George Orwell famously sought to make writing on politics into an art. It’s important to remember that he wasn’t the only one. So too did a radically different kind of writer, the cocksure American Gore Vidal. I bring up Orwell because I continue to ponder the notion that his dystopian novel 1984 time and again serves as the go-to book for citizens in the West looking for insights into ever more frightening examples of the abuse of political and legal power. Once again, this year the novel rocketed up the bestseller charts as the enormity of the election of Donald Trump began to manifest itself. Truckloads of the book were on their way to people’s homes the day after they witnessed Trump spinmeister and spokeswoman Kellyanne Conway refer to a false claim made by the Trump team about the size of the inauguration crowd as “alternate facts.”
Much as I admire Orwell as an essayist and early exemplar of participatory journalism, I would like to tell friends and fellow lovers of literature that, while 1984 works well within the parameters of the dystopian novel of ideas genre, it has some very real limitations as a warning and a guide to contemporary political trends. Sure, Orwell was able to brilliantly depict the means by which totalitarian or, at least authoritarian rulers could maintain a firm grip on power. But other aspects of the novel seem to me to be quite remote from what we witnessed in the years after its 1949 publication. In the decade after the novel appeared, did the United States and Britain would become the drab, joyless societies depicted in the novel? Then or now, do they appear on the verge of becoming totalitarian or even authoritarian states run by a band of ruthless rulers hidden behind the stern visage of Big Brother? It seems to me that as the 1950s advanced and the American economy roared along, it developed in manner quite unlike the dark world Orwell envisioned. The bulk of the citizenry were no doubt too distracted by all the bright new shiny toys and sheer abundance of goods on offer to need to be controlled in the heavy-handed way Orwell dramatizes.
As I read the novel, I found the ironies piling up one after another. The society is in desperate need of reform and yet any attempt to achieve it seems only to lead to more violence and bloodshed.I consider that the novels of Gore Vidal capture important aspects of the postwar world that would soon be effortlessly dominated by the United States in the West, facing off in the Cold war with the Soviet Union, which had developed its own form of imperialism. An early novel of Vidal’s, Dark Green, Bright Red gives a sense of the way in which the author’s political realism, served up with a pungent dash of cynicism, is able to dramatize the urge-to-Empire of the United States in the Truman and Eisenhower eras. Later Presidents continued to build upon this super-state with its military-industrial complex and its ever-intrusive secret service, the CIA.
In his note at the end of the novel Vidal tells us that he completed it in Antigua in 1949, the very time that 1984 exploded in the world. Vidal had lived in Guatemala for considerable periods of time over the preceding three years.
The novel certainly has a cinematic quality. Unfortunately, some of the characters, particularly the Indians and Spanish- Americans of the fictional land referred to simply as “the Republic”, a stand-in for Guatemala, resemble the stock characters of a B movie from Hollywood struggling to escape from their stereotypical origins. As a reader, I suspect that Vidal is toying with me, expecting me to buy into the myths and stereotypes of Central Americans that the mainstream media and an ostensibly de-politicized Hollywood employed in that era. The three significant characters are the American protagonist, Peter Nelson, a young and energetic figure with a mysterious past as a soldier in the U.S. army; the General, in whose army Nelson is now employed and the General’s beautiful and vivacious daughter, Elena. She is engaged to George Green, nephew of the Director of “The Company” and himself a rising official in a powerful fruit company. The Company is clearly modelled on the hugely financially successful United Fruit Company, known popularly in Guatemala and the rest of the Americas as the Octopus because its hands reached into virtually every sector of their societies.
The plot involves the planning for a coup against the existing government along with an early push into Guatemalan towns, as the volunteer army gathers strength and courage. There is considerable talk of the General’s desire to establish laws and programs for the poor, primarily the Indians who make up the majority of the country’s population. However, Vidal deftly allows us to see that there is likely to be a significant gap between the promises made to the most vulnerable and hence gullible citizens in this very unequal society, and the eventual results. The novel has a unique quality of parody. This seems at first quite inappropriate for a novel that purports to explore the power relations of a poor Third World country and the suffering endured by the majority of the population due to unjust laws and unfair land grabs. However, by novel’s end I acquired a sense that there might be method in the madness. Vidal wished to find an unusual means of telling us how futile and foolish all talk of land reform and the creation of a just set of laws, with courts to uphold them in a principled manner, will inevitably be. The reasons for this are located in the slightly sinister and genuinely dangerous Mr. Green, the head of the (United Fruit) Company and his nephew. They are the puppet masters and they will determine who will rule. All opportunity for reform will be stymied because they have not the slightest intention of allowing their profits form the large estates they own to be placed at risk in any way.
An early novel of Vidal’s, Dark Green, Bright Red gives a sense of the way in which the author’s political realism, served up with a pungent dash of cynicism, is able to dramatize the urge-to-Empire of the United States in the Truman and Eisenhower eras. A strong scene in the novel occurs when Peter Nelson, as captain of the General’s troops, engages in a confused sequence of shooting before routing a group of looters in the town the rebel’s troops have just secured. Peter’s order to fire on the unruly mob saves the life of a man who had a rope around his neck. The fellow turns out to be a lawyer who was being terrorized by the mob because, he explained, he had been part of the successful middle class whose family operated a business. Envy on the part of the group of troublemakers led to an attempt to confiscate all his family’s assets. The lawyer talks about the necessity of restoring order and plans to “deal with” the men responsible for his near-murder. We learn, in other words, that in a country riven by disparities of wealth and power, there is a brutal struggle for power and material gain and little time for high-minded idealism.
As I read the novel, I found the ironies piling up one after another. The society is in desperate need of reform and yet any attempt to achieve it seems only to lead to more violence and bloodshed. Further, the country that clearly dominates the region, the United States, through its multinational corporation, was far from being a guarantor of liberty and justice. It simply ensured that the misery would continue without cease. In the actual history of the country, a further irony is that just at the time the novel was published, Guatemala was actually beginning a remarkable transformation. The government of Arevalo had replaced a long-time dictator who had been forced to flee because of a genuine rebellion uniting the middle class and the poor. Over the next three years, the talented and compassionate President, Jacobo Arbenz Guzman, together with his brilliant wife, engaged in a number of progressive measures to create a more equal society. He modelled his reform program on President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal of two decades earlier.
Vidal’s novel of an attempted coup, masterminded by The Company with the obvious support of the U.S. government, turned out to be amazingly prescient. The Eisenhower administration, working covertly through the CIA, responded to the requests of the United Fruit Company to destabilize, punish and if necessary destroy the democratically elected government of Jacobo Arbenz. It did just that, ultimately forcing Arbenz and his family to flee the country. The dictator that it installed in power ensured that all legal and political reforms were rolled back. An era of bloodshed and a brutal denial of basic rights was unleashed. This continued over the next several decades, with support from the United States, because the dictator was willing to burnish his anti-Communist credentials, meaning opposition to all leftist and progressive thought and organization, and to leave the lands and profits of United Fruit Company untouched.
The very title of this novel – Dark Green, Bright Red, captures the colors of The Company. It symbolizes the headlong rush out of the green world of lush forest into the “bright red” world of authoritarian Guatemalan society, the colour of the blood of all those Guatemalan citizens made to pay with their lives and liberties for the return to rule by the mighty, all under the yoke of American corporate and political interests.
The novel is an insightful depiction of the ways in which the United States as a new super-power would thwart the aspirations of small countries in Central America and make a mockery of the Four Freedoms that President Roosevelt had so recently promised. In the 1950s the United States aggressively supported the interests of the United Fruit Company in a manner that undermined the one hopeful development in Guatemala during the Arbenz administration. This was the establishment of a functioning legal system, respect for the rule of law, and rights for all Guatemalans, no matter how poor. The coup engineered from Washington ensured that any attempt thereafter to exercise human rights would be met with imprisonment or outright murder. Only in 1999 would an American President, Bill Clinton, apologize for the enormous wrong-doing that occurred. As for United Fruit, as the great poet Pablo Neruda wrote, it constituted a “dictatorship of flies.”