Tag Archives: Suharto

Bingeing and the myth of short attention spans

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Some things are a little complex to convey in a tweet. A scene from Netflix’s original drama series Narcos, depicting the rise of Pablo Escobar

Bingeing, once the preserve of bulimics and young men who drink themselves stupid before throwing up in some concrete town centre precinct, has recently expanded to encompass a whole new form of behaviour. You thought you were harmlessly sitting down in front of your screen to watch the latest on-demand series from the States. Six hours later, bleary eyed, you admit defeat, retire to bed and put aside tomorrow evening for Episodes 7 through 13.

Yes, you’ve got it, you’ve been bingeing, and if there isn’t a self-help group for you already, there’s sure to be one coming your way as this new twist on the concept enters the Oxford Dictionary.

But hang on a minute. Haven’t we spent the past thirty years being told that attention spans have shrunk to a point approaching non-existence? Blame the digital age, declining standards in schools, too much choice, a morally deficient generation, take your pick. These days it’s all tweets, bullet points, elevator pitches and executive summaries.

Yet a groundswell of evidence seems to be moving in the other direction. If attention spans are so short, if people are so reluctant to take the time to look at anything properly, how do we explain the massive global upsurge in sophisticated, multi-layered dramas with large casts of complex characters that take ten or more hours of screen time to unravel?

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Chop chop, mash mash, rush rush… Doesn’t look much like Christmas here for the BBC’s Capital

Let’s take two recent dramas. The first, Capital, based on the novel by John Lanchester, was produced by the BBC and aired towards the end of 2015. I was rather looking forward to this, having enjoyed the book. However, I was a little concerned when I saw it had been condensed into three one-hour episodes. The book comes in at just under 600 pages, so we’re looking at racing through just over three pages a minute, against a more natural page a minute.

No problem there for the get to the point on to the next scene before they hit the remote and start channel-hopping school of commissioning and scheduling. But to me the end result felt choppy and rushed, the characters flattened and unformed. The whole thing stank of corners being cut, from Christmas scenes shot in mid summer to entire story lines being eliminated. Was it just money, or did someone at the BBC believe (a) the book didn’t merit more than three episodes or (b) the audience couldn’t last the course of a full dozen? If it was (a), why did they commission it in the first place, and if it was (b), they need to take a hard look at what’s going on across the Atlantic over at the online subscription channels.

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Once again, the Americans are showing us how it’s done. When it comes to dysfunctional families, Bloodline has it all

Which brings me to the second drama, Bloodline. No one’s in a hurry here, the series’ creators have sufficient self-confidence in their characters’ complexity and the multifarious webs that entangle their fortunes to allow things to unravel at a luxuriant pace, taking in the steamy atmosphere of the Florida Keys.

With Bloodline, it’s easy to see why some of the best actors in the business (in this case Sissy Spacek, Sam Shepard, Kyle Chandler and Ben Mendelsohn) are eschewing the big screen for the depth and subtle character development offered by these big budget extended dramas.

For really, they are novels for the screen, the 21st Century’s answer to Dickens, Tolstoy and George Eliot. Indeed, many novels we now think of as classics were first introduced in episode format in magazines. While readers were gorging on the latest twist in Raskolnikov’s fortunes, poor old Dostoevsky was wondering how the hell he was going to get the next instalment written in time for The Russian Messenger’s deadline. Were the people who waited until the novel appeared in book form and then read the lot in one hit guilty of bingeing? Is refusing to ration an enthralling book into polite segments not exceeding a genteel 30 pages per session a diagnosable illness symptomatic of a need for medical treatment?

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Go binge on this… an episode of Bleak House as it would have first appeared to Victorian readers

I’ll admit it, I like bingeing, whether it’s a book that really grabs me or a Netflix hit like Narcos or NBC Universal’s Friday Night Lights. Because when I binge in this way, what’s really happening is I am being transported into another world with all its dramas, intrigues, heartaches, joys and sorrows. So I’m certainly not going to take offence at anyone bingeing on my novel Francesca.

The story begins in the 1970s with then Indonesian President Suharto cozying up to US President Ford and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. Suharto, lest we forget, is the man who in 2004 had the dubious distinction of being listed the world’s number one kleptocratic head of state by the global anti-corruption organisation Transparency International. Estimates of the extent of his theft during his 31 years in office range from $15 to $35 billion, some three times more than his nearest contender, Marcos of the Philippines.

If you’re robbing your own people on that scale, it’s hardly surprising you don’t lose any sleep when it comes to helping yourself to a neighbouring country. Suharto’s 1975 adventure became a generational and genocidal tragedy for the people of East Timor, and it is this story that is told through the eyes of one young woman, Francesca.

Francesca is available at http://viewbook.at/francesca

 

 

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Indonesia remains true to form over French journalists in West Papua

 

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West Papua, part of Indonesia, and the neighbouring independent Papua New Guinea

News that two French journalists have been arrested in West Papua should come as no surprise to anyone familiar with the way the Indonesian government traditionally deals with threats to its authority.

Thomas Dandois and Valentine Bourrat were arrested on August 6th, allegedly for working in the province without a proper journalist visa. The pair were shooting a documentary for the Franco-German TV channel Arte on the separatist Free Papua Movement (OPM), which has for years waged a low level insurgency campaign against the Indonesian government.

Since it gained its independence from the Dutch after World War II, and certainly since the Suharto regime came to power in the 1960s, Indonesia has traditionally taken a firm stance against any internal dissent. The most well known example occurred in East Timor in the 1970s; only it wasn’t so well known because the Indonesian government managed to shut down the province, denying access to the Western media or anyone else who might have been inclined to stir up trouble. For years Indonesia was able to engage in a cruel policy of suppression that by many estimates cost the lives of almost a third of the Timorese population. Eventually they could no longer stave off the inevitable and East Timor gained its independence in 2002.

Part of the reason I wrote  my novel Francesca, which is set around the time of the Indonesian invasion of East Timor in 1975, was that so few people had heard of this country and its struggles. It seemed evidence that the strategy of shutting down a troublesome region, denying access to outsiders and keeping a tight grip on the country’s internal media, worked. The thinking went that if no one knew, no one could complain, and no one would try to put a stop to it.

So I am curious to see how effective this policy will be in the age of social media and instant global communications. In one sense there’s no excuse for ignorance. Anyone with a search engine and the desire to know more can get an update on the fate of Dandois and Bourrat in seconds. The question then becomes, does anyone care, and is anyone going to do anything about it? Or is the information overload just too overwhelming, a couple of lone crusaders competing for our attention against vaster tragedies in Syria, Gaza and Iraq? Are there times when too much information is even more effective than too little?

My novel Francesca is available here. In the meantime you can follow the fates of the French journalists on twitter at #dandois and #bourrat

 

 

 

Francesca reaches Tasmania

Francesca reaches Tasmania

The first copy of Francesca to reach Tasmania (unless you know different!)

The other day I received a photo purporting to be the first copy of Francesca to arrive in Tasmania. It reminded me what a rapidly moving and global business book distribution has become, how ideas can travel across continents and oceans at the click of a mouse.

It was rather different in the era when Francesca was set, the mid 1970s.  Long before the days of the internet, mobile phones and social media, it was far easier to keep people in the dark. Tyrants and dictators used this to their advantage. Hiding their shameful acts often required little more than muzzling the press, censoring the mail, closing the borders and keeping foreign journalists out of the country.

Now the problem is too much information – so much is accessible but how do you know what to look for amidst all the noise? The danger now isn’t so much something will be hidden from view, more that it will be overlooked amongst decreasing attention spans and the tsunami of information overload.

So far I’ve been blessed to have heard from readers as far afield as the United States, Canada, Asia and Australia, as well as the United Kingdom, where I am currently based. In the same way, I see from the stats pages that this blog is read in dozens of different countries around the world. When I look at the figures I am overawed at the power technology has to connect billions of people from all over the world.

There’s another reason I was particularly gratified to see a copy of Francesca reach the shores of Tasmania. I have a particular affection for Australia’s island state, for its rugged beauty, for the friendliness of its people, for its environment, much of which remains unspoilt. Some years ago I spent several months there, writing the first draft of a novel that will be published later this year. I’ll be writing more about that in future posts.

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Sea cliffs along Tasmania’s spectacular coastline. Photo by John McLaine

Until then, I hope you are enjoying Francesca, wherever you are. Please continue to pass it on to your friends; I have found that word of mouth is still the most effective means of communication, even if it comes via twitter, Facebook or any of the other burgeoning social media out there. And if you have read it, please post a review, either here in the comments section or on Amazon.

You can order your copy of Francesca here 

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

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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

Could Suharto have tamed Pussy Riot?

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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).

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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.

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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.

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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.

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.

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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 6: Peter Adisono, shadow of a giant

Photo by puroticorico

How do you live up to the reputation of an intellectual giant, a leader of the masses, a martyr murdered by the Suharto regime?

Such are the concerns of Peter, son of the famous leftist intellectual, Rudi Adisono. Plagued by indecision, prone to well intentioned sentimentality, Peter seems to make a mess of everything he turns his hand to. Yet wherever he bungles he is protected from the consequences of his actions by his rich and influential family.

Whereas his father may have been an agitator who made the regime feel uneasy whenever he made one of his pronouncements or calls to action, no one is the slightest bit interested in anything Peter thinks or has to say. He would probably have been squashed years ago, or tossed in jail and left to rot, were it not for his connection through marriage to the notorious Benny Surikano. Uncle Benny, as he is ironically known, is married to the sister of Peter’s mother, both women being themselves the daughters of a once prominent general. Needless to say, uncle and nephew eye each other with mutual loathing, contempt and distrust.

So when Peter, who’d been set up in a nice comfortable teaching position, exposes his high school students to some slightly radical ideas, it’s not Peter who ends up in jail for sedition, but one of his luckless charges. Peter is removed from his post and found a position where even he can’t cause much trouble or mess things up too badly, teaching Indonesian culture to the children of the American and European expats.

Much like Eddie, Peter has drifted through his teens and twenties, letting life happen to him. It takes stumbling into Francesca’s orbit to introduce him to the virtues of decisive action…