Wednesday, March 10, 2010
Eastern Approaches by Fitzroy Maclean
Who did you want to be when you were ten years old?
It isn’t a trivial question- you can tell much about someone based on who they admire. (For example, if it’s Jeremy Clarkson, then we’ve learned that this conversation is over). But there are different levels of ‘heroes’. I mean, in a very superficial way, most people wouldn’t mind being a rich heir(ess), and most guys have though at times that being Hugh Hefner would be pretty decent. But these fantasies satisfy merely the most shallow of our needs- they do not answer our burning needs to prove our worth or live meaningful lives- and what people find ‘meaningful’ will of course vary.
Some of my heroes include writers like Arthur Conan Doyle- those who created characters and ideas that have become a part of the public consciousness. But while I would be thrilled to be as talented as them, it isn’t their lives particularly that I would wish to emulate…
That lofty rank would be filled by characters like Percy Fawcett, Harry Price, Richard Burton, Tom Crean and David Livingstone- regardless of personal fame or success, they lived extraordinary lives, each endeavoring in his own way to push back the boundaries of knowledge. Whether they explored the forgotten corners of the world’s jungles or the borders of belief, they reminded us ordinary plebs that the world was a place that was still full of adventure; a place where fantastic things can still happen. Lost civilizations, haunted houses, cannibal tribes and giant anacondas- these are the things that make life worth living (or at least worth reading about).
My recent reading of the book Eastern Approaches has immediately catapulted its authur, Fitzroy Maclean, into this exclusive club. Good God, the man’s credentials are absolutely impeccable; it’s almost obscene that he hadn’t come to my attention previously. If even ten percent of what Maclean wrote about is true, the man was the greatest legend who ever blagged his way through a Soviet checkpoint- a real-life Flashman who seemed always to blunder onto the scene whenever epoch-making historical events were getting underway.
Eastern Approaches begins by chronicling Maclean’s exploits in the years immediately preceding World War 2. A member of the early 20th Century British aristocracy, he was already moving in notable circles (Winston Churchill and Evelyn Waugh were good friends of his) when his diplomatic career begun in Paris. Maclean immediately works his way into my good books by decrying his enviable lifestyle there as ‘boring’. Easy work, good pay, lots of high society champagne parties and warm summer nights on the Champs Elysee do become so tiresome, after all. So, to the amazement and delight of his supervisors, Maclean opts to be reposted to Moscow- something no British diplomat has ever willingly done. No real reason is given for this, except that he fancies a bit of adventure, and wants to find out a bit about the mysterious land of Uncle Joe.
After some time in Moscow, he decides to travel through the forbidden territories of Central Asia, which few Europeans had ever seen (especially since the birth of the USSR). Just for a bit of a laugh. Samarkand and Buhkara sound like exotic, difficult-to-get-to places, and this more than than justifies to him the dangerous journey he intends to take. I agree. This he achieves with an astonishing mix of bravado and luck. The NKVD (precursors to the KGB) follow him everywhere, but because he’s such a legend, their agents often become friendly with him (usually over a bottle of vodka, too). Maclean moves through the various ‘stans, avoiding the usual Soviet red tape by simply not informing the NKVD where his next destination is going to be, and by spoofing to border guards when necessary. This entire section of the book reads very like a real life version of Flashman at the Charge.
Maclean provides an absolutely fascinating document of Soviet life during the 1930’s. Though he deplores the Soviet system, he is never jingoistic or partronising. In fact, he pretty much never has to say a bad word about the Soviets, as the facts of the case speak for themselves- everywhere he goes, movement is restricted for both locals and foreigners, NKVD are an oppressive presence, peasants are relocated en masse and treated like prisoners, and shops are empty as food shortages are standard. He enjoys the company of pretty much every nationality he meets, having good things to say about Afghans, Tajiks, Uzbecs and other unfortunate citizens of the great Soviet experiment. And for an upper-class Brit, Maclean appears to have been remarkably laid-back, especially considering the time. Not a page goes by that he isn’t cheerfully slumming it over a bottle of vodka with a couple of Kyrg peasants in the back of a truck or train.
One other thing needs to be mentioned- Maclean occasionally notes the presence of attractive ladies he meets along the way. After noting them in the text however, they shortly fade form the narrative, seemingly without function. Is there something here that needs to be read between the lines? Something that the author couldn’t make overtly clear when the book was published? At these times I tend to turn to the only picture of Maclean included, at the front of the book-
-and then I just know he tapped that.
My absolute sole criticism of this portion of the book is that it contains one chapter so gripping and terrifying, it stops the narrative dead in its tracks- a detailed description of Stalin’s show trials. After much light-hearted bouncing about Central Asia, this chapter comes as a bit of a shocker. Maclean finally lets a more serious tone creep into his writing, which is fair enough given that he's dealing with one of the most blood-chilling aspects of Stalin's reign. Given a ringside seat, as it were, Maclean reports the trials lucidly and without colour. Former high-ranking Party officials are hauled bleary-eyed into the court to testisfy to absurd (and often impossible) crimes. According to this testiomony of the damned, the Soviet Party was riddled, almost from before its conception, with traitors and conspiracies. Any citizen who was ever known to have dealings with foreigners was a spy; every food shortage was deliberately caused by malicious inside jobs, not government mismanagement. Maclean's narrative deepens considerably here as he leaves high-spirited hijinks to one side and instead delivers a fascinating physocological deconstruction of the Soviet regime. He tries to explain how living in a state of constant terror and misinformation has made it possible that, in some horrible doublethink manner, the audience (and even the accused) actually do believe the absurd deceit they are constructing. Positively chilling.
After this exercise in real-life horror, the madcap central Asian backpacking that Maclean indulges in over the next few chapters seem a trifle thin.
Strangely, the other 2/3rds of the book didn't strike me as being quite as interesting. Perhaps if they had been published separately, they might have had more impact. Anyway, when World War 2 begins, Maclean turns down his position as a local politician, and sign up for the army. Despite his privileged background, he willingly joins as a private and gets sent to North Africa to fight against Rommel's troops. Cue lots of strangely repetitive missions sneaking into desert cities and bluffing past German and Italian troops.
After this, in a truly Flashman-esque move, Churchill himself asks Maclean to parachute into Bosnia to meet the mysterious Tito. Tito is the leader of the Partisans, a guerilla movement who are fighting the Nazi occupation. Trouble is, nobody outside Yugoslavia knows who Tito really is. When Maclean finally meets him, he is impressed by Tito's leadership skills and independent streak. Maclean hides out in the Yugoslav hills for several months, fighting with the Partisans and trying to talk Tito out of his Communist ideals. Again, Maclean does not come across as a condescending, jingoistic Brit- he really does respect Tito, and his fear of Communism is based on experience, not xenophobia.
Even if his WW2 adventures were less interesting to me than his Central Asian odyssey, Fitzroy Maclean is never less than entertaining, and he has solidified his position as one of the great characters of the 20th century.