A review of Nicolas Rothwell’s Heaven and Earth by Silke Hesse, Monash University
Only recently one of my friends, an avid reader of newspapers and voluminous history books, again assured me that he would not touch historical novels; one could not trust them to get the facts right. He is intelligent enough to know that history books too tell stories and recreate characters, which means that the facts they present will invariably be modified by interpretation.
But his fear of novels reveals an anxiousness about accuracy that perhaps indicates a narrower understanding of truth than our forebears had. His children, for their part, like most of their friends, were for years addicted to voluminous fantasy novels whose covers broadcast that they were set in unreal parallel worlds. The characters in these novels, however, still encouraged identification and the style hardly differed from that of the realist novels these young people tended to avoid, perhaps, I wondered, because they too were determined to avoid confusions with real life.
They are not the only readers in Australia today that struggle to adjust to a literary culture in which fact and fiction, journalism and literature intersect and tangle in sometimes disconcerting ways. (Issues concerning the historical novel and history writing have recently been brought into the public arena by historians such as Inga Clendinnen in her Quarterly Essay The History Question and Mark McKenna in his work on Manning Clarke.) On the one hand, we are all obsessed with history of every kind and we demand accuracy; but most of us also realize that mere factual accuracy usually does not open doors to the logic of another era or culture. History is made by human beings; we need to hear them talking, listen to them thinking, watch them living their lives in order to comprehend the course of events. For this we require knowledgeable and imaginative guides, writers who can breathe life into facts. And we may still need the historical novel.
But literary genres are not neutral vessels into which material can simply be poured. By this I do not mean only that they have to be adapted to their material, but they themselves have long histories and have arisen out of specific cultures with their preoccupations, value systems and prejudices. By choosing a genre, a writer is thus in danger of superimposing a philosophy of life that may well influence and change his own understanding of his material, for better or worse, and he will have to find ways of avoiding, exposing or utilizing such influences, if he is not to pollute and distort his original vision.
The great European novel is a genre which has a particularly long and complex history that will inevitably make it self felt. While it is a useful vessel for the presentation of characters and events, it is also an art form that developed at the very heart of European culture and it can, consequently, give us insights into the thinking and the view of life that go with this culture. In other words, it can, with and sometimes without the conscious knowledge of the author, create a third dimension, over and above the original factual material and its stylistically crafted presentation. We have long been familiar with the illustrative or dialectical use of form in poetry, but there is no reason why other genres of literature should not have the potential to be similarly effective. In this essay I would like to investigate what can be achieved with a skilful and critical use of the novel form.
Nicolas Rothwell’s Heaven and Earth can be read as a journalist’s admission of the limits of his fact-bound craft. Its subject-matter is the collapse of the communist dictatorships of Eastern Europe during 1989, that most extraordinary year of revolutions. The fall of the Iron Curtain is a topic for which there are ready clichés – ‘the demise of the evil empire’ or ‘the triumph of freedom over oppression’ come to mind – which need, at the very least, to be modified. In Rothwell’s account the liberators are mostly on the ‘wrong’ side. But though Gorbachev had a decisive role, he could ultimately only choose to let events happen. In practice, the changes were brought about by enormous numbers of people in many countries who all played their part: politicians, political envoys, ambassadors and press secretaries, dissidents of various persuasions and talents, large numbers of courageous members of the public and, mediating between them all, as they report, interpret and evaluate, the journalists of the various press contingents. The novel shows that this year of change was to a great extent the extraordinary achievement of people from many countries and walks of life co-operating almost like the cells of a great organism. It was also brought about by the new global information age that the journalists represent. And the issues here explosively demanding a solution are, like the novel form itself, deeply embedded in the traditions of Europe. History books are not good at breathing life into such complex scenarios.
The story of Heaven and Earth is told around a youthful reporter, privileged to have a ring-side seat during these events, someone with family connections that give him greater access to the power-brokers than a young man his age would normally have, someone intelligent enough to mostly understand the ideological weapons, the cultural specificities, the diplomatic manoeuvrings and the often ego-dominated personalities of the players, and someone who shares the author’s detailed knowledge of the events and sites of that year, for Rothwell himself had spent it working as a foreign correspondent in revolutionary Eastern Europe. Central to any novel is always its choice of perspective. Novels are most effective when they have one, or sometimes more, main characters whose personal view-point and integrity orientate readers and through whom we can live and participate in an otherwise closed story. Here it is through the young reporter that the reader is introduced to the great network of participants whose ultimate success served as incontestable proof that the age of dictators was over. This individual, humanizing experience of history is one part of the story’s truth; it lies not in the factual detail which, on the personal and day to day level, needed to be invented and then also enhanced by the writer. For novels will be more vivid and more pointed in their use of language than the everyday situations from which they distil their stories. Naturalism must never be equated with truth. Though Rothwell’s style is well adapted to his speakers, it is often unrealistically dense: poignant, highly intelligent and full of understated humour. One can be tempted to linger and ponder formulations, resisting the onrush of events in favour of the evolving meaning. We have here an author who writes for those interested enough to want to experience something of the complexity of history in the making.
Heaven and Earth does not try to seduce us. To me, the first pages were, as so often, a narrow gateway but once I had passed through, my mind was alert and my concentration honed and the more than five hundred pages that followed became captivatingly real. Many novels are like that; because they require the reader to migrate and settle in their world for a period of time, usually days, they demand an act of conscious commitment and will meet with initial resistance. Rothwell’s novel follows the pack of foreign correspondents jostling to cover the stories of 1989 for the print and television media around the world. It takes us from Ceausescu’s Bucharest, to Warsaw and the triumph of the Solidarity Movement, from there to Hungary, besieged at the time by East German fugitives, to New York, the headquarters of the newspaper for which the protagonist works, on to East Berlin and the fall of the Wall, to Prague and the inaugural drama of its Velvet Revolution, to the Malta summit with Bush and Gorbachev and finally, back to Romania, now in the throes of its own revolution: scenes familiar to the author.
The story starts with the sudden and unexpected death of the youthful reporter’s father, the Emeritus Editor-in-Chief of his newspaper. Kilian senior had just arranged for his gifted young son, still new to the role of the foreign correspondent, to have the rare and coveted opportunity of an interview with Nicolae Ceausescu, ‘Conducator’ of Romania. And when news of the death, which we, the readers, were the first to receive and which his son has by now also been told in a crackly private phone-call from New York, officially arrives towards the end of the interview, its bearer Ceausescu, who has become perhaps the most perverted of all the political father-figures, feels a pang not so much of sympathy as of cold interest and invites the self-controlled young man for a visit to his palace at Snagov. There he waives security precautions to take him across the lake to the grave of Count Dracula, whom the dictator appears to regard as a progenitor and model. Thus the novel begins by announcing the death of the father thrice over. It ends a year later with the summary execution of Ceausescu and his wife by revolutionary dissidents, which occurs just before the ghost of his father appears to Caspar for the second and last time. As we follow Caspar on his complex emotional journey of nostalgia and grieving, of trying to evaluate his father’s life and character, of probing into the old man’s secrets, and of understanding and emancipating himself from Alexander Kilian’s fame and pervasive influence, we are not only given access to the mind of a unique and prepossessing young man, but we also get a taste of what awaits the nations of Eastern Europe and their peoples after liberation. That the author, for there are parallels between Rothwell’s and Caspar’s stories, may occasionally be guilty of somewhat distorting his own father’s personality to parallel other dictator figures, ‘a profanation’ (24), is hinted at when Caspar responds to a question from Ceausescu with the following assessment:
‘In youth, Mr President, my father was a clear-sighted man, but he became ensnared in his own myths. […] His will was so strong it dimmed his consciousness. He was losing his capacity to read the patterns of the outside world. Already, I had started believing that the time had come for him to die.’ (24-5)1
The death or abdication of dictators and father-figures is obviously one of the central themes of that historic year and appropriately, of this novel. There are few literary genres as well adapted to this topic as the novel, for the narrative perspective of the traditional novel is the god-perspective. Rothwell, too, adopts a version of this. In the first chapter, where Caspar is still trying hard to orientate himself and assess the silent or dissembling people around him, this author-god seems to be darting into the minds of characters indiscriminately, partly by thought-reading and partly by interpreting expressions and gestures, making him resemble, we may register with a smile, an ideal KGB or Stasi official.
Tiny pupils floated in Ceausescu’s eyes, as they flicked in their assessment up and down. The reporter’s dispassionate response to his news [the death of Caspar’s father] pleased him strangely. He had half expected the American’s face to crease and crumble […]
Inside him [Caspar], only insignificant emotions were stirring. He was annoyed that his father’s death should so dominate the proceedings, and he was gratified to be the recipient of such distinguished condolences. Only later did he imagine he had felt embarrassed by Ceausescu’s sympathy. […]
The interpreter detected Caspar’s excitement, and was gripped with alarm. When would the president’s driving urge to subjugate and lecture ever be stilled? How often had the old man launched into fierce sermons, recalling his own toughness and resolve? The interpreter, who occasionally dipped into French theorists of psychoanalysis, believed his master was afflicted by a profound inferiority complex, which found its outlet in an unconfessed desire to humiliate and crush.
In truth, it would have been impossible to discern what was in Nicolae Ceausescu’s mind. The dictator’s mental sphere was imprecise, impenetrable even to himself. Slogans and the legends of propaganda echoed with hollow clamour there. Ceausescu welcomed a degree of obscurity, the less he knew of his own promptings, the less conscious he was, the harder he became for his enemies to second-guess, the more arbitrary and majestic he appeared. (16f.)
As the novel progresses and we spend more time in the company of the press group with their highly trained powers of observation, the dialogue, and this soon becomes a novel predominantly of dialogue, makes such authorial interventions less and less necessary. And of course, the narrator of this novel, like a true father, is ultimately most interested in reading the mind of his young protagonist, Caspar. While Rothwell’s author-narrator is omniscient with regard to the minds of people, or perhaps one should say, of the immature, repressed and insecure, he cannot predict events; that is left to the intelligence and intuition of the journalists and other mature and emancipated, though never infallible, players. On one level, Rothwell’s novel is also about the necessary abdication of the genre of the great European, author-dominated, third person novel to make way, hopefully, for a new democratic age of many voices, an age without repression and tutelage, without domineering father figures.
After the death of the father, the paper for a while provides a stringer, a collegial companion and team-mate for Caspar, his father’s friend and former ‘aide-de-camp’ Avercamp, who hovers about him like a guardian spirit: guiding, encouraging, protecting and occasionally admonishing, till the young man is more ready to stand his ground. All the same, the newly orphaned Caspar still acts like a magnet for political father figures: most prominent among them are the American Special Envoy and later Deputy Secretary of State Roger Maclennon, representing the capitalist and imperial White House strand of American politics (Maclennon uses a love interest to inveigle Caspar); Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev’s confidant and envoy, the idealistic but ultimately helpless reformer, Ignat Alexandrovich Severnayev; the Editor-in-Chief of Munich’s Süddeutscher Kurier, Hans Senckenberg, an experienced and intelligent man marred by his vanity and his nepotistic and national priorities; and perhaps most disturbing of the lot, the newspaper’s owner and proprietor, Lawrence Lambourne, the prescient representative of a global, capitalist age of information, about to go shopping in the newly liberated satellite states of the Soviet Union and there revealing his true nature with his interest in acquiring the Romanian dictator’s absurdly over-dimensional marble palace. Each of these important and charismatic men shows a genuine fatherly concern for Caspar and yet uses him to a greater or lesser extent for his own purposes. And drawn into their magnetic fields in consequence of the vacuum created by his recent loss, Caspar, in spite of valiant attempts to hold his own, often ends up unwittingly doing their bidding, something his stringer Avercamp and the paper’s senior correspondent and at times his supervisor, Laurel Truly, are unable always to pre-empt and control. (285) Thus their most gifted stylist, most intuitive reporter, and most brilliant colour writer, who attracts readers to him like wasps to a honey-pot, is also one of their great potential liabilities. The new editor, David Faber, a power-broker whose empire, however, stands and falls with the reputation of his newspaper as a great and reliably unbiased journal, would love to banish this loose cannon of a reporter to some distant backwater of the world, but that is impossible because the young man’s powerful patrons require him for their own purposes, and because neither he nor his colleagues nor the paper’s readers would ever understand that such a move was considered and not merely vindictive. All he can do is to surround and hopefully, constrict the young journalist with rivals and minders.
Like Caspar’s own father, the author-god-father Rothwell has created has his soft and tender sides. There can be no doubt that Caspar maligned him in his conversation with Ceausescu. He does let people have their say, particularly those that know their minds, he respects the individuals he has created or, alternatively, if we want to uphold the parallel with the Emeritus Editor, the journalists he worked with and trained for years, as well as players in the wider world whom he listened to and influenced; over all of them he still seems to hover as a guiding memory. In his final, ghostly appearance to Caspar, he reminds him:
‘A good crew you had. […] A good strong team. Always enjoy your colleagues, Caspar. They define you. What they think of you, that’s what survives, after all, that’s what lives on.’ (532)
In defiance of Lambourne and Maclennon, Alexander Kilian’s reputation also gives his son access to Severnayev, the advocate of a moderate reformed socialism with whose approach the older Kilian seems to have been most in tune. Alexander had only recently visited Gorbachev’s envoy and exchanged ideas. At the start of their acquaintance, Severnayev tells Caspar:
‘I had just such a conversation with your father, last month, in Moscow, and he agreed with me – yet we must still deal with Americans like your envoy, who thinks he is holding out to me the hand of friendship, even though his closeness is the closeness of the arm-wrestler sensing victory.’ (43)
When Caspar later accuses his father’s apparition of neglecting to mention certain things to him, particularly those relating to Isabel Capri, Maclennon’s ‘love interest’ for Caspar, the ghost, that close relation of the novel’s god-author, answers:
‘Ah, Caspar, Caspar! What I mention to you, always, is what you wish me to say. You needed the mystery, and the silence, don’t you see? Had I told you what you know now, then where would you have been? With no Siren – no darkness – no love. No love in your year of wonders. Don’t you remember, I told you: I am your thoughts, and your ideas – your dreams!’ (533)
This is the Czech side of Alexander Kilian, the heritage of Caspar’s great-uncle with his love of beauty, romance and style, along with his sadness, which led him to seek his death in the river: a figure that himself makes a ghostly appearance, in a whimsically comic vein, giving advice at the end of Caspar’s night with Isabel. The Kilian’s enigmatic Czech roots are also, without doubt, the source of the gentle ironic humour that pervades the novel and diffuses it with charm and light. It is perceptible in almost any interaction between the characters.
Caspar’s intuitive gifts likewise have this source. In Prague, Caspar can make a brief visit to the Kilian church of Saint Nicholas. When he was a boy his father, of Jewish background but no longer of the Jewish faith, had told him how he had chosen this church as ‘my symbol, my secret home, […] because I felt safe here; safe, and full of insight. I felt uplifted.’
‘Always remember this, always remember – this magic world is deep inside you. This is your secret. Rather than seek outside, look in! Rather than act, feel! Promise me you will always carry this inside you…’ (380)
This sensitivity is highly developed in Caspar. Much like a medium, he can give voice to many influences. But it would be too simple to say that Caspar was constantly under the spell of people plotting to control him, people like Maclennon who, incidentally, insists on calling him his ‘ghost-writer’. His father’s helpful voice is stronger and seems to merge with his own guiding intuitions.
There is a third ghost that comes to visit Caspar. It is Arthur Koestler, another Central European and formerly Austro-Hungarian ‘ancestor’, a writer and journalist, who began, like so many intellectuals, as a convinced communist only to become, later in life, the unequivocal opponent of all totalitarian regimes. Koestler, moreover, is the author of The Roots of Coincidence, one of the rare serious studies to have investigated whether esoteric phenomena can be explained and proven scientifically, maybe through ‘quantum theory’. Caspar’s conversation with the ghost alludes to this book.
‘Coincidence? You brought me here! And you know I have complex ideas about chance and cause.’
‘Are you trying to tell me,’ said Caspar, sitting down in the armchair and stretching back carefully, ‘that all your ideas about levels of existence were on the right track?’ He felt inquisitorial, and watched the face with careful attention, noticing how dull and lustreless its eyes seemed to be. ‘At the time, they sounded, frankly, well, I have to say it, speculative!’ (206)
Whether the origins of Caspar’s intuitions are to be explained spiritually, psychologically or scientifically, they exist as flashes of brilliance – almost of madness in the eyes of people like Laurel Truly – which are not always subject to rational control. Considering the power for good and bad that newspaper headlines can have on world politics, Caspar’s genius will always be a risky element in the equation.
Drama, beauty, romance, humour, spirituality are the things that come to Caspar from his Czech ancestors. By a fine coincidence, the Czech revolution was led by the playwright Vaclav Havel; and it was prepared on a theatre stage, its props, in particular the mouth of the Minotaur, amusingly becoming an integral part of the new political message, even as dramatic, democratic dialogue was being turned into a political tool. In Rothwell’s later Australian writing, beauty, spirituality, gentle ironic humour, the search for new utopias, human rights issues and a European’s sense of exile and discovery would always remain strong elements.
But let us return to the novel. One of the most obvious characteristics of its traditional realist manifestation is its length. It seems to glory in the amount of time it can hold us imprisoned in its world without us making serious attempts to escape. A story that could, at a pinch, be told on a few pages, must be spun out to cover five hundred or even a thousand. There are various ways of doing this, the windings of plot being perhaps the most common. In Rothwell’s novel much of the length is created by the hectic schedules of the foreign correspondents with their press conferences, special interviews with important players, filing deadlines, and their swift departures for the next theatre of unrest with its news coups. The description of these schedules, repetitive and yet ever new, swelling and subsiding like the thematic variations of a great symphony, perhaps like Beethoven’s Eroica mentioned somewhere in the novel, provide the impetus and emotional energy to carry us through what could be seemingly endless pages. The Communist States here being demolished also dreamed of living driven by the intoxication of work, though, towards the end, work in the ‘workers’ paradises’ had lost most of its appeal.
Another great captivator of readers (and political subjects) is suspense or, to put it more crudely, anxiety and fear, something at which the Eastern dictators were experts. As a genre that measures its success by the hold it has over its readers, the novel has affinities with both totalitarianism and capitalism. Rothwell too plays at keeping his readers in suspense. We worry about our vulnerable hero, Caspar, and are never quite sure who his enemies are or when his luck might desert him (though we are also often drawn into the fast slip-stream of the sleep-walking certainty which seems to propel him much of the time). As newspaper and history readers in our own right, we know the broad outcomes of the political upheavals of 1989; but there is no telling what might happen to individuals like Caspar, with whom we have cast in our lot, in times of revolution or at the whim of his employer. Like the journalists, we find it difficult to work out who is pulling the strings, who is plotting behind the scenes, or who will win or lose in the end. The rhythmic music of work, concern for our hero, our interest in the revolutionary struggles and, last but not least, the love story, keep us going.
We are in the first third of the novel when Maclennon introduces Caspar to his assistant, Isabel Capri, a woman of great beauty and allure who remains mysterious, a daughter, apprentice and perhaps also mistress to the older envoy, a siren who seems dangerous and yet innocent and vulnerable and who is also an enigmatic memory from Caspar’s childhood when their fathers, hers an American CIA man, were associates of some kind. A great love affair seems to be developing between the two when suddenly, in spite of what we believed to be Isabel’s deep attachment to Caspar which made her risk the disfavour of her sponsors to spend a night with him, she enters into what appears to be a marriage of convenience with the staid and stolid young German diplomat Joachim Senckenberg, the most unlikely of choices. Novels live through their characters but character is often also a device to create suspense. If characters are complex and ambiguous like Isabel, then we will find it hard to predict their behaviour and the apprehensive thrill and thus, our tolerance of captivation, will be enhanced.
Many of the characters in Rothwell’s novel are, however, in themselves unremarkable. Neither the western journalists and diplomats with their displays of ego, nor the dictators and their dissembling, bullying or frightened, often unpredictable subjects from the east, are the self-motivated individuals they might pretend they are. And for most of this story they are all primarily members of teams: there is work to be done. Even somebody like Laurel Truly (whose name could suggest that she truly deserves a laurel wreath, something Caspar might not always have been willing to concede) is so job-focused and job-consumed that for much of the time her individuality can only express itself in permanent fury. In the last pages we then catch glimpses of the Romanian interpreter, Madame Danieli, taking her first halting steps out of captivity and self-censorship into vivaciousness, flirtation and personal opinion. In this world Gorbachev’s envoy Severnayev, a man of impressive humanity and culture, and by implication Gorbachev himself, are perhaps the last true ‘characters’, straight out of Shakespearian drama, embodiments of the Renaissance dream. Neither communism nor capitalism, nor, for that matter, the global information age has room for them. They have, it is clear, lost out to history: tragic, honourable, but also flawed and broken giants whose demise we mourn.
The psychology of human beings has always been a preoccupation of the novel; but its focus on ‘characters’ is both strength and weakness. It can help us to observe the people at the centre of political events – the dictators, the power brokers, the diplomats, the politicians – but by doing so, it is in danger of misleading us in more than one way: in the first place by surreptitiously taking us back to an era which believed that history was made by ‘great men’, a belief strong in the communist dictatorships with their personality cults; then, by suggesting that nations and nationalities are distinguished by their ‘characters’ – the Russians, the Czechs, the Germans, the Hungarians, the Romanians, the Americans – an assumption that rigidifies international politics and facilitates nationalist rivalry and which will lead us to expect certain characters to be representative of their nations: Severnayev of Russia, the older Senckenberg of Germany, Maclennon of America, and even Ceausescu of Romania. Maclennon is by no means the only American the novel introduces us to, but he sticks in our minds because with his aggressiveness, his competitiveness and his instrumental thinking he reinforces clichés: perhaps he is even intentionally embodying them. These are, of course, all older men whose time in the limelight is almost over; but Caspar shows us how strong such attractions still are when he goes to some length to touch Gorbachev’s hand at the Malta Conference. Rothwell’s novel is, of course, ultimately about the fall of such dominating figures and the rise of a global age. The latter is represented by the great variety of hard-working and mostly intelligently observant international reporters travelling from country to country and facilitating change, but also by the somewhat sinister figure of Lawrence Lambourne, not a ‘great man’ but a canny and powerful one and potentially the new ‘dictator’.
For, in our current global age, information appears to have become the driver of world politics. Lambourne, the owner of Caspar’s paper and a whole portfolio of newspapers all around the world and, even as the communist regimes are toppling, the leaser of news satellites to convey capitalism’s tempting messages to Eastern Europe, is very aware of the opportunities this offers him. During a rare meeting he asks his young reporter: ‘Tell me. What is the specific, defining difference between the present age, and the time of your past empires?’ And he goes on to answer his own question:
‘Information […] The technology of knowledge! The fate of Hitler’ – and here he betrayed his excitement with a quiver of his voice, but hastened on – ‘one might almost say, were it not obscene to do so, of course, his tragedy was to be born on the very edge of the communications age. Dimly, he glimpsed what would be possible in our day, a whole empire founded upon control of image and information, rather than on the sharing of allegiance or the spread of some convincing, yet all too perishable ideology. Yes, the first communists in Moscow grasped the principle also; that an idea could have enslaving potential – but sadly for them, they chose the wrong one. For us in the West, the choice has been simpler because we know the seductions of individual licence – the joys of liberty are what we trumpet to ourselves, and we believe in them. Why is the Kremlin fearful today? Not because of first-strike missiles! Not because of Star Wars! No! Because of our transponders and our direct broadcast satellites! […] Information, the greatest anarchist and revolutionary of them all! I give you information! It’s a cannibal, feeding on the whole world, and on itself. There’s nothing that can stay hidden from the television camera and the news crew, nothing that can’t be transmitted a thousand times a second around the globe. No more secrets, no more dictators controlling the truth, because there’s nowhere for them to hide from us! That’s why the empire of Eastern Europe is shaking and crumbling. Soon, everyone will have equality of information. Everyone! Now, how’s that for a revolution?’ (239)
There is a paradox in Lambourne’s triumphant proclamation. If Hitler and ‘the first communists in Moscow’, the ancestors of all totalitarian dictators, envisaged information as the highroad to power, why should its impact be more humane and liberating in the modern world? Caspar, knowing that his boss ‘needed a certain show of resistance to kick down’, counters Lambourne’s proclamation with ‘the joke the dissidents tell the visiting correspondents in Czechoslovakia. In the East, nothing is free, and everything matters; in the West, everything is free, and nothing matters – nothing at all.’ (239) Once all national uniqueness has been surrendered and all confrontation overcome, there is a danger that life could become meaningless. This is probably the best justification of the political solution both Caspar and his father, and presumably the author too, seem to favour, the vision that Gorbachev and Severnayev were unable to realize, where western consumerism still faces the challenge of a humane and open socialism that will force it to question and occasionally modify itself.
Since Lambourne’s utopian/dystopian vision hovers over Rothwell’s novel as a prophetic outlook upon the future, it is important that we examine and evaluate the whole process of news-making that is here the central subject. The journalists of the various western press corps, in this novel foremost among them Laurel Truly, are extremely hard-working and their intentions are honourable. They are careful observers, they avoid making informed guesses but sometimes have to rely on their hunches, they are rarely duped though they can be carried away by the mood of the day, and they interpret to the best of their abilities; they want to get it right but they need, above all, access to be able to report accurately. Much time is spent trying to organize interviews with those presumed to be in the know. Like them, the novelist has access only to uncertain truth. The novel’s second tier of actors, Maclennon and Severnayev among them, are, as their concealing names suggest, semi-fictional figures. Today’s German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, sends us a signal as the half-true, half-invented Marianne Merkel with her unfamiliar beak nose and straight black hair. But in spite of its doubtful reliability, fiction, and it stands here also for freedom of thought and imagination, has its strong points. It allows us to envisage situations to which we could never have real access and it allows us to talk and write about people and events without fear of legal repercussions. Just as there is no such thing as incontestable truth that has not been modified by the minds of individual reporters, the borders between real life and fiction will remain indistinct or frayed. Fiction forces us to acknowledge the inaccessibility or unreliability of our sources but it also gives us the opportunity to ask the big, speculative questions. Rothwell’s great panorama of the year of revolutions and its reporters with their various angles on events serves as support and extension of the news record and our historical memory, without forcing opinions on us or constricting our discussion. Like the news and like history, novels are there to be interpreted. It is the diversity of perception and opinion that matters. People like Lambourne, however, who are intent on smuggling their ‘capitalist’ perspectives into the news through inexperienced reporters like Caspar, tread in the footsteps of Hitler and the other dictators.
There is a last little province in this realm between fact and fiction that should be mentioned in conclusion. What is the relationship between Rothwell the author and Caspar the foreign correspondent? Both were young in 1989, Rothwell just 30, Caspar 28, both had fathers high in the hierarchy of the newspapers for which they worked who died suddenly and unexpectedly, both had family connections to Czechoslovakia, (Rothwell’s mother was Czech, as was Caspar’s father), Rothwell is Australian but born in the USA; Caspar is American. Could they share, for instance, childhood memories the novel recalls? In many of its passages, this novel has the freshness of a memoir, Rothwell’s memoir, rather than the invented artifice of fiction. The author is and is not his own protagonist. It is of course probably right to say that this is to some extent the case even in novels where the real-life parallels are less obvious. We have to accept that as readers we cannot sort such things out and are not intended to. But the unease between fiction and reality remains. It can, perhaps, be seen best in connection with a pivotal chapter in the centre of the book: Some months after his father’s death, Caspar is ordered back to headquarters in New York for a briefing and comes into an arena tense with rivalries and unexplained, dictatorial decisions, an arena that nevertheless defines itself as his family and thereby forces him into the helpless role of the dependant, both cherished and violated child. Following some natural parental instinct (I am here usurping the role of the quintessential reader) we fling out our arms to embrace him, but almost immediately become aware that this is inappropriate and retaliate by suspecting the author of sentimentality towards his youthful self. A little later, however, we have to admit that the description we have been given, far from being self-indulgent, is essential for our understanding of the vulnerability of the protagonist of which he himself is mostly quite unaware (that central, though for long stretches hidden theme in the novel). This vulnerability can best become visible to us when he is at home and among his father’s former colleagues who have known him since he was a child.
The confusion between real and fictional worlds, to which Rothwell playfully draws attention in his mixing and matching of biographies, highlights an important characteristic of the novel as genre. It can exploit the sleights of hand that go with fiction, confusing the reader into taking inventions for realities or, to transpose this to the worlds of the media or politics: taking spin and propaganda for truth. We no longer know quite what to believe and what not to believe. This can happen to us because, at least with regard to Rothwell’s biography, we have been captured in the closed world of the novel and our view into the wider real world has been partly, though not completely blocked, much like the view of Romanians was blocked and rendered uncertain by their closed society. Ceausescu and his staff have, for example, very unrealistic notions of the importance of their nation, America’s attitudes towards them, and the economic state of their country. The European realist novel imprisons us in an unreal world, which may, of course, appear for a time to be a pleasant or fascinating world. As long as nothing reminds us of its artificiality, we can relax and enjoy a holiday experience.
The difficulty of keeping a clear head and an unbiased eye on the truth is very much at the heart of Heaven and Earth, the title here standing for the utopian imaginary versus the real. In a powerful scene late in Rothwell’s novel, Laurel Truly wakes Caspar up one night to summon him to her room. He comes dressed in his black suit, too sleepy to have found a shirt to brighten the funereal look, expecting to be told of his demotion or sacking by David Faber, the ‘dictator’ of his newspaper. It becomes a powerful scene of unexpected revelations which turns the novel on its head, for us too. For Laurel explains to Caspar that those he took to be his friends and rescuers, namely Lambourne, Maclennon and Isabel Capri, have been using him all along:
‘Didn’t you ever stop to think what they were doing? Why Maclennon and his assistant – oh yes, his beautiful assistant,’ she nodded, her voice had fallen to a momentary, seducing whisper, ‘why they were interested in you?’
‘Could it have been because I was the correspondent for a great New York newspaper? Because they thought I had good connections? Maybe – I know it’s a wild idea – they even liked me, they found my opinions worth listening to, they enjoyed my company ….’
‘Oh, Caspar! They wanted things. They had you in a power game. We just saw him in action today! He’s some kind of monster, and she – she’s …’
‘Stop!’ He lunged over. His hand leaped across, as if he could stop the flow of her words. ‘That’s enough,’ he began to shout, ‘more than enough!’ – but her voice had already turned into a yelp of fear.
She jumped up.
‘No,’ she said. ‘I’m not going to stop. I should have said all this long before. If I’d cared enough, if I’d been thinking of you, I would have. Do you have any idea how far it goes? No! Of course you don’t. It never occurs to you! You wouldn’t even dream that Maclennan knew you were going to be in New York for that boardroom conference!’
‘What makes you think that?’
‘Because he asked Lambourne for you to be there! Just like he asked him for you to be sent to cover Germany and Prague!’
‘And what makes you think that?’
Caspar was sounding like a bitter, futile echo.
‘I don’t think! I know! Faber found out afterwards and he told me everything.’
‘Faber! An unbiased source!’
‘Oh, Caspar – I know you think he’s against you, but it’s not true. He can see these people, crawling like flies all over the newspaper, steering, pushing, infiltrating. He just wants to keep control. He’s doing what any editor would do.’
The gifted young reporter, convinced of the clarity of his vision, has in reality often simply slid into the opinions of others. This becomes obvious when Caspar files after hours one night from Ambassador Cardinale’s office in Bucharest while the older man listens and realizes with ‘a certain excitement’ that Caspar has ‘borrowed his own ideas, extended his own thinking, even made use of his beloved metaphors. “Is that the way you usually operate?” he asked, and made a wry face.’ (528)
Rothwell’s Heaven and Earth is obviously a historical novel, though in this instance history has nudged as close as it can to the contemporary, which is of course incompatible with the past tense of third person novelistic narrative and its closed world. (It helps to give a sense of immediacy that the action in Heaven and Earth is driven along largely through dramatic dialogue.) The historic events in Rothwell’s novel are real and told with a reporter’s accuracy. So are we entitled to read Heaven and Earth as a snapshot of those times or should we be guided by caution? Like many of the novel’s readers, I was a contemporary of its events. Moreover, I was actually in Berlin for the weeks before the Wall came down, crossing over the eerie border with its frightening, dramatic scenes, shunned by Easterners when I asked for directions, honoured by the openness with which our new friends discussed their people’s situation behind closed windows but in our presence. I had felt comfortable with the Gorki Theatre people in their canteen where New Forum material was discreetly passed around – till a man who looked vaguely different entered and the evidence disappeared. On the ground, as a member of the public, I would have known much less than Rothwell and the other foreign correspondents, presumably also present in the city at that time. The journalists’ predictions and the breaking news stories, so important for the daily press, of course no longer have any but historical interest for us today. They can rest in the newspaper’s archives which also hold the breaking news reports of Caspar’s father about, for example, the 1953 workers’ uprising in East Berlin and its cruel suppression by Soviet tanks. But the ‘colour stories’, at which Caspar excelled, and the political, ideological and psychological analyses, also among his strong points, which echo through the novel, are. With their help, flimsy memories rise to the surface, gain substance and reveal their relevance for the present age. I must admit, caught up in the story but also trusting its author, I often felt tempted to take even the detail of this novel for real. And it reactivated in me the utopian hopes of those days: hopes that people everywhere would gain control of their lives.
As we have seen, Rothwell repeatedly allows allusions to the novel’s form to illustrate its themes. He thereby shows up the traditional European novel as a genre that has a tendency to achieve its effects by exploiting the tyranny of the god-author, and fearful suspense, and the captive mind, and freighted personifications, and the brokenness of people who have been subjected to the needs of the story, and the half truths and lies but also the inventiveness of fiction. (A novel such as Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, also a historical panorama, in this case of India leading up to and following partition, has different narrative traditions to draw on.) In the face of such ‘abuses’ of the power of the story-teller, Rothwell’s own novel progressively liberates itself from this literary model: as the narrative proceeds, the god-author steps back more and more to make way for dialogue between the characters; the romance is treated lightly and provides no seduction; the reader’s mind is actively engaged so that it never becomes captive to beliefs or emotion; invention is kept to a minimum to work in support of historical fact which is, in turn, taken most seriously; realism is gently lampooned with the appearances of the various ghosts; the momentum is kept up more by rhythm, interest and concern for the ‘hero’ than suspense; and ‘characters’ more and more make way for people who speak for themselves. In thus stepping back from the traditional novel, Heaven and Earth clears the way for a search for new and more liberating genres, a search which Rothwell himself declared timely in his later essay ‘The Language of Nature and the Language of Man’ where he writes:
The energy wave is always moving on; it flows on; it passes from the novel to other forms of writing; forms collapse upon themselves and are reborn. There is always a place where the fervour of creation sits, and I suspect a clear view of the century just passed would trace the movement of the shock wave of artistic energy in writing away from the novel form and into genre, into memoir, perhaps into hybrid narrative, just as it has moved from stage to film to video game; from impressionism in painting into and past modernism; from photography into the swelling murk of digital creation, and on, towards a looming future for the visual arts that I find hard to discern. (Journeys to the Interior, 25)
Heaven and Earth ends with the protagonist’s escape, and at this moment he does become the hero in the old-fashioned sense. As the ambassador calls after him: ‘Mr Kilian, you shouldn’t do this!’ he throws off the chains of the dictatorship the father-figures of the commercial world of the press had exerted over him.
But by now Caspar was on the verge of running; from tension, and the desolation of excitement, and the wild, burning energy of instincts freed at last. He reached the stairs and clattered down them, his eyes bathed by the glints of marble. He rushed towards the entrance, out into the snow and the day’s unfolding whiteness. (541)
Thus our novel ends with the pristine white of a new blank page: and perhaps not just this particular novel Heaven and Earth but by suggestion, the great European realist novel which has significantly moulded our habits of thought and experience. For that form, aptly chosen by the author to illustrate the search for freedom and truth, has been made to reveal its underlying ideology. As a writer, Rothwell has since avoided this brilliant but dictatorial genre for a more humble and tentative approach to reality.
‘The European novel’ is of course an abstraction. The genre has a history of three or four hundred years during which it developed and changed. Moreover, the older novels we read today were all written by great writers who could turn any tradition to their best advantage. It is in the average novels of each period that the shortcomings of the genre manifest themselves and nowadays, it tends to be such average novels that are most widely read. This means that it is their conventions which are likely to influence our attitudes.
The novel as we know it had more than one root; one of them was the romance. The popular romance (Cervantes satirized it in his Don Quixote) gave ordinary readers the chance to experience privileged, adventurous, beautiful, important and romantic lives, which were otherwise out of their reach, vicariously. Characteristically, romances were the work of an author who had complete prior knowledge of the story he was telling so that its source, as an artefact, remained submerged. Romances allowed readers an escape, a holiday from real life. This genre has always been one strand of the novel tradition.
Another strand was the picaresque tale. Picaresque heroes characteristically came from the lowest strata of society and were thus unfettered by class conventions and restrictions, beggars living off their wits and roaming the world as chance dictated, now in luck, now out of luck, and acquiring a wealth of interesting experiences as they went. The typical picaro was very much an individual, with a voice of his own to tell his story and usually with an amusing and unexpected outlook on the world, forerunner of a classless age of individualism. One of the greatest of the picaresque novels is, in my view, von Grimmelshausen’s vast panorama of the Thirty Years War, published in 1669.2 It gave an account of the terrible disorder of that period, not as conventionally expected in the form of a saga of heroic war from the perspective of kings and generals, but as the episodic and disordered tale of a child emerging from the illiterate peasant class, who had to learn to survive, gain an understanding of life, and even enjoy himself in a world that knew no rules and made little sense. Grimmelshausen’s Simplicissimus gives us a historically accurate account of his period as experienced by ordinary people; in his main character he introduces us to a unique personality moulded by those times; and disconcertingly for many readers (translators tend to edit out any quotes they can recognize) he gives depth to his account by hiding in it parodic allusions to most of the influential literary and intellectual masterpieces of his epoch and their often outdated philosophies.
A third and perhaps the most important root of the novel came from drama. The dramatic novel can resemble a play without a stage. In it interacting characters converse in dialogue appropriate to them; the action, normally based on conflict between people, has a dramatic curve that reaches a climax close to the end, often a tragic one, and then subsides in an unwinding or denouement. What would be stage sets in a theatre are here painted in words. In a dramatic novel the author takes it upon himself to fill in the gaps in the dialogue, explain the movements of his characters and manage the many strands of the plot related to these different characters. As in a drama, which works at keeping a restless audience transfixed and silent for several hours, the dramatic novel too makes it its business to enthral its readers so they cannot put down the book till they reach the end.
The classic European novel is typically welded together from the romance, the picaresque tale and the drama in varying proportions. But in all three forms the novel is fiction: an invented narrative told as though it were truth and which the reader will on the whole accept as truth for the period he is immersed in it. As a result of its multiple origins, the novel has always been an extraordinarily flexible genre and it has allowed its masters to adapt it to their purposes with powerful precision.
During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, when the bourgeois classes, and particularly their women, became leisured and literate but without thereby gaining opportunities to do anything useful or interesting with this leisure time, the novel was able to help fill the gap. The demand for novels became enormous; everyone who had no better way of earning became a novelist, intent on churning out what was required and what would pay. And what was required was an opiate, something that could make people forget their cramped, meaningless and unfulfilled lives, and take them to a dream world of love, or travel, or adventure. The world of the romance in combination with the drama’s techniques of enthrallment was superbly suited for this purpose. Those whose lives were deficient were eager to believe that the fictitious worlds they read about were real; and it is no different today. Currently, in a reaction to the novel’s pretence of reality, we seem to have reached a point where young people who like to escape into novels prefer fantasy with its pointers to the fictitiousness of their narrative worlds, and serious-minded adults are often anxiously suspicious of all novels.
Their fear is not unreasonable, for twentieth century Europe has led the way in confusing the ideological with reality, and this has had terrible consequences for millions of people. It seems to be becoming harder and harder for modern man to distinguish between fact and fiction as fundamentalisms of all kinds take over the world. There may be a variety of reasons for this. Karen Armstrong3 believes that science, in particular, has changed modern man’s view of religion so that what had always been intended as a symbolic representation of truth, as mythos rather than logos, is now taken to be the literal truth, leading both to the loss of original meaning and an unrealistic and often nonsensical ‘fundamentalist’ new meaning. Christina von Braun 4, for her part, has speculated that it is with languages in which the written word can exist independently of speech where the problem must be sought. Such languages, and the European belong to this category, excel in creating concepts that can detach themselves from their concrete, everyday origins and become dangerously unreal. (‘Race’ and ‘class’ could serve as examples; both ended up as chimeras.) She points out that the Hebrew language had for millennia wisely avoided such a split by reducing the written spelling of words to a consonantal skeleton which sufficed as a pointer for those who knew the spoken word, but would not allow the written word to take on a life of its own. There are probably a variety of reasons for the modern malaise of mistaking fantasy for reality, ideology for practical politics, but it seems to me that the popular European novel along with its descendants in the now hugely influential filmic genres is likely to have contributed to such confusions.
So what is to be done? At first sight, the varied sources of the novel along with our rich heritage of great novels, in which great authors have succeeded in tailoring the form to their purposes and their times, should make it easy for the modern novel to avoid abuses and renew itself. But the pull of reader addiction remains strong. One way of tackling the problem could be to draw attention to the sorcery of the novel in the context of the damage it may have done. In my view, Jonathan Littell’s The Kindly Ones attempts this.5 It forces us to identify with the protagonist, Aue, to an extent where we become complicit with e.g. his prolonged and perverse sexual orgy and even his senseless murders, behaviour from which any reader would normally revile. Littell’s novel tells the story of an intelligent and basically decent but psychologically damaged man, who is coerced into Hitler’s army and, though a rational person, is unable to overcome his complicit behaviours till after the Fuehrer’s death, and only ever by means of homicidal betrayals. Aue’s inability to break away from the Nazi project is a mirror image of the reader’s inability to break away from the enchantment of the novel. We can’t help making connections.
Heaven and Earth, for its part, makes an attempt to renew the novel form while at the same time exposing the genre. As already mentioned, it does this by harnessing its ‘vices’ to provide an extra level of meaning that can stimulate readers to think more deeply about the root-causes of the events being described. Rothwell’s implied critique is more subtle, playful and widely observant than that of Littell. Though he never coerces us into reading his novel as an exposure of the genre, he does seem to nudge us in that direction. Thus the unusually rapid switches of perspective in the first chapter are likely to attract the attention of more discerning readers (though they may irritate those who like things straightforward). Who is this narrator who seems to be able to listen in to the thoughts of all his characters? In the context of Ceausescu’s police state, it is of course not hard to detect parallels.
Once we have met Isabel, a careful reader will become even more wary: it is not so much that this character is herself a ‘siren’ or vamp from some gothic romance – that the author has fallen back on a popular but cheap stock figure – but that here a gifted and beautiful woman, whose parents were traumatically killed when she was a girl, who was then raised by a doting and bullying autocrat, and who has consequently never overcome her dependence on father figures, has allowed herself to be enticed into playing the role of a cliché straight out of the popular romantic novel. In the process, she has lost all her innate initiative and courage. Isabel ends up exchanging a slave-like relationship to Maclennan, whom she both obeys and emulates, for a safe and convenient marriage in Moscow in which she will almost inevitably be demoted to a role as her non-descript diplomat husband’s good-looking consort (much as the eastern European nations, traumatized by war, escaped into supposedly benign communist dictatorships where they no longer had any political say). This is what novels too can do to us, we realize, once their iniquities enter our lives. Our protagonist, the young reporter Caspar, is both buoyed and endangered by his novelesque dream of a romance with Isabel and the hypnotic attraction she exerts. Down-to-earth Laurel Truly, the representative of fact-based journalism, immediately sees through Isabel’s disguise. (We might also note that Caspar is introduced to Isabel at the Basilisk restaurant, the mythical basilisk being yet another unreal and lethal creature.) Ceausescu in turn, the prototype of the Eastern European dictator, appears to have fallen prey to his fascination with the vampire Count Dracula. Such blood-sucking fantasies have the power to invade our world.
We progress a step further when the story takes us to the Czech revolution and its playwright leader Vaclav Havel. Revolutionary decisions are here made on stage where strong actors who have successfully passed through the Mouth of the Minotaur, are now able to seize the opportunity and speak to the world in their own voices. Is it fanciful to suggest that as the playwright moves into the real world of politics, the time may also have come for drama, a genre of public performance, to be liberated from its usurpation by the novel?
Right throughout Heaven and Earth, we are caught up in the struggle between journalism, the dominant preoccupation of Rothwell’s characters, and the novel form the author has chosen. It is the same conflict between fact and fiction that haunts the perception of literature in today’s society. But however much readers might like a neat distinction between the creative imagination and the journalist’s or historian’s reporting of facts a productive separation will never be possible. Caspar is a good journalist precisely because he is an imaginative and intuitive writer, even though these qualities can also lead him astray. It is not creativity that is the problem, but the engulfing influence of the conventions of the popular novel and its progeny in film, television and other media of entertainment.
In the last episode of Heaven and Earth, where Caspar makes his way through the dangerous and chaotic landscape of the Romanian revolution, sick and now no longer automatically protected by his journalist’s pass and consequently at the mercy of chance and unpredictable encounters, Rothwell’s novel approaches its picaresque roots most nearly. This is the strand of the novel in which the individual typically finds his unique voice and learns to negotiate life on his own. It is at this stage that Caspar can make his daring decision to liberate himself from the dominance of Lambourne and his obsessive and exclusive concern with information. Once released from the novel, the picaro will become the traveller. Rothwell’s later publications are, perhaps not surprisingly, usually shelved in the travel section of book shops.
Heaven and Earth thus ends up being both a warning in showing us the uncanny resemblance between the captivating stratagems of the novel and those of real life dictatorships, and a paean to intuition, imagination and inspiration as the most reliable road to truth and understanding. For, throughout the novel Caspar has a far better feel for events and their impending significance than the other players.
Like Grimmelshausen’s Simplicissimus-novel about the Thirty Years War, like Tolstoy’s War and Peace about the Napoleonic invasion of Russia, or Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago which follows the various phases of the Russian Revolution, Heaven and Earth gives a panoramic and essentially accurate account of a period of great political and social upheaval: here the year in which most of Eastern Europe succeeded in liberating itself from its communist dictatorships. Their rigid, phantasmagorical views of reality had oppressed the peoples of that region since the end of World War II. Like those other great novelists, Rothwell too sets his story in the intellectual context of its times and though the journalistic milieu he writes about does not allow for the wide panorama of human fates and fortunes that the other novels can roll out, Heaven and Earth’s understanding of its times is, I believe, no less profound. Rothwell’s book deserves to survive as a complex and thought-provoking rendering of what may well have been the most far-reaching and uniquely hope-inspiring political upheaval to occur in the life-time of our generation. And his use of the novel, which is critical and creative at one and the same time, should both vindicate those who have come to suspect this genre of disseminating falsehoods or interfering with our sense of the real, and reassure them of its continuing power to transform itself and enlighten.