean refugees and tries to stop them seeking asylum in foreign embassies. But Shin successfully found sanctuary in the South Korean consulate in Shanghai. He’s now in America, but still well aware that children in North Korea continue to live as he once did:

Eating rats not only filled empty stomachs, it was essential for survival. Their flesh could help prevent pellagra, a sometimes fatal disease that was rampant in the camps, especially in the winter. Prisoners with pellagra, the result of a lack of protein and niacin in their diets, suffered weakness, skin lesions, diarrhoea and dementia. It was a frequent cause of death. (ch. 1, pg. 27)

This book is short and easy to read, in one sense. In another sense, it isn’t. It has lots of unpleasant stories, but it isn’t atrocity porn and it seems trustworthy. North Korea is a sick state and a sick joke and Escape from Camp 14 is a good introduction to a bad place. For more history and more horror, I recommend one of the books Harden lists in his acknowledgments: Barbara Demick’s Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea (2010). It’s also useful to remember that there have always been lots of politicians, academics, and journalists in the West who hope that they’ll be able to try Marx’s recipes too. In fact, they’ve already cooked up some tasty totalitarianism and hope to cook up a lot more. I quoted Trotsky at the beginning. Here’s some Nietzsche to end with:

In the doctrine of socialism there is hidden, rather badly, a “will to negate life”; the human beings or races who think up such a doctrine must be bungled. Indeed, I should wish that a few great experiments might prove that in a socialist society life negates itself, cuts off its own roots. The earth is large enough and man still sufficiently unexhausted; hence such a practical instruction and demonstratio ad absurdum would not strike me as undesirable, even if it were gained and paid for with a tremendous expenditure of human lives. (The Will to Power, Book One: European Nihilism, #125, translated by Walter Kaufmann)

Nietzsche wrote that in 1885. In 2012, the demonstratio ad absurdum and the tremendous expenditure go on in the slave-state of North Korea.

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