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Blog Archive December 2012

Counterfactuals and Fictional Worlds

What is it about reading a novel that draws us to a story? The standard list would include: the characterization, the voice, the setting, or the suspense and thrills. I’d like to add to the list: the way the story illustrates the psychological state of fear, the choices made under duress of that emotion, and the consequences of the choice made and the choices that weren’t made.

Fear elongates as faith in the security and the protection of the authorities erodes. We live in an age of heightened fear. Partially authorities use fear to grab votes, and to curtail civil liberties. We are pushed in two separate directions: distrust of what the authorities can do to protect us and the willingness to allow the authorities to play to our fears for their own benefit.

We are a product of our times, our age and our culture. The occasional book spans time, the age it was written and the cultural distortions in which the author worked. Would George Orwell have written different kinds of books with a different mindset if instead of being a colonial police official in Burma, he had gone to live in Thailand or Singapore or Saigon and worked as a journalist for twenty-five years? Or Graham Greene who traveled extensively, one wonders a counterfactual life where he stayed in Saigon for years. Or if Nelson Algren had been raised on a farm in Kansas rather than Chicago and his father had been the local mayor and his mother the country judge.

I have lived for 25 years in a political system where officials have fewer restraints on the exercise of their power, fewer inquiries, questioning and criticisms–a soft police state. I thought of this, as once again I was on the back of a motorcycle taxi, which was flagged down and stopped by the police at a two-man ambush T-intersection where Soi 16 and Soi Paisinghtoh meet. The police were interested in the driver. I was the person of interest.  I got off the back of the motorcycle, showed a copy of my passport. I was physically searched, made to empty my pockets andsubmit to a pat down. Next the cops opened each compartment of backpack, opening the plastic bag containing my freshly used gym clothes. This happened at 1.45 p.m. in the afternoon.

The police questions: “Do you speak Thai?” (Of course not.) “What your name?” (I give my name.) “Where you go?” (Home—one hundred meters from your ambush point.) “What you do in Thailand?” (I am a retired lawyer (never be a writer)). “Where you live?” (I point up the road.) “Show me your wallet.” (I show him my wallet.)

Finally one of the cops asked the motorcycle taxi driver if he knew me. The driver gave a reference: “He live in Thailand a long-time.” I’d never seen this driver before but he seemed to know who I was. Based on the testimony of the motorcycle driver I was allowed to leave.

There would have been a time where I found such an arbitrary stop, search and questioning unsettling, upsetting and annoying. After third such incident in less in a year, it has become an ordinary feature of life.

Show me your papers. Right out of an old Bogart movie on the tarmac of some remote airport in North Africa. Police roadblocks are small change in the scheme of things. They are a kind of theatre where the actors know the drama is about fear and money and power.

I’ve learned a thing or two about all three having survived coups, street fighting and violence, and walked through minefields where villagers had erected bamboo huts. I’ve seen the aftermath of war in Cambodia and Vietnam not long after the guns had gone silent. I know many others who’ve seen much, much more than me. But I saw enough to learn a couple of lessons about myself. What I am capable to feeling when fear and power and money rollerblade straight for me. I don’t like it. I don’t like being afraid. But I put myself in a position where that would inevitably happen.

If I’d stayed a law professor at the University of British Columbia, walking the beaches, skiing at Whistler, buying salmon at Granville Island market, my life and what I wrote about would have gone in a different direction. In the multiverse there is a version of me who never left Vancouver and is still teaching law. That version also writes. But I doubt he writes books set in Southeast Asia, or if he does, they would be very different books from the ones I’ve written.

The stuff of writing that is worth a second read, I believe comes from writers who have felt the bone chilling sound of gunfire, seen ordinary people panic, wounded, suffering, people without jobs, connections, hungry and homeless people. This is where the rubber connects with the road of life. Not in the office towers or exclusive clubs or shopping malls. Those illusions take away the fear that power and money, our natural enemy, should instinctively make us weary. We believe that we can reach out and cuddle the cute lion. The lesson of literature is a warning that anyone who has been in this context never forgets what emotions flood through the mind.

Nelson Algren was a writer I discovered when I was very young, and like Orwell and Koestler had an influence on the kind of books I read (and ultimately wanted to write). Colin Asher has written an insightful essay “Never a Lovely so Real”  about Algren:

 (Algren) pressed that refrain throughout his life, at every opportunity he found. The formulation that best captures his intention and method is: ‘The hard necessity of bringing the judge on the bench down into the dock has been the peculiar responsibility of the writer in all ages of man.’ After his first book, Algren never traded in the idea that the poor are purely victims. Sometimes the accused were guilty, he believed, sometimes innocent, either way their perspective deserved consideration.

Algren like Orwell never sentimentalized the poor. He never looked down on them. He understood how money and power circled around them, caging them, controlling and fearing them at the same time.

The book I remember I read when I was fifteen was The Man with the Golden Arm. Asher nailed that novel in this passage:

If Golden Arm had a purpose, it was to challenge the idea, then congealing into ideology, that an individual’s social value is related to his or her wealth. Its message is that lives lived in the twilight hours, after swing shifts, in the shadows of newly erected towers, or beneath the tracks of the El, are as passionate, as meaningful, as funny and pointless, and as much a part of the American story as any.

What was congealing into ideology has long since dried into hard stone. Where is there a place left where social value isn’t calculated in terms of wealth and influence? Those who have no wealth are left out of the story of our time. Algren, Orwell, Koestler and Greene threw a literary lifeline to these people. We live in a time where cutting that lifeline is the business of government, and writing has become an entertainment business. Walking away from a secure university professorship was something a foolish fifteen-year-old boy who’d read The Man with the Golden Arm would do; but not a grown man. At any stage, things could have gone very wrong.

But if I’d stayed in my university office, something I needed to see and do and think about would have never come alive. The theory of the multiverse says we are one among an infinite number of universes, and all possibilities are a reality.  That’s too much like magical thinking for me to take seriously. False comfort is no comfort. Making a choice in this life means taking a hard look at the cards you hold and then making a bet on yourself. If you are a writer, you shuffle the deck, and deal the hand your characters will hold. Every book is a new game of poker.

But before you write that first sentence you must find the interiority of the main characters. I find my characters in the most unlikely places and most of them live off the radar screen for most people. The best characters in novels are the ones society judge as having no value—and that allows us to put society in the dock to judge it. I am drawn to characters who push beyond the rejection society brings to their every day life, and like characters who face the high wall behind which an army of money and power pulls up the drawbridge. I like characters who don’t feel sorry because others regard them as worthless, who don’t give up, who keep advancing against the forces assembled to destroy them. I like them because they have more natural dignity and grace than any university professor could ever imagine.

Posted: 1/3/2013 7:58:31 PM 

 

Orwell, Koestler and the Noir Brigade

International Crime Authors Reality Check is written by a group of professional authors who measure their literary work with an authenticity ruler. As 2012 winds down, I’d like to look at the tradition of two authors: George Orwell and Arthur Koestler who have had influence on my own attitudes about what to write about, and matching experience to story and character. The best of noir/political fiction draws upon, in my opinion, the real life experience of an author who has found him/herself a victim of violence or has lived through the aftermath of violence inside a shattered community.

Both Orwell and Koestler’s lives were shaped by civil war and world war, and the lessons they learnt from the political front lines has forever carved images of official violence into our collective memory. 1984 and Darkness at Noon are prime examples of noir novels written by authors who had personally witnessed such darkness of the human condition.

In noir fiction, the officials and party functionaries are armed by ideology and guns. The state monopoly of violence is sold by the State as the best solution to protect you against chaos and the violence of your neighbors and strangers. As history shows, there are many examples where such officials use their power not to protect you from lawless forces, but to advance their own interest. The government becomes a racket for those who govern. They block a citizen’s passage down the winding, twisting roads of alternative thought and ideas. They erect intellectual tollgates, demanding supplication, loyalty and purity of belief. These attitudes are preconditions to a noir world.

There is no bargaining, compromising, or negotiating inside this noir world. Any response short of total agreement invites those official forces to restrict, intimidate or if need be destroy the dissenter. Both Orwell and Koestler have written the ultimate noir novels. In Darkness at Noon and 1984, the loyal insider confesses to a false crime rather than repudiate his belief in the institution and its leaders. A false historical narrative is an extension of voluntary confessions to false crimes. Such confessions lead to death or psychological destruction of the confessor. That is how noir ends. Not with hope but despair.

Who has the credibility to write about false historical narratives? Orwell wrote an essay suggesting it can only be artistically rendered by an author who lived inside the false historical narrative and accepted it for a long period of time as the truth. Only an author with that experience can convey the authenticity of repression, and recreate the actual psychology conditions of people who live and die in such regimes. The outsider, the expat, comes into the new culture of ideology with idealism that can easily turn into a descent into the worst kind of psychological terror.

The Guardian has a review of Arthur Koestler’s classic novel: Darkness at Noon.

George Orwell wrote an essay about Koestler in which he spoke about a generation of European writers that wrote ‘political’ books with the kind of authority that Orwell felt was lacking in English writers.

Orwell wrote in 1941 that these Europeans were “trying to write contemporary history, but UNOFFICIAL history, the kind that is ignored in the text-books and lied about in the newspapers. Also they are all alike in being continental Europeans. It may be an exaggeration, but it cannot be a very great one, to say that whenever a book dealing with totalitarianism appears in this country, and still seems worth reading six months after publication, it is a book translated from some foreign language. English writers, over the past dozen years, have poured forth an enormous spate of political literature, but they have produced almost nothing of aesthetic value, and very little of historical value either.”

The subtext is that unless the author has emerged from the context of where totalitarianism is an all-encompassing aspect of their life, having been part of the process that defines the identity and mindset, they are better equipped to communicate the psychological range like an experience bent over his sheet of music reading the score and conducting the symphony.

The central question for Orwell in Darkness at Noon was why the Bolshevik named Rubashov, who had committed no crime, confessed to a false one? The book is a study of the psychology of a true-believer who has for irrational reason been falsely charged with a crime. What would have been in Orwell’s view a mere polemic if it had been written by an American or English writer in the hands of Koestler because he has experienced what he’s writing about can raise the experience to an aesthetic level.

Experience was something that Koestler could draw upon. He was sent to Spain during the Civil War in the 1930s and was arrested and imprisoned and came very close to being shot. But for the intervention of powerful friends abroad his fate would have death. Like Orwell, who also saw action in the Spanish Civil War, Koestler survived to brush up against death during World War II. He escaped Paris as the Nazis arrived in 1940.

Koestler had written Darkness in Noon in German, leaving the manuscript with Daphne Hardy. She translated the book into English before escaping France herself. Believing a false rumor that Hardy’s ship had been sunk, Koestler attempted suicide. His long literary life included encounters with the famous figures from World War II to contemporary times: Thomas Mann, Dylan Thomas, George Orwell, Mary McCarthy, Timothy Leary, Salman Rushdie and Cyril Connolly.

The irony of both 1984 and Darkness at Noon is the anti-hero in both is doomed from the beginning, and it is the struggle against that fate that makes them compelling, timeless, and disturbing. In an age where ‘entertainment’ is the byword, ‘disturbing’ political novels are out of favour while books written by authors whose lives are remote from any front line produce books like Fifty Shades of Grey.  The growing interest in noir fiction, authentic fiction written by authors who have experienced the crack of the whip not in a sensual setting but in a political one and who know the difference, shows readers have an appetite for political novels that speak to a larger truth when the agents of repression come calling.

Posted: 12/27/2012 7:56:28 PM 

 

Christmas Noir

For most people deception comes early on.  Around Christmas time millions of children believe that Santa Claus will come to their house and leave gifts from them as rewards for their good behavior in the previous year. It is no surprise that one of the first lessons a child learns is that those most close to them, the ones they trust and feel most secure with, are capable of deception. Christmas and noir become coupled with a child’s first introduction to how corruption works as Christmas approaches. Santa Claus expects a reward on his time and investment in terms of milk and cookies. Children leave him an offering. It is the first bribe they pay with the encouragement of their family. Christmas Noir features a fat bearded man with supernatural powers (to get over the speed of light limitations), and he comes dressed in weird clothes, and he judges your record over the past year and bribery is part of the deal.

Christmas Noir doesn’t stop with a fat magical warlord and his corrupt practices, it extents to his whole business model. For instance, parents leave out the tiny detail that Santa Claus’s so-called elves who work around the clock to make toys for billions of children are likely children slaving inside a sweatshop. The noir reality is the child is accepting gifts from a corrupt sweatshop slaver. Let’s don’t get started on the animal cruelty in the treatment of reindeer which beaten until they fly and then must land and take off on billions of rooftops all on one night.

The mother and father’s deception about Santa Claus can be dressed up as a ‘white lie’ to preserve childhood innocence and a tradition that is part of the cultural heritage. No matter what dress you put on a horse, it remains a horse. A lie dressed up as culture and tradition can never shed its origin as born in deception.

In the adult world, having served in the front ranks of disillusioned Santa Claus believers, we are nonetheless primed for further deceptions by politicians, conmen, bankers, terrorists, and by friends on Facebook and Twitter. It is a mixed bag and we are on alert for those who deceive, looking for signs and omens, remembering how easily we were duped as a child and swearing not to let that happen again.

The old Santa Claus story reappears despite our early training to spot deceit. Property bubbles, ponzi schemes, Bernie Madoff, Nigerian offers to split offshore loot by a recently deceased general, are among a vast array of criminal activities that depend on the ‘fish’ taking the bait. And it seems there are enough fish in the sea that even if only a few bite, you can fill the boat with fish jumping into the boat and not waiting for the hook.

One of the functions of the justice system and the political system is to prevent deception. That’s why Campbell’s soup label can’t outright lie about the contents including salt and sugar levels. Medicine, cars, TVs, computers, phones all come with puffing about their superior features, functionality, and usefulness. Placebo in place of a pill with active ingredients is allowed in certain blind studies but the patients are informed that someone of them will be receiving a ‘fake’ pill.

The laws, police and courts monitor commercial behavior for deception and punish those found guilty of deceitful conduct. Most of the time. While our parents don’t go to jail when it is clear they lied about Santa Claus, someone who operates a boiler room and sells worthless shares to your grandmothers are arrested and sentenced to prison. Some of the time.

Governments spend large sums of money seeking to effectively gather information about criminals who use deception to mask the crime, or their trail after committing a crime, or finding how and where they stashed their ill-gotten gains.  Every legal system and culture has its own set of ideas about how best to go about detecting the deceivers among us.

The most obvious way to find people committing criminal acts is to catch them in the act. Criminals may be dumb but they aren’t altogether stupid. If they believe they are being watched or listened to—the eyes off the police are on them—they are unlikely to commit the theft, mugging, assault, murder or drunk driving.  Deception is the art of not getting caught. It is also a cat and mouse game, where each side tries to stay one step ahead of the other. The question is who is winning the deception game? The deceivers who are able to either use deceit to take an unlawful advantage or having committed any crime use deceit to avoid detection.

Below is the picture of a new watchtower on Walking Street in Pattaya: a place of bars, nightclubs, and massage parlors. Thousands of people walk along this street every night of the week. The street is closed to traffic. A vibrant nightlife attracts criminals from pickpockets to drug dealers. These are examples of the kind of criminal activity that depends on deception.  The question is whether the police officer in the tower is better at this job that CCTV cameras that feed into a monitoring system watched by the police.


Thai Visa

The watchtower mentality goes back to defending castles. Like moats, watchtowers are defensive instruments to protect mainly against surprise attack. Or in the case of a prison, a surprise escape by prisoners or a surprise visit by friends and family of the prisoners. In any event, using a watchtower to detect street crime has some uphill problems. In a culture of face, perhaps the mere presence of a tower overlooking a street is enough to instill fear in potential criminals that they sleek off to the side streets–out of police sight–and commit the crime.


The Bangkok Post

Another example of watchfulness is the blimp bought for use to fight terrorists in the South of Thailand. As a surveillance system, it has most of the limitation of a watchtower, only it is higher off the ground. In this case, the blimp cost around $10M, and had chronic problems from the start. Meaning it had so many additional accessories it apparently had trouble staying airborne. When those problems appeared to be addressed, in the first flight, the blimp crashed and is in for repairs. The idea behind the blimp was to expose deceptive conduct by would-be terrorists who seek to disguise themselves or their criminal activities on the ground. Instead the focus of attention shifted from terrorists to possible deception in the acquisition of the blimp. Deception, in other words, can be like those Russian dolls. Or it can be a retelling of the Santa Claus story in a novel way.

The final example is the GT200, a device bought by the army to detect landmines hidden along roads in the South of Thailand and set off by remote control as military vehicles passed over them. Like the blimp, the idea was to use high-technology as a means to check deception by terrorists by discovering ambush points where their lethal mines had been set. Only it turned out the army was deceived by the sellers of the GT200 who faced criminal charges in the UK for—I am certain you are ready for this—deception and fraud. The GT200 had the circuitry sophistication of a Barbie doll. There were also allegations about the high purchase price paid for the GT200 devices, i.e., around Baht 1,000,000 per device.  What had been bought to detect terrorists didn’t work and questions about sourcing, testing and evaluating the device according to transparent standards disappeared from sight and into the general fog that people understand to mean if they know what is good for them they don’t ask such questions.

We are left without Santa Claus’s heritage, which, like GT200, and the Blimp and the Watchtower, are from an earlier belief system. When the government is our parent we enter the zone where Santa Claus, like Schrödinger’s cat is neither dead nor alive. We must first open the box and look inside. This was what George Orwell sought to show as the duty of a writer. Now, however, the duty is not so much to expose official deceit as to entertain and flatter. Because we know that if look really hard and reveal an inconvenient truth that we will likely be in big trouble. No presents for troublemakers. No one wishes to risk being the only one that Santa didn’t bring a Christmas present to this year. The only one who made Santa angry and lose face. So our generation goes along with watchtowers, blimps and GT200s believing they actually exist and work for us.

The message from childhood remains the same—you will be judged by a powerful person who runs a sweatshop racket, someone with supernatural power and he expects a bribe. Those who we assume are most responsible for looking after us are the ones who are the mostly likely to deceive us in the end. That makes for a noir Christmas. But it also brings us to a New Year where just maybe we will find George Orwell’s courage to use truth to combat lies from the official and corporate world.

Posted: 12/20/2012 7:54:05 PM 

 

Dumb Criminals

The murky world of criminal has its fair share of morons. In the noir world, criminals are aggressive, sinister, violent and unstable. In the real world there is are all kinds of people who aren’t good at their chosen occupation. Some people don’t have what it takes to be a criminal.

While 2012 has yet to end, people are drawing up list of the most stupid criminals.

Here are some examples:

The little known defense of claiming to be a Werewolf doesn’t work in most jurisdictions.

1. Claim diminished capacity as a result of being involuntarily made a Werewolf in Germany

No one bothered to inform Thomas Stroup of the limitations of such a defense. Ohio police arrested Thomas and charged him for underage drinking. The evidence was reasonably clear. Thomas was passed out in a trailer encircled by swords.  Other residents in the trailer park had complained that Thomas started fights and was otherwise a nasty character. When confronted by the police, Stroup said he was sober though admitted his behavior was strange though beyond his control as he’d been scratched by a wolf in Germany. And this wolf like spirit had motivated him to kill the officer’s cousin named Keith. Only the officer had no cousin named Keith.

2. The Dude Abides. At home only.

Christopher Jansen was on trial in March in Pontiac, Michigan for drug possession. Young Christopher claimed that he had been searched without a warrant. The DA countered that the arresting officer acted properly without a search warrant as he had probable cause. He saw a “bulge” in Christopher’s jacket and thought it might have been a gun.  Christopher objected to that conclusion. It turned out he was wearing the same jacket that day in court. He removed the jacket and handed to the judge for inspection. The judge removed a packet of cocaine from the jacket pocket. The judge laughed so hard he needed a five-minute recess to get a grip on his giggles before the trial could resume.

3. Closer to home there are endless examples of foreign tourists who leave their thinking mind at home arrive in Thailand and discover. . . .Like everywhere else there are laws.

If you take a couple of Indian tourists and decide to get drunk, but at some stage they want to have some fun or transportation to the hotel—why, after all it is holiday, do both. So they steal a motorbike owned a taxi driver who worked at a taxi queue in South Pattaya. It seems that Mr. Govind Lal aged 43 and Mr. Varun Kumar Guel aged 28, could pass that motorcycle without noticing the key had been left in the ignition. There is no explanation of what distracted the other motorcycle taxi driver in the queue. The motorcycle owner, Moragort aged 32 admitted his bladder was killing him as he rushed away leaving the key into the ignition to use the toilet. After he returns, his bike is gone.

But with the bamboo telegraph in hyper mode, the missing bike and the two Indians are spotted on Second Road in Pattaya. Friends of Khun Moragort forced the bike to spot and took the two Indians to Pattaya Police Station. The suspects defense was one the local cops had likely many times was they only intended to borrow the motorcycle, have some fun and besides they were far too drunk to have the criminal intent to commit a theft. Khun Moragort, the crime victim, must have been quite upset to hear the Indians prattling a defense reserved only for Thais caught in these circumstances. That is the only explanation for his refusal to accept a financial compensation package by the two suspects. No way these guys were going to pay their way out of justice. The two Indians were remanded for trial.

4. Tourists not only get drunk and commit stupid crimes, when they stay longer than their bankroll, the real fun begins on formulating really stupid plans to  replenish their wallets. And what better place to get money than a bank? Why not rip an ATM machine out of the wall, cut it open like a mad,  beast and drain out the money? You have now entered the chain of reasoning that makes desperate men into morons. In June, 2012, in Chon Buri, Alexander Milbourn, 25, and Shaun Edward Tracy, 34, had a brilliant plan to attack an ATM at the Bank of Ayudhya’s Laem Chabang branch. The local police said the two hit the ATM late night of June 21.

The two Britons groused out a third man, they called Richard (a popular name among British Expats in Pattaya). Richard was on the lamb. One wonders which one of these guys was the ringleader. They’ve got a map. Or maybe not. They just think on impulse hit the ATMs in Si Racha district, at Bangkok Bank’s Bo Win, Bank of Ayudhya’s Laem Chabang branch and Bank of Ayudhya’s Bo Win branch. There is a slight preference for Bank of Ayudhya ATMs thought the sample is small so it might be just random noise and no pattern is discernable for the name of the bank.

This is where it is gets interesting. If you are going to steal something built into a wall to prevent theft you have to respect that whoever installed the ATM machine would have made it difficult to easily pry lose. Or so you would think. But you’re not out of money and desperate in Pattaya like these three Britons. Their plan was to tie a tow sling around the ATM and attach the other end of the sling to their car’s bumper. Both ends secure, ATM to car bumper, driver gets in and pushes the accelerator to the floor. It didn’t work. In all three attempts, the tow sling failed to pry the ATM lose. One might think after the first failure, the gang might have a rethink of technique. But, no, they tried-second time. By the third time they must have been resigned to touring ATM machines by the thousands in Pattaya in hopes there was at least one that would prove they were right and the first three machines were just flukes of bad luck. What would a reasonable thief do? Change cars. It must be the car’s fault.

It also might occur to most people (especially Britons) that banks have significantly more CCTV cameras than tellers and other staff. They are watching you. Not these boys. It took them three failed attempts to get the attention of the police who gradually became aware that someone was attempting to steal ATM machines. The point is the tourists got caught and were probably just as surprised at being arrested as they were when the second and third ATM machines to be ripped out of the wall.

The police have taken into custody, the tow sling, the two car(s) used in the attempted thefts and were still looking for Richard. Personally, I think the Indians handled it much better—with their imaginary friend Richard, they could have claimed they were very drunk and had mistaken the ATM machines for paragliding docking stations and had no idea they had anything to do with banking. It might not have worked any better for the Britons than it had for the Indians. Yet the Thai justice system has a lot of tolerance for drunks. It has very little for sober tourists tying tow slips to their ATM machines.

When you are on holiday, don’t commit a crime. If you decide to break that rule, think about how dumb your plan is, borrow the money from mum or dad or a friend, and go back home. Because none of your friends are going to tie a tow sling to her cell bars and clear a path for your freedom.

Posted: 12/13/2012 7:46:49 PM 

 

 

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