Tag Archives: East Timor

The Act of Killing: surreal masterpiece or high-minded snuff movie?

Image

A fantasy of heaven recreated by mass killer Anwar Congo in Joshua Oppenheimer’s Oscar nominated The Act of Killing

However the Oscars go when the envelopes are opened up on the 2nd March, there’s one film that seems destined to resonate around the world long after the final credits have rolled and the movie industry has turned its attention to the upcoming summer blockbusters. Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing, nominated for an Oscar in the Best Documentary category, has been on a roll since its release, cleaning up at the major film festivals and garnering critical acclaim wherever it has been shown.

The film concerns itself with the purges that took place across Indonesia in 1965, inspired by the Suharto led Indonesian army to rid the military, the government and professions of communists or those suspected of communist sympathies. The purge then spiralled into a bloodbath, with estimates suggesting more than half a million people killed over a two year period.

What makes The Act of Killing so unusual is the way it attempts to tell this story. Eschewing the usual witness statements, confrontations or dramatic reconstructions, the filmmakers track down perpetrators and invite them to re-enact their murders on film.

There is a reason for this, and it’s not just artistic choice. Oppenheimer’s initial attempts to gain testimony from victims of the massacres were thwarted by their terror of retribution, and then by obstacles placed in the director’s path by the Indonesian authorities. What went on throughout Indonesia in 1965 is fairly well known within the country, especially amongst the older generation who experienced it first hand. It’s hardly a state secret. Anyone with an internet connection and the time and inclination can get a pretty reliable account of what happened without too much difficulty. The problem is, until now no one in the West really cared, and in Indonesia it’s not a subject for open debate, or at least it wasn’t until the phenomenal success of Oppenheimer’s film. Many of the killers are well known within their communities and continue to enjoy not only impunity for their crimes, but connections at the higher levels of regional and national government.

It was only when Oppenheimer turned the story on its head by offering to narrate it from the perspective of the killers that he was able to break the deadlock. Such was their confidence in their invulnerability, these former mass murderers, many of them benign looking grandfathers, were happy to talk to the cameras. Not only were they willing to describe what they had done without apparent remorse, they were up for re-enacting their crimes in front of Oppenheimer’s cameras. Many were brought up on a diet of American gangster movies, and the idea of being the stars of their very own piece of cinéma vérité was apparently irresistible.

The device of standing back, letting the cameras roll and paying out enough rope until the subjects hang themselves (or in this case enough wire until they garrotte themselves), is not a new one. The director Nick Broomfield is probably one of its most successful practitioners, deftly deploying it to undermine the menace of Afrikaner white supremacist Eugène Terre-Blanche and turn him into an object of utter ridicule in his classic 1991 documentary “The Leader, His Driver and the Driver’s Wife”.

However, the praise for Oppenheimer has not been universal. Along with the accolades, there’s a small but influential group of reviewers who have taken extreme exception to The Act of Killing. The BBC’s Commissioning Editor Nick Fraser found it particularly objectionable. “I’d feel the same if film-makers had gone to rural Argentina in the 1950s, rounding up a bunch of ageing Nazis and getting them to make a film entitled We Love Killing JewsInstead of an investigation,  or indeed a genuine recreation, based on such humdrum aspects of the killings as why and how they occurred, and what they really had to do with the context of the Cold War, we’ve ended somewhere else – in a high-minded snuff movie. Porn for liberals indeed.”

The problem is, Oppenheimer’s solution to his difficulties in telling the world the story of the 1965 massacres doesn’t quite penetrate the darkness. The victims’ families were unable to tell their stories for fear of the consequences. The killers, who could tell their stories, were hampered by their complete inability to empathise with their victims or see events from any perspective other than their own. Fraser continues, “I find the scenes in the film where the killers are encouraged to retell their exploits, often with lip-smacking expressions of satisfaction, upsetting not because they reveal so much, as many allege, but because they tell us so little of importance.”

There’s no doubt The Act of Killing is a tough film to watch. The version I saw ran to 2 hours 39 minutes, which was well over an hour more than I needed. By the end I felt utterly polluted, which I am sure is part of the point. Apparently even this was whittled down from over a thousand hours of footage. How I felt for the production team, having to live with it day in day out in their editing suites for years on end. Having these grisly scenes endlessly played out, with the ageing murderers given full rein to make-up and prosthetics like kids in a candy store, simply echoes Hannah Arendt’s famous conclusion to the 1962 Jerusalem trial of Holocaust organiser Adolf Eichmann about the banality of evil.

We get the point. We got the point 20 minutes ago. More is simply over-indulging these monsters who lack any sense of self reflection, or interest really. By befriending them, pandering to their sense of self-importance and giving them free rein to express the contents of their twisted minds, there is a danger Oppenheimer has become morally contaminated himself. He keeps pushing his subjects ever so gently, ever so subtly, for some kind of broader awareness of what they did, but at the end of the day it’s just not there. If they are eventually forced to confront the reality of what they did, it won’t come from their revolting little playlets, but from the justice their fellow citizens may well demand once they see this film. In interviews Oppenheimer comes across as strangely protective of the principal character Anwar Congo, but with or without an Oscar I doubt he will be able to shield him from the rage his fellow Indonesians will unleash upon him and his cronies. Ironically, it is the film’s critical and commercial success rather than its radical approach that poses the greatest threat to the killers and the greatest hope for their country.

Could it be that given his difficulties extracting testimony from victims and the extreme nature of his subject matter, Oppenheimer bumped up against the limits of the documentary? As a novelist, I cannot help thinking that fiction might be better equipped to deal with these stories. Naturally, I have to declare an interest. My own novel, Francesca, deals with the Indonesian invasion of East Timor, which occurred ten years on from the 1965 purges. There were differences, of course, but there were many similarities. It was the same army acting with the same brutality and callous disregard for human life. The captains in the purges were colonels by the time East Timor came along, the colonels generals. In both cases the United States gave the Indonesian government carte blanche to carry on doing what they were doing, the imperative of containing the threat of communism, however spurious it actually was, trumping any notion of human rights or justice.

Francesca is seventeen years old when the novel that bears her name commences, on the eve of the Indonesian invasion of East Timor. She and her family suffer as hundreds of thousands of her fellow Timorese did at the hands of the Indonesian army. As the writer, I can choose how I narrate those events. I can speak for those whose voice has been suppressed. In the artificial world I create, I can paradoxically come closer to the truth than some supposedly factual reconstruction. For really, who actually cares about Anwar Congo? He was just one of thousands of like-minded thugs, his importance lying only in the fact he was representative of so many. In a novel I can place the reader wherever I want: inside Francesca’s head, with the soldiers, as casual onlooker, whatever best serves my overall aim of distilling the truth from the events as they unfold.

That has always been the higher purpose of fiction, its greatest strength aside from the sheer love and pleasure of losing oneself in a good story. It is also why the novel refuses to die, and why I have chosen it as a medium of expression. Of course I will be biased, and no doubt various authors’ tricks will creep in as emotions and sympathies are manipulated towards the direction I desire to lead the reader. But at least I am not at the mercy of some marijuana addled gangster in unexamined denial, and neither are my readers.

Whatever else it has done, The Act of Killing has well and truly lanced the noxious boil of murder and lies festering beneath the surface of Indonesian society, and for that the country owes Oppenheimer a massive debt. He and his team of filmmakers have created a forum, at considerable personal cost, in which an open debate can now take place. For anyone who knows Indonesia, that is no small achievement. On that level, if that level alone, he got the truth he wanted for his film, the truth that is a prerequisite for the reconciliation the Indonesian people so desperately need. Whether that is enough to justify the stomach churning violence that constitutes the larger part of The Act of Killing, whether that elevates it from a series of mini snuff movies to a surreal masterpiece, is another matter entirely.

Francesca, published by Betimes Books, can be ordered here

What’s in their cans?

Francesca is a period piece – I hesitate to call it a historical novel for fear of how that ages me. Invariably the characters were shaped by their times, and no more so than with regard to the music they liked to listen to.

Image

Robert Plant in full flow at the height of Led Zeppelin’s fame

With the benefit of hindsight, it would seem both Eddie and Amanda had pretty good taste, though it wouldn’t have looked that way to music critics of the day. Hard though it is to believe in an era where people will pay several grand to see the surviving members of Led Zeppelin (Eddie’s choice) at an O2 reunion concert, or keep a show like the Abba inspired Mamma Mia (Amanda) running for decades, both these acts were widely despised by the music establishment of the early to mid 1970s.

So far as these worthy arbiters of taste were concerned, Abba was throwaway bubblegum pop and Led Zeppelin music for adolescent retards. In a contemporary review of Led Zeppelin II Rolling Stone magazine described Robert Plant as “foppish as Rod Steward, but nowhere near as exciting” before going on to deride Jimmy Page as “a very limited producer and a writer of weak, unimaginative songs”. Back in 1976, if you’d tried to predict who would be listened to forty years on and cited as significant influences by the top artists of the early 21st Century, you’d have got very long odds against these two.

Image

Abba’s Agnetha Falkskog

The self styled intellectuals who controlled the music press were more into prog rock bands that if they haven’t been forgotten, are rarely talked about or heard on the radio: Yes, Hawkwind, Rush, as well as the more durable Genesis and Pink Floyd (though I would argue that Floyd were never really prog). When the Indonesian army marched into East Timor Peter Gabriel had just left Genesis, though his avant grade theatrics were less to Eddie’s taste than artists like Hendrix, the Stones and Jim Morrison, all of whom have been treated pretty consistently by the judgement of history.

Of course Amanda knew how deeply uncool it was to admit to liking the Swedish pop quartet, and whenever asked about her preferences would instead cite David Bowie, who was in the process of shedding his glam rock skin to emerge into the Thin White Duke.

To me what’s most poignant is all the music neither Amanda nor Eddie listened to because it hadn’t been written yet. It’s hard to imagine Bowie without Heroes, China Girl or Wild as the Wind, but that’s how it was. If you’d been sitting on a bar stool alongside Eddie with a can of Tiger in the early evening Kalimantan breeze and started discussing REM, Radiohead, the Red Hot Chilli Peppers, U2, Blondie or The Clash, he’d have wondered what on earth you were talking about. An Elvis called Costello? And as for revering that icon of global peace, the late John Lennon, back in 75 and 76 when he wasn’t feuding with Paul McCartney he was boring the world to death with hits tedious agitprop.

Image

Bowie during his Thin White Duke years

And of course it was all on vinyl, 8 track cartridge or cassette. But if you’d really wanted to throw both Eddie and Amanda, not to mention every other character in the book, all you’d have to do is tell them you were about to order your copy of Francesca online, and read it on a Kindle.

It’s out!

Image

I am delighted to announce that Francesca was released earlier today, and is available worldwide through Amazon in paperback or Kindle format.

To purchase a copy click here

Please feel free to post comments here on this site, and reviews on Amazon.

Alternatively, you can email me at donaldfinnaeusmayo@yahoo.com

With many thanks,

Donald Finnaeus Mayo

 

It’s on its way…

An important skill for any waiter, as I learnt years ago during a stint in a faux American Rib & BBQ joint, is delivering unpalatable news about the status of customers’ orders.

It really will be here very shortly… Image by acebal

It really will be here very shortly… Image by acebal

People tend to get tetchy when they’re hungry. Mild mannered wallflowers who’d normally do anything to avoid a confrontation will become aggressive consumer champions, demanding this and insisting on that.

“This place is a disgrace,” they snarl at you.

“You’re absolutely right, it’s terrible,” you reply, trying to remember those mirroring techniques they taught you in the sales module of your half day induction programme.

“We’re never coming here again.” And they haven’t even seen the kitchen.

Trouble is, the honest reply to the question “Where’s my food?” is all too often something you can’t say to their face.

Consider some options:

The printer in the kitchen jammed just as your order went through and the bit containing your selections was accidentally scrunched up and tossed in the bin while the KP was changing the roll. ‘Fraid it’s going to be another 40 minutes even if I put it in again now…

We’re a little short staffed this evening as the sous chef just got an emergency call from his lover who’s been arrested for heroin possession. No, I’m afraid I’m not in a position to confirm whether he participated in a needle exchange programme…

I had a row with the chef the other day over a steak he sent out well done when I specified medium rare and ever since then he’s been getting back at me by delaying all my orders so my tables will stiff me…

No one wants to hear stuff like that. It doesn’t matter that it’s the truth. They want reassurance, they want the certainty of knowing their expectations will be satisfied, but most of all THEY WANT THEIR FOOD!!!!

So I would resort to the old standby in which I didn’t have to lie by making renewed efforts to appear energetic, as if flapping my hands and poking my head through the hatch into the kitchen would really make any difference. And if the duty manager would wear it, comp a round of drinks.

All wrapped up with the non-specific promise, “It’s on its way.” My only consolation was the knowledge born of long experience that when their meal finally did arrive, provided it was up to scratch, their anger would almost certainly be forgotten once the food had found its way into their bellies.

It’s how I’m beginning to feel about Francesca.

She’s on her way.

Having initially promised a September publication date, September slipped to the vagaries of Autumn, which in turn drifted into November. Definitely in time for Christmas, my publisher nervously reassured me. Like the irate diners, I have no idea what technical, logistical or human problems are behind the delay. I can snarl as much as I like about missing out on valuable Christmas orders, but it’s unlikely to make the book appear in print any faster.

Chances are, I’ll never get to the bottom of it. All I know is we are close. The final draft’s been edited and proofed, and all I’m waiting for are the galley proofs before we can hit the PRINT button and you will be able to hold it in your palms (or your e-readers) and consume it. Hopefully with relish.

Until then, watch this space…

Could Suharto have tamed Pussy Riot?

800px-Pussy_Riot_by_Igor_Mukhin

Pussy Riot in happier days. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

One of the tests applied to any society that aspires towards democracy is the way in which it responds to dissent, or challenges to its authority. Recently Vladimir Putin has found more attention than he would have chosen focused on an unlikely thorn in his side, namely three members of the Russian punk collective, Pussy Riot.

Their crime was to burst onto the space in front of the altar in Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Saviour in February 2012 and stage an impromptu concert. The intention was to highlight the cosy and corrupt relationship between the Russian Orthodox church and the Putin government. Perhaps they were inspired by the scene in Matthew’s Gospel when Jesus entered the temple in Jerusalem and turned over the money lenders’ tables, decrying how the religious leaders of the day had turned his Father’s house into a den of thieves (Matthew 21:12).

800px-Cathedral_of_Christ_the_Saviour_in_Moscow_04

Inside Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, scene of Pussy Riot’s notorious gig. Photo by Bruecke-Osteuropa, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

If so, the assembled worshippers and the Russian authorities certainly didn’t see it that way. So far as they were concerned the Pussy Riot stunt was nothing more, nothing less than a blasphemous insult perpetrated in one of the most sacred places of their faith. Their sensitivity was almost certainly heightened by the fact that the original Cathedral of Christ the Saviour was blown to smithereens by the Soviets in the 1930s, only being rebuilt following the fall of communism.

Either way, three of the young women in the collective were arrested and sentenced to two years imprisonment. One was then released on appeal, the other two were let out just in time for Christmas.

In the process they managed to become an international symbol of opposition to Putin’s increasingly autocratic rule, garnering a worldwide following and massive attention in the western media.

Nadezhda_Tolokonnikova_(Pussy_Riot)_at_the_Moscow_Tagansky_District_Court_-_Denis_Bochkarev

Nadezhda (Nadya) Tolokonnikova of Pussy Riot on trial in Moscow. Photo by Denis Bochkarev courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Pussy Riot is a band in the loosest possible sense of the word. Their musicianship is non existent, and despite the enthusiastic support they have received from rock aristos like Sting and Peter Gabriel, their guitar work puts Sid Vicious up alongside Eric Clapton. It’s a shame really, because the name alone is to die for. But that’s the whole point. It’s not about slick, prepackaged music downloaded to your Apple app. Pussy Riot is an artistic and political statement, and if you don’t get it it’s because you’re part of the problem yourself. It’s more Dada than some global mega act from Live Nation doing the rounds of the world’s football stadia.

I don’t think Indonesia’s President Suharto would have “got” Pussy Riot either. If Nadya, Maria and the rest of the girls in the collective feel hard done by at the heavy handed treatment they’ve received from the Russian judicial system, they can at least console themselves they didn’t try to pull off a similar stunt in Suharto’s Indonesia.

Despite the fact that Indonesia in the 1970s never seemed a particularly devout Muslim society, I shudder to think what the consequences would have been of staging an impromptu punk protest in a Jakarta mosque. Off to the cells for a thorough aperitif beating, followed by several rounds of gang rape and torture as a main course, with a garrotting for dessert. Far from becoming poster girls for the likes of Madonna, they’d have more likely disappeared never to be heard of again. And that was before the strains of fundamentalism we in the west have come to associate with Islam really kicked off.

120329_indonesia_protests

Would these guys take any crap from Pussy Riot? Image courtesy of asiasociety.org

The heroine of my novel Francesca may well have “got” Pussy Riot, though in all likelihood she would have been perplexed by them. Having suffered dreadfully at the hands of the Indonesian military machine, she lacked the strength to take on a tough regime intolerant of dissent. She didn’t have an urge to change society, so much as to be left alone by it to live in peace.

I’d be fascinated to hear from readers, especially in Russia, Indonesia and East Timor. What are your views on Pussy Riot? Did Putin score an own goal in allowing his courts to crack down so hard on them? How would the situation be handled in today’s Indonesia? Feel free to comment, tweet, retweet and link back in.

Francesca, my novel set in 1970’s Indonesia is available now from Betimes Books.

Could Louise Hay heal Francesca’s life?

Image

Louise Hay speaking in London. Image by Heiko Antoni, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Many years ago I was dragged along by an actor friend to a small pub theatre in north London to see a one man show featuring a burly, six foot two transvestite whose roots lay in a traditional Nottinghamshire mining family. My sole memory of the performance was a scene in which he dressed up in a frock to deliver an impersonation of Louise Hay gently rocking on a garden swing, reciting affirmations to the general amusement of the predominantly gay audience. Later, in the bar, I overheard this strapping young man continuing to mock and deride Miss Hay, again to much mirth from his coterie of friends and admirers.

For those who aren’t familiar with her, Louise Hay is the queen of the mind body spirit world. Having just celebrated her 87th birthday, she is best known for her 1984 book “You Can Heal Your Life”, which to date has sold over 40 million copies in some 30 languages (I could be so lucky). From her headquarters in Carlsbad, California, she oversees one of the largest and most profitable independent publishing empires, whose stable boasts many of the heavy hitters in this field, with the likes of Wayne Dyer, Marianne Williamson and Christiane Northrup firmly under her maternal wing. You can follow the Hay House conference circuit around the world, treat your inner child to a Hay House cruise and even bring out your very own healing or recovery book through their self publishing arm.

With her positive outlook on life and emphasis on saccharine affirmations (try staring into a mirror and saying I love and approve of myself ten times), Louise Hay presents a tempting target for a confused, self loathing young man with deep unresolved gender issues to take pops at. It was only much later, when I learnt more about this remarkable woman, that I fully appreciated the irony of that otherwise tedious evening.

When AIDS first hit the west coast of the USA in the mid 1980s, it triggered elemental, widespread panic. People diagnosed as HIV+ were treated like modern day lepers, often disowned by their own families, and certainly shunned by society at large. Such was the extent of the hysteria guests began to bring their own cutlery and glasses to parties out of fear of contagion.

Into this climate of stigmatisation stepped Louise Hay, then practising as a private therapist in the Los Angeles area. Where many so called professional healers and carers didn’t want to know, she embraced these terrified men (at the time most of them were men) and set about creating a support group for them, which rapidly grew and eventually became known as the Hayride.

It’s a chapter in her life many evangelical christians, who have been scathing about Hay’s scornful stance towards original sin, guilt and the need for redemption, might do well to contemplate. It is hard to think of someone who embodied Jesus’s admonition “Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me” (Matthew 25:40) with greater authenticity and dedication. Where were you, hellfire and brimstone preachers spewing damnation and judgement, when these people reached out for help?

Yet beneath the hugs, the warm, fuzzy affirmations and the soft rainbow colours of the Hay House aesthetic, there’s steel in Miss Hay’s spine. The central message in “You Can Heal Your Life” and its multiple spinoff volumes is that our thoughts create our reality. The implications behind this seemingly innocuous statement are massive and profound, and the principal reason why, alongside her diehard fans, she arouses such anger and contempt, particularly within the academic and theological communities.

What these critics find so offensive is that Louise Hay places responsibility for one’s life firmly back in the court of the individual. If your life sucks, stop blaming everyone and everything else for your problems. Abandon the pose of victimhood and wallowing in your misery; identify the root causes of your troubles and do something about it.

Liberals are another group who find the Hay medicine difficult to swallow. They have invested a huge amount of emotional energy in the opposite idea, that people’s thoughts and feelings are a direct consequence of their reality, usually a reality that has been imposed upon them, be it by corrupt governments, multinational corporations, global capitalism, abusive families, take your pick. It’s all very well for Louise, sitting on her mountaintop surrounded by her wealth and fawning acolytes; what about the single mother struggling to feed and clothe her child on welfare, the refugee from war-torn Syria, the baby abandoned in a Swaziland AIDS orphanage?

Rich and famous though she now is, Louise Hay has been no stranger to adversity. A child of the depression, she was raped when she was five by a neighbour, suffered sexual and physical abuse as a young woman, was cast aside by the husband she had finally learnt to trust when he tired of her, and experienced long periods of financial struggle and professional adversity.

It made me wonder how the heroine of my novel Francesca would respond to her. Could Louise Hay help her heal her life? Is it possible for a human being to “get over” something as traumatic as the holocaust, or being caught up in the horrors of a military invasion and its subsequent mass murders, such as that visited upon the people of East Timor by the Suharto regime? And what about the idea that somehow you might be responsible for these atrocities you suffered, that you manifested them in your life as a direct consequence of your thoughts? That’s a tough one, even for the most ardent Hay supporter.

I like to think the two of them would get along. For all their differences in background and culture, they share a remarkable life force, a willingness to accept life on its terms combined with a will to fashion it according to their desires. I think when they stared into each other’s souls they would see a reflection of the greatness and the power that lay within them both. I think they would share a common understanding of what it is to be human, to suffer, to force oneself to look at the very worst man can do to man, and yet still not be discouraged from reaching out to embrace the love, the goodness and the light.

You can order your copy of Francesca here.

Beyond the God Delusion

I’ll come straight out with it and say I haven’t read Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion, supposed bible of the new atheists. Truth is, I can’t really be bothered. I’m constantly aware, both as a reader and a writer, that I’ve only a finite amount of time to devote to the written word, and everything I embark upon has to at least promise to justify itself amongst the fifty or so books I can get through in an average year. (Booker prize organisers take note – I’m probably not your man for the judging panel!)

It’s one of the reasons I love the small independent bookseller P&G Wells in Winchester so much. It’s got about a twentieth of the shelf space of your average Barnes & Noble or Waterstone’s, and a minuscule fraction of the stock held by Amazon. But rarely do I see, modestly laid out on its tables, more fascinating books in one place by authors I’ve yet to encounter that I’d really like to read.

It’s a testament to the exquisite taste of the owners. Check it out if you’re ever passing through, it’s in College Street just behind the cathedral. Not that I want to run down Amazon – nothing can touch them if you know what you’re looking for – and I’ve whiled away many a pleasant afternoon sipping overpriced mochas in B&N’s comfy leather armchairs. But if I’m just browsing, I’d prefer to be in the hands of a literary connoisseur than a computer algorithm spitting out suggestions based on previous purchases I or my children may have made.

But back to Dawkins. (I’m feeling a little rebellious today, inclined to defy the blog staasi with their strictures on keeping it short, sticking to the point and breaking up text with pictures, but I promise you, we will get there.) So why have I yet to succumb to the intellectual seduction of the God Delusion?

Completely gratuitous image of Montmartre Cafe Life to keep the blog staasi at bay. Image by ktylerconk

Completely gratuitous image of Montmartre Cafe Life to keep the blog staasi at bay. Photo by ktylerconk

The main reason is that I’m tired of hearing the many shortcomings of organised religion trotted out for the delightful scorn of modern, rational, enlightened man as if it was compelling evidence for the prosecution. Yes, the crimes perpetuated by and in the name of religion are appalling, from the inquisition and witch burnings of old, to the scandals that rock today’s churches. It matters little whether it’s paedophile Catholic priests destroying the lives of vulnerable children or Protestant televangelists fleecing little old ladies of their social security checks so they can flounce about in limos from one massage parlour to the next. It’s disgusting, hypocritical, repulsive and offensive, all of it. And we haven’t even started on all the religious wars or the horrors of militant Islam.

The trouble is, none of it furthers the argument against the existence of a divine intelligence one jot. All it does is highlight the potential for corruption inherent in all religious hierarchies and the essential flawed nature of humanity.

For the fundamental truth atheists, be they new or old, refuse to confront is that if there is no God it follows there can be no meaning, purpose or significance to life. And that fact runs counter to every reality I’ve experienced in my years on this planet, from the awe of swimming with sharks in the 3,000 foot deep waters of the Coral Sea to the tenderness of tucking my daughter up at night.

I’m prepared to put aside my prejudices and find room on my bedside table for The God Delusion if any new atheist can provide a compelling case for morality, and with it the objective existence of good and evil, that does not rely upon, or is underpinned by the presence of a supreme creative force or divine intelligence.

Because I don’t believe they can. The best the enlightenment thinkers could come up with was a low level utilitarianism, the pursuit of the greatest good for the greatest number of people. In modern times the most impressive attempt to construct a godless case for moral behaviour came from John Rawls in his Theory of Justice. But rather like Howard Hughes’ lumbering Spruce Goose, it couldn’t take flight under the weight of its own architecture, having completely failed to take into account the devious and wily idiosyncrasies within human nature.

The other new atheist tome to pass me by was the late Christopher Hitchens’ God is not Great, though I have long been an admirer of much of his other work. I wrote to Hitchens when he was dying, partly to apologise for the despicable behaviour of so called Christians who had gleefully informed him his agonising terminal illness was God’s come-uppance for a sinful life, and partly to confront him with what I believed was a critical moral question that went to the core of his life’s work.

Hitchens was primarily a deeply moral political writer and had in the past turned his attention to the Suharto regime, which forms the backdrop for my novel Francesca. As anyone familiar with his work would expect, he was pretty scathing about the Indonesian dictator, and was one of the small but prominent group of writers who helped publicise the genocide carried out by Suharto’s troops in East Timor.

It was classic Hitchens, deploying his phenomenal intelligence and articulacy to vent his disgust not only at Suharto, but also at former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. (One of Hitchens’ life ambitions, sadly unrealised, was to goad Kissinger into suing him for libel by repeatedly accusing him in print of being a war criminal. No doubt aware of the kind of mauling he’d be in for under cross-examination should he ever give Hitchens his day in court, Kissinger shrewdly declined to take the bait.)

Hitchens’ willingness to take up the cause of the underdog, the powerless and the oppressed was a theme that ran through all his political writing, from Chile to Vietnam, and even Iraq and Afghanistan, where he lost a lot of his erstwhile supporters on the political left. His essays on East Timor – incisive, tightly argued, his vehement outrage controlled yet clearly directed at his targets – epitomise everything that’s best about his writing.

My question for Hitchens was this: If there is no God, and therefore no moral force that compels us to behave in a certain way, what has your life’s work been all about? For in a godless, amoral world, what does it matter if Suharto murders a third of the East Timorese population, or the Nazis decide the world would be a nicer place without any Jews around? Of course it matters to the victims themselves, but why should anyone else not directly affected by it care? Because if the likes of Dawkins are correct, notions of common humanity are no more than sentimental illusions, our great loves, losses and passions merely neurons firing off in a random sequence.

And this goes to the heart of the Godless Delusion. I keep encountering this naive idea amongst the atheist community that if we simply abolished God and swept aside the churches and the mosques and the temples, we’d end war and injustice and set about building our own heaven on earth, a Jerusalem that looked a bit like Sweden with nice weather, the kind of world John Lennon sang about in the childishly sentimental lyrics of his otherwise beautiful song Imagine.

IMG_2196

Marginally less gratuitous image of P&G Wells in Winchester designed to deflect attention from the fact this blog is now exceeding 1000 words

History, though, suggests a Godless society actually looks rather different. We need take our template not from the social democracies of northern Europe, which are in fact built upon a broadly Christian ethos of social justice and protecting the most vulnerable, but from social experiments such as Lenin and Stalin’s Russia, Mao’s China, Hitler’s Germany, Caucescu’s Romania, Kim Il Jong’s North Korea. Places where humans are reduced to units of production and the end can always be made to justify the means, the end usually being the ongoing survival of the human god who has replaced the divine presence.

I write all this in part because Francesca, whilst it is in many ways a political and historical novel, as well as being a passionate love story, is at its heart a search undertaken by the various characters. It is a search for meaning, for understanding, for connectedness, for the possibility of good in the face of overwhelming evil, for light amidst the darkness.

And yes, you will be able to get it on Amazon.

Character Sketches 1: Francesca, the Timorese survivor

Over the next few posts, I’ll be outlining some background to the principal characters in Francesca, starting naturally with the woman after whom the novel is named.

Image

Photo by Riza

Francesca is seventeen years old when the novel begins, on the eve of the Indonesian invasion of East Timor. Whilst her experience of life has hitherto been rather narrow and sheltered, she has benefited from a western style education in one of the Catholic schools run by Portuguese missionaries in Dili.

This places her amongst the small educated Timorese middle class of the time. Her father, who Francesca adores, works as a technician in Dili’s main radio station. As such, he is particularly well placed to discern which way the political winds are blowing, which makes it all the more of a let-down when his predictions turn out to be so hopelessly inaccurate.

Aside from her father, the other key influence in Francesca’s life are the nuns who educated her. They left her with a faith that is stretched to breaking point but somehow endures. More importantly, at least in the short term, they have instilled in her a love of languages. It is this passion, unusual for someone in her position, that enables her not only to stay alive but to build a new life for herself when she ends up in Indonesian Borneo.

By the time she arrives there she has seen far more than a girl her age should ever see. Her experiences have left their mark in an aloofness and a distance, which people find puzzling; they are drawn into unravelling its mysteries, with little success. She has erected a wall around herself, and whilst she has stared utter despair in the face, by nature she is neither cynical nor ruthless. Indeed, she is perplexed and on occasion dismayed by the force of her instinct to survive.

This aura, combined with her intelligence and natural good looks, attracts the attention of rich and powerful men; her saving grace is that something within her compels them to want to help her rather than exploit her.

Coming up next… Benny Surikano.

East Timor – a case for intervention

In recent years the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have dampened enthusiasm in the west for overseas military interventions. East Timor reminds us there are occasions when sending in outside troops doesn’t simply fan the flames of an intractable, entrenched conflict, but can have a lasting positive effect. Indeed it is arguable that without a United Nations led intervention in 1999, the country almost certainly wouldn’t exist in its current form, and might not even exist at all.

Sebastião_Gomes_grave

Grave of Sebastiao Gomes in Dili, East Timor, whose funeral triggered the 1991 massacre of more than 200 protesters. Photo by Scartol, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

By the mid 1990s, it had become clear to many within the Suharto regime that Timor was not about to knuckle down and accept its status as a province of Indonesia, and the costly process of subjugating the East Timorese people was not bearing fruit.

Several changes turned the tide. The first was advances in communications technology. It was simply no longer possible to exclude the world media as it had been after the 1975 invasion, and keep news of atrocities and human rights abuses from seeping out. A massacre of several hundred protestors at a funeral in 1991 triggered broad international condemnation. This in turn resulted in both the United States and Australia, hitherto covert but staunch supporters of Indonesia’s cause, distancing themselves from Indonesia’s claims on East Timor.

At the same time Indonesia’s sagging economy led many within the country to question the massive cost of continuing to occupy East Timor. Furthermore, the old communist bogeyman had been rendered largely irrelevant by the end of the cold war. Indonesia’s resolve was wavering, and with new president BJ Habibie succeeding Suharto, the prospect of East Timorese independence became a real possibility.

However welcome that might have been across large parts of East Timor, separation from Indonesia also threatened to throw up some losers. Most significant of these were the militias who had been trained by the Indonesian army to enforce Indonesian rule. The prospect of independence, and with it some settling of old scores, terrified them, and they vowed to do whatever they could to prevent it. This took the form of setting out on a rampage of destruction following a vote eventually offered by Indonesia in favour of independence. Their rationale was as simple as it was brutal – if they couldn’t have the country, no one would.

800px-INTERFET_12_Feb_2000

Australian members of International Forces East Timor (INTERFET) on the streets of Dili in 2000. Photo by Dan Mennuto, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

It became clear that unless order was forcibly restored, East Timor would soon slip into anarchy and civil war. A multinational peacekeeping force, led by the Australians, effectively created an arena in which a new government could function and begin to create the independent state of Timor Leste. This force was able to disarm the militias, train and support the local military and police, and provide a framework around which the new nation’s infrastructure could be created.

The Timorese people have much to be thankful for to the Australians, New Zealanders and other nations contributing troops to INTERFET. For the Australians, stepping in at this critical moment in East Timor’s history was perhaps the least they could do to atone for the cynical manner in which Gough Whitlam’s government in the 1970s put economic and political relations with Indonesia over any concern for the plight of the Timorese people.