Skip to Content »

Hollow Men, Carlos Fuentes and Clive James

  • January 15th, 2008

Christmas holiday reading is like the first cold beer after a triathlon. It tastes better than usual. It refills the resevoirs of thoughts and facts depleted by a year of acting on instinct, without time.

A year ago I wasted half a day on the Hollow Men. It was astonishingly naive, but also reassuring.

It’s ‘revelations’ were so trite I’ve now forgotten the detail, but with few exceptions it showed only the ordinary tensions of politics.  I saw them first from the left as a student, and later from the centre right. The authors’ naivety lay in their horror at the gap between internal and external communication, as shown in the leaked emails. 

Perhaps that horror was the dishonesty of feigned alarm, not naivete.  Few groups talk to outsiders the way they talk among themselves. Outsiders don’t know the shorthand – they misunderstand the black jokes that get groups in stressful jobs through the day (ask your doctor or nurse about the hospital insider jokes). Any group which fails to communicate in language the recipients understand deserves to be misunderstood. Lawyers, soldiers and  police have two languages. Teachers perhaps do not, though they should. They turn ordinary words to parents into a code to avoid straight talk. And all those groups can assume the outsiders have some interest in hearing from them.

Politicians can not assume an interest in their messages. They must work at the emotional level, even on complex issues that should not be simplified, but must.

Sure it feels like ‘insincerity’. I hated dumbing down my speeches and letters. But if without it you will not be heard at all, where’s the choice? There are boundaries of course. The key thing for me was to ensure the communication did not become false.

People who can’t stand the fact that the floating voters in a democracy may be ignorant and uninterested should play another game. Sadly those voters may be the major important audience in an MMP election.

The reassurance in the Hollow Men came from what it did not contain. With all that leaked information they disclosed no malign or sinister self interest. Those who were trying to influence politics,  big donors included, were apparently acting from conviction, like other players in NZ politics, about what was best for New Zealand. The authors had the grace to acknowledge that.

I reflected on that as I read “The Eagle’s Throne” by Carlos Fuentes. He is certainly Mexico’s and perhaps Latin America’s leading novelist. An Argentinian friend recommended it as the novel most likely to be accessible to me as an ‘anglo’, yet revealing of the Latino mind.

I found it only marginally less difficult than the standard Latino fare. Carlos Castaneda never did it for me 30 years ago despite my diligence. Others since have been no easier to read to the end. Stereotypical violence and cruelty blended with magic and the surreal is not my cup of tea.

Fuentes is much more engaging. Politicians were the caharacters. Aphorisms pour from his pages. 

But it was not politics as we know it, thank God. In the end The Eagles Throne could not engage me.  The lust (including for power) was too dominant to resonate with my experience of politics.  Cynicism about the disjunct between political posturing and real motive is just too pervasive.

The choices I found most testing in politics were not between good and bad. They’re easy. The hard ones are the unavoidable choices between bad and worse, or between acting now in ignorance or later when it may be too late.

In my political experience NZ political dilemmas are less crude than those of Latin literature. Maybe that makes ours’ just as hard to resolve. Idealism still plays an important part in New Zealand political life as I have seen it, even for those who are so practiced that they may find it hard to recognise in themselves. The public interest matters to our political elite, even if they commonly subordinate it to their own interests.

So for this Christmas holiday Clive James’ “Cultural Amnesia” was my cold beer on a hot day. At 850 pages it lasted many hot afternoons.  I had no idea of the depth of his interest in topics outside the arts. It is superb. I can not do better than the NY Times jacket note “Clive James is a brilliant bunch of guys”.

Leave your comments:

* Required fields. Your e-mail address will not be published on this site

You can use the following HTML tags:
<a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>