Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Norman Bethune and The Communist’s Daughter

As an Australian, I have always admired those who renounced the perceived comforts of their advanced capitalist country to seek out the truth of revolutionary struggles in China during the desperate years of the thirties and forties.

I sort of resented, I suppose, that our claim to a link with China was through fin-de-siecle Morrison of Peking, whereas they had Rewi Alley (New Zealand), Edgar Snow and Agnes Smedley (the US), and, of course, Norman Bethune (Canada).

Of these and other foreign friends of China, Bethune stands out because he made the ultimate sacrifice in order to serve the Chinese people, a fact noted and commemorated by Chairman Mao in the months after the Canadian’s death.

Put simply, Bethune was a doctor and a Communist.

He served in World War 1, and in the Spanish Civil War (1936-1937), where he pioneered the development of mobile blood transfusion services at the front. In 1938 he was sent by the Communist Party of Canada to China. He traveled to Yan’an and met Mao Zedong and then threw himself into the midst of the War of Resistance Against Japan, conducting hundreds of life-saving operations in his mobile field hospital.

He contracted septicemia from one such operation, and died after a brief illness.

Bethune’s own writings show his character as a Communist. The post below is one of his short writings, Wounds.

Unfortunately, none of its fine sentiments surface in the portrait of Bethune created by Canadian writer Dennis Bock in his latest novel The Communist’s Daughter.

I began reading this with great enthusiasm, and have no argument with the author’s literary style or his ability to evoke, for example, battlefield conditions in France, Spain or China.

But I do take exception to his portrayal of Bethune. The great man would not know himself as the man depicted by Bock. He would despair that there was so little of his Communist passion and conviction on display.

Instead, as Bock himself says on his website, it is a story of a “man at war with himself”. This cliché of bourgeois literature is voiced through a series of letters that this “Bethune” writes to his “daughter”.

“Bethune did not have children”, admits Bock, but the possibility was “too good to ignore”. “Good” for whom? For the real Bethune and his memory? For the causes for which he fought?

In an Acknowledgement at the end of the novel, Bock offers this justification: “the aesthetic concerns of storytelling often outweighed the more standard historical versions of the Bethune story.”

For Bock, aesthetic concerns and historical fact are in contradiction with each other.

That is because his “aesthetics” are bourgeois, whilst the historical facts of this story are on the side of the proletariat.

Instead of exploring Bethune and his role in the struggles that he supported, Bock explores the man’s supposed “internal struggle”. “Obfuscation,” he writes, “indirect truths, outright lies - they are all within Bethune’s repertoire.”

This, from an author whose “aesthetic” creation is itself an acknowledged lie: there is no daughter and the whole story is just a fabrication, book-ended, as it were, and as a major admission of Bock’s personal hostility to his subject, by the supposed writing of Lu Dingyi, a real figure in Chinese Communist history.

Bock’s “Lu Dingyi” introduces the “letters” to the reader by way of a request that members of the Chinese Communist Propaganda Department at Yan’an read them and forward recommendations for their distribution and use.

Bock’s “Lu Dingyi” casts his own judgement on the “letters” and on Bock’s “Bethune” at the close of the book when he writes to Mao Zedong, on 19 December, 1939: “…this committee has found that they (the letters) cannot be used to serve the People in their struggle against the Japanese Imperialist invaders or the Nationalist Kuomintang Army…certain of his (Bethune’s) actions and beliefs can be viewed as less than exemplary of and likely harmful to the Communist ideal, as it is so clearly and inspiringly detailed in the Chairman’s own political writings…It is advisable that these documents remains sealed…However, given the revolutionary and international importance of Doctor Bethune’s life, a brief, more idealized biography or political eulogy of the subject might prove extremely beneficial to the present war effort, and find continuity in the larger canon of the Chairman’s political and philosophical writings.”

This piece of poison kills a number of birds with one dose: firstly, it “endorses” the book’s portrayal of Bethune as significantly less than the Communist that he was in real life; secondly, it depicts Communists as people for whom the truth is not something to be sought but something to be concealed; thirdly, it reinforces the Western bourgeois stereotype of Mao as a person requiring fawning and flattery; and fourthly, and given that Mao’s eulogy for Bethune was written on December 21, 1939, it suggest that it was a duplicitous, hurried and offhand creation that Mao penned, less for his own sorrow at Bethune’s passing, and more for the expediency of an “idealized biography” that suited the war effort. Nasty commies - the end always justifies the means!

If you have the time to read this book, please do so. It is an education in the bourgeois world view.

But read also, Bethune’s Wounds (below), and Mao Zedong’s In Memory of Norman Bethune here.

(Poster: a true "daughter" of Comrade Norman Bethune!)

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