The tragedy and farce of Charlie Marks

What follows is the first chapter from my first novel, which I am currently editing while seeking an agent and a publisher. If you are interested in reading further then please contact me and I can provide you with the full ebook.

N Beinn

 

Hegel remarks somewhere that all great world-historic facts and personages appear, so to speak, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.’

— Karl Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon

 

Chapter One

So you think I’m alone?

But being alone’s the only way to be.

When you step outside

You spend life fighting for your sanity

I’m trying to find my peace.

I was made to believe there’s something wrong with me,

And it hurts my heart.

Lord have mercy, ain’t it plain to see

That this is a cold war?

Do you know what you’re fighting for?

— Janelle Monae

 

1. 14 July 2084

 

In vain hope of becoming inspiration-struck, I waited until today, World Heritage Day, to write this introduction. Feeling not particularly struck, I am consoled I may at least truthfully acknowledge how fitting this day is for my endeavour, though I can’t ignore the obviously contrived nature of this truth.

For the following story, by and large, I can accept no responsibility for any artistic merit or flaw. I was not responsible for it. My summary is presented in my role as a historian. I merely describe what I have seen, more or less as I saw it.

I may have left some bits out that I forgot, or found boring; changed some bits that I misremembered, or didn’t like; and (I tried to keep this to a minimum) I also added a few scenes in order to maintain consistency with other changes I made, either accidentally or to improve readability. At some points, where I feel I can offer some insight, I have inserted my own commentary.

These changes aside, this is basically an accurate historical record. The other change is, obviously, the format change—I lobbied my delegate and my soviet tirelessly to support my original idea of re-shooting the film, but after the British Ministry for Public Arts declined to provide any resources for the project, my local champions in the Scottish soviets lost interest. Even if I had managed to maintain the support of the soviets, after the brutal assassinations of everyone involved in the original production, I was not fully certain that I would have been able to find technical staff willing to put a new version together.

In a way, the obvious story of Escape from the Utopia! (as the film was called; if I may be allowed one further change, then allow me this) was the massacre of all involved in the production, and the destruction of all the material related to the movie. Due to the infamy of this event and its orgiastic coverage in the media (not to mention the subsequent backlash, which prompted the press regulation scandal) I do not wish to dwell on it. However, I shall summarize how it came to be that the only surviving ‘copy’ of this work should persist first in my head, and now in this manuscript.

Production of the film started in 2074 in Hollywood, in the Republic of America. The film was a biopic based on the alleged lost-memoir of Charlie Marks, a political emigre of notoriety in certain, limited, academic circles. Due to various problems with the cast and crew, and long delays in filming, the production became an unlikely news story for years before the massacre. After a change of director, well documented scripting troubles, and the male lead being sacked, replaced, and overdosing to death, at many points in the eight year production period the prospect of a premiere at any time seemed fanciful.

And it transpired that there was no public premiere, although a date was set for World Heritage Day, 2082. A week before, I was invited to a closed screening along with the cast and crew and a few other advisors. It was known to the producers that I had been working on the final instalment of my trilogy of the upheaval of the 20th century, focussing on the aftermath of the Cold War, and the transitional period, particularly in the United States/Republic of America, and that I had framed my analysis around a biography of Charlie Marks.

Actually, I may as well admit that I had only been working on the Charlie Marks angle of the  project for about a year, as I had been hoping to capitalize on the interest generated by the movie. As part of my marketing strategy, I had had a few articles published in peer reviewed journals, and provided some cod-historical quotes to the daily newspapers. This must have worked, as clearly my name had become known to someone in the film industry.

But anyway, in my role as a historian of the Cold War period and its aftermath, I was not so much advising on historical accuracy as lending the project some of my assumed credentials—also present were Hugo Huming, the fashion expert; Francois Occident, the political commentator; and numerous technological advisors with surnameless monikers like Dugg and Judd. The film that we were shown was completely ready for public ingestion—this was a proofreading exercise at most.

The screening was in the Karl Marx Theatre in the British Library in London. We were greeted by the director and a couple of lower-order cast members. There were no grand speeches beforehand, just a brief explanation of the event from a member of the production team, replete with exaggeration of its significance and some casual professional flattery, and then we were taken to our seats. My seat was at the back of the theatre, and benefitted from enough lighting to enable me to take notes, which I did to the point of wrist-ache, when I wasn’t distracted by either trying to enjoy the film, or by ogling the Hollywood mega-stars sitting with their backs to me only metres away.

At this point I suppose I will introduce myself. I am Dr Nicholas Beinn (Ph.D.) and I am employed at the University of Glasgow. I have authored two textbooks on 20th century history—Trotsky’s War, 1936–1939 (2080) and Cold War: The USA’s Nuclear Fallout (2082)—which mainly reiterated the works of more innovative researchers in simpler language, steamrolling over many of their more subtle distinctions. My target audience has always been my students, who are obligated to read and regurgitate the arguments from my books as a condition of passing my course. I had, until this point, never been invited to a film-screening, encountered a famous person (well, real-life famous rather than academically esteemed) or been consulted by anyone important, on anything whatsoever. As I sat in that theatre, I felt giddy with the self-importance that comes from accepting flattery at face value.

After the film, we were herded into an adjoining room for a chance to talk about the movie and eat canapés with the artists. I became nervous at the thought of communicating with the other-worldly Holywooders, and, as will often happen when I feel out of sorts, I felt an overwhelming urge to pass water.

I twitched nervously towards the lavatories, almost resting my hand against the pull handle before about-turning. I conspicuously scanned the room to see if I had been spotted, and, having ascertained nothing, I shuffled myself into the disabled facilities. And it was lucky I did because, even in that loo’s security and privacy, I was still heavily burdened by shy-pee. I think I stood unzipped for about twenty minutes, such that I became uncertain if I needed to go at all, before I produced a flow. Just as that happened, I heard several bangs, which I now know where grenades, followed by the smashing of windows, gunshots, and terrible commotion. Looking back, I must speculate that it is possible that my difficulty passing water ended with the explosions, rather than shortly in advance of them.

The fracas lasted for about fifteen minutes, but I remained in my enclosure for about ten hours, for prudence. When I finally emerged, I found carnage. The assassins, who were never apprehended, had been utterly ruthless in killing every single person present, and destroying all the copies of the film, and all the promotional material.

The militia had not yet been alerted, so I was able to spend a while traipsing mindlessly around the crime scene. The horror, coupled up with my not inconsiderable hunger after all that foodless prudence, had caused my brain to put itself into low-power mode, as I moved between the rooms, gawking unanalytically at the exposed brains of celebrities, people’s delegates, runners and writers. I am told that I was eventually discovered almost a whole day later, and that I was taken into the militia’s custody, and then into a phalanstery, where I spent three months recovering.

At the same time as the attack on the cinema, allied terrorists attacked the homes of those involved in the production, and all the production group’s offices across the globe. Destroyed were all the original materials upon which the film was based, including documents stored within my own home. Even documents stored in cloud databases were somehow deleted.

The attack was carried out with such remarkable precision that its occurrence struck terror into our very society—a terror that I believe has now become internalized within our citizenry. All actions must be made in the shadow of that violation; it is a premise in every argument, leading to every decision; and all consequences are measured against it. That two-years on, nobody has yet been held responsible serves to enhance the shock of that day.

It was several months after the event, as I recovered in the phalanstery, that I realized that the only surviving ‘copy’ of the film was stored in my head. By whim of fancy, I had become not only the most knowledgeable person on the planet on the topic of Charles Marks, but also the only extant person with direct experience of the film of his capers. Beyond the information retained in my head and inscribed on these pages, all else that remains are a few articles in printed magazines, stored haphazardly in the attics of the world.

It was a while yet before I was invigorated enough to doanything about this fact, at which time I resolved to remake the film, and several months more before I was forced to discard that aspiration. Eventually, I decided I may as well just commit it all to writing, and I spent another year producing my manuscript, using my notes from the screening, and my memory of the information I had assembled for my biography.

I can only hope that my account will somehow illuminate the proceedings of that day, help us to understand why the terrorists acted as they did, perhaps even lead to their capture eventually; and furthermore, help to further develop our knowledge of Charlie Marks, what he believed and what his actions meant, if anything; and establish myself as the most prominent historian of the Cold War era.

#

As I mentioned above, this is not the first work I have written, but due to its subject matter, coupled with proximity in time to significant events, I have a suspicion (and a hope) that this will be many readers’ first introduction to my work. In the circumstances, I feel it would not be unwise to give the reader some background re my credentials. The two reviews below are probably the most balanced I have received.

 

Trotsky’s War, 1936–1939 (2080)

In this work Dr Beinn takes Trotsky’s story from the death of Lenin onwards, describing his victory in the power struggle with Josef Stalin, the consolidation of the new economic plan, and the return to power of the soviets. Via a close study of secondary and tertiary sources, Beinn is able to guess what Trotsky may have been thinking during his campaign to take over the leadership of the Bolshevik Party, and gives a glowing account of the satisfaction he probably felt when Stalin conceded defeat to the former Menshevik.

He then describes Trotsky’s great skill as a mediator and leader, and his apparent ability to bring people together. Stalin—seen as a temperamental and authoritarian Leninist during the leadership contest—was won over by Trotsky’s (presumed) ability to make people feel important and influential. He went on to become one of Trotsky’s most loyal servants, serving in various minor ministries, before retiring from politics shortly before the outbreak of war to write a celebrated series of romance novels.

Beinn then takes us to the highest controversy of Trotsky’s political career: the north-Eurasian pact. According to the authors that Beinn quoted, Trotsky convinced the British prime minister and the French president that it was in their long-term interests to declare war on the fascist bloc of Germany, Spain and Italy. He apparently used graphical allusions to persuade his fellow leaders: predicting concentration camps, genocide, and acts of cruelty incompatible with our shared ideas of humanity and empathy. Failure to act would result in no less than the brutalization of a continent. Of course, in retrospect this seems melodramatic, but Trotsky’s rhetoric worked.

Over the next three years the fascist powers were annihilated. Beinn skirts over the controversy of that pre-emptive war, settling instead for steady praise of Trotsky’s many military successes, some of which—the massacre from the air that occurred in Dresden in particular—are described with crude, pornographic relish.

The subsequent formation of the Eurasian Union, the loose political tie between Russia and the European states that lasted until 1945, is presented as a success for Trotsky and his brand of Marxism. For reasons known only to himself, Beinn chooses to end his analysis in 1941, the year before Trotsky’s forced removal from office, noting only that at the time of his death in 1943 Trotsky was ‘unlikely to have been pleased with the way events seemed to be proceeding.’

As it transpired, Trotsky’s brand of Leninism-light—authoritarian Marxism, garnished with minor liberal elements and limited delegative democracy—died with him. The better elements of Trotsky’s rule (such as the democracy, equality and small-c communism of the soviets) went on to provide the base for our society’s development, while the powerful leaders, and the punishment of political and social dissent, were ultimately consigned to the museum of ancient political thought. I couldn’t help but get the impression that Beinn was peculiarly upset about this.

I must admit, although I can’t really say this was down to the author’s innovation, reading his did cause me to reflect momentarily on the nature of history, and Trotsky’s role in the same. That while he was ultimately on the wrong side in the grand teleological scheme of things, without his input the turning of events could have been quite unlike how it in fact was. It is as though history needed, at that point, a violent, war-ready, ideologist, with the will to take on Naziism, but without the longevity to hang around and replace it. If he had remained much longer, maybe power would never have returned to the soviets, and democracy would not have thrived the world over. If he had not been at all, Naziism may have grown, and maybe it really could have been that bad. We can never be sure, of course, but it made me think: how fickle is history; and how unlikely it all is, really.

Not that Beinn picked up on these points. He strikes me as a bibliographer of events and a teller of tales, rather than a serious theorist of history. Looking back over the 400 or so pages, probably 250 are devoted to anecdotes of dubious veracity. The tragedy is that there is a great book to be written on this subject, and this wasn’t it. In any case, this is a worthwhile read for those who have very little background knowledge, and are seeking a light enlightening. Nothing new here for scholars. (Adam Jackson, The Guardian, 4 June 2080)

Cold War—The USA’s Nuclear Fallout (2082)

Dr Beinn’s follow up to Trotsky’s War begins with a dramatized account of the 1941 Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour. His imagined character, Regan, spots the incoming bomber planes, and raises the alarm. He personally mans the anti-aircraft guns, heroically shooting down several enemy appliances, before being fatally immolated in a firestorm at his post. Quite the academic purpose of the above, which did not really happen, is unfathomable. If Beinn could have been bothered to conduct some research, he would have had no trouble identifying a real soldier who met a tragic end in the course of heroic conduct at Pearl Harbour—2,402 Americans lost their lives.

Beinn however persists with this fictionalization technique throughout—describing scenes in inglorious invented detail: President Roosevelt is woken up and informed of the attack; he has tense discussions with his cabinet before declaring war on Japan. The author makes clear his distaste for the Eurasian Union countries’ policy of neutrality, and blames the dominant Southern European powers for this: arguing that Trotsky favoured intervention on The United State’s side. He insinuates that Trotsky’s failure to bring the influential states of Britain and France round on this matter was the operative event in his downfall (which was, in fairness, a subject of speculation in at least one of the many great biographies of Trotsky) despite the evidence seeming to point to the contrary.

In fact, the released minutes of the meetings of the Eurasian heads of state (which I suppose Beinn presumes to have been forged, as they have been publicly available for over thirty years) suggest that all the leaders, including Trotsky, simply couldn’t afford to get involved in what was potentially a second world war. Not only was the continent awash with post-war austerity, but the massive loss of human life, coupled with the need for fit men to rebuild the cities of Europe, meant there simply weren’t the spare bodies for an invading army.

The pivotal moment in the conflict, of course, was Roosevelt’s decision to drop nuclear bombs on six major cities in Japan on 24 June 1945. Beinn courts controversy by arguing that Roosevelt did what he did in the context of the most violent war ever fought, against a nation-army committed to fight to death, and that in that context alone, his action was merited. Let us take a moment to consider this. It is estimated that over one million people were killed on the day of the bombing, with a further seven million killed over the following years from the effects of the radiation. Huge swathes of Japan had to be abandoned. To this day, people who had a relative who resided in Japan in 1945 are over four times more likely to die from cancer than those who have no connection. In one day, Japan went from being a superpower to utter devastation. The USA’s invading force actually returned home: the cost of reconstruction, and the high radioactivity levels, had rendered rehabilitation and occupation profoundly deleterious.

Prior to 1945 Europeans had generally seen the Americans as cousins—wayward comrades—and the Japanese as ‘other’ and even evil. (We mustn’t forget that we are considering an epoch in which ideas which are now considered outrageous were fairly prevalent at all levels of society, and racism was undeniably influential in the forming of these opinions of the Japanese.) However, even these vile attitudes did not prevent the Eurasians from reacting with shock, disgust and outrage at the actions of their brother Americans.

In the general elections of 1945, parties hostile to the United States were elected all over Europe. The USA reacted by cancelling trade relationships and withdrawing diplomats—and this further stoked European sentiment. By 1947 the Danish Crown—the last of the European monarchies—was democratically overthrown, and the Eurasian Union was soon reconstituted as the International Union of Republics.

By 1950 the situation had evolved into what we now refer to as the ‘Cold War’. The world was split into two opposing camps: the individualist American world, encompassing the entire American continent; and the social-democratic republican world, covering Europe and most of Asia. Of course, the war occasionally became ‘hot’—with flashpoints occurring in Nigeria, South East Asia, and most famously in the fourteen-year war in South Africa. Beinn, farcically parodying his earlier work on Trotsky, chooses to focus on the practicalities of the wars—gleefully describing the gruesome human cost. He fails miserably to explain the crucial differences in outlook between the two camps.

On the ultimately prevailing side there was the social-democratic republicanism of the United Republics, and on the other there was the liberal capitalist model championed by the United States. The two ideologies had a shared history: you could trace it from absolute-monarchism, through feudalism, through constitutional-monarchism to laissez-faire capitalism. From there the European countries were influenced by Russian communism and moved towards more advanced mutual co-reliance and free access to services, while the USA and its allies moved further towards individualism, and the pursuit of private wealth.

At the time of the split the systems were not hugely dissimilar: all had currencies that were convertible to precious metals, some level of welfare provision, and a democratic political system. Over time the differences grew, until by the end the systems were unintelligible to each other. The USA cut back on welfare and lowered taxes until there was no state provision of any healthcare or unemployment benefits. The United Republics expanded welfare, socialized control of industry, moved to the delegative system of democracy, and phased out currency. While the American attitude was to fear the state, and to view government as, at best, a necessary evil, the European attitude was not to differentiate between the state and the people: the state is not just there for you, it is controlled by you.

Beinn also fails to adequately explain the subsequent collapse of American capitalism—he basically puts it down to ‘fatigue’. In reality, Washington had never truly had control over its empire, especially not its non-contiguous outposts, such as Taiwan and Arabia. By the end of American rule, even New York, the capital of individualism and decadence, was grubby and drab compared even with second order European cities like Belfast and Lille. By 1992—when Brasilia Province, South Mexico and Cuba declared their independence—the American states has been in depression for over a decade, were years behind in technology, and were dramatically divided between rich and poor. When young, poor, uneducated Americans switched on their televisions they saw sitcoms, dramas and cultural programming from another world that was equal and prosperous, where education, work and the pursuit of happiness was a guaranteed right, not a minority privilege.

As Beinn singularly fails to say: In the end, American capitalism was not brought down by enemy hostilities, but by its failure to provide the necessities for a good existence to its people. (Barrie Goldsmith, The Guardian, 19 December 2082)

 

2. Opening Scene, 2048

Anyway, the picture opens with a cold scene—I think that’s the term. There are some words: ‘The rainforest, somewhere in South America—2048’, set in bold type, delivered over some peaceable blue sky. The camera pans down into the jungle, to reveal some explorers, dressed in khaki, as they would be, hacking their way through the bushes. Over a crackly walkie-talky, one of them is heard to make some monosyllabic curses. He has found something of particular interest, and urges his comrades to come to him, breathlessly unable to exactly explain the nature of the interesting matter he must so urgently share. We see a ramshackle sort of hut, on an uneven platform, twisted around a tree. An ancient flag of poor craftsmanship is at its doorway. Blue, with a red star, and in white cursive: ‘The Republic of the Rest of the World’.

The explorers adopt a military formation, keeping cover over each other as they move silently up the tree, then keep tight against the hut’s wall. Their nervousness is obvious. A cinematic sweat-ball drips down their leader’s nose. As it drops to the jungle floor he spins, and moves into the hut in a smooth motion. By now he is practically hyperventilating, wielding his machete in the direction of the camera. That he moves so gracefully while breathing so unstably, I can only put down to bad acting. He laughs a bit, still struggling for breath. The camera shows us a poorly, bearded man, laying unconscious on the floor.

In his tree-house are a few possessions—a perished stock of fruits, a rudimentary school desk, a feather pen and a jar of ersatz ink. On the desk are a few well read books: by Nozick, Locke, Dworkin and Smith, amongst others. There is a manuscript of perhaps a thousand pages of yellowed paper. The text lays open at a random page, a third of the way though, headed ‘Redistribution, Robbery and the Extended Self’. From the things the explorers—the main one is named Tito—discuss, it is apparent that this is our man: Charlie Marks (C). Tito bends down to the ailing man’s face, and bashes it with his elbow as he says to his walkie-talker: ‘we need a medic and a helicopter.’ Graciously, the logistics of rescuing the mangled C. Marks from his jungle tomb are spared us, as a diverting opening title sequence begins with an electronic drum-beat in the four-four signature.

 

3. Opening credits

There is a song, the theme song I suppose, as our protagonist—C, a skinny and jagged man in his twenties with thick dark hair, pale white skin, and emerald green eyes—runs about, dressed scruffily in a business suit. His tie blows behind him, and his top shirt button is undone, as is a shoe lace.

It is a very literal affair. Basically, he just runs about. He looks nervously over his shoulder occasionally, and he runs past messages on billboards, benign messages, that mysteriously unsettle him: ‘Take a break at your local phalanstery’, with an image of some young people enjoying some luxurious de-stressing; ‘Enjoy your holidays more with cannabis pills’, with an image of pleased cannabis users, discarding their anachronistic smoking devices.

‘This is a cold war,’ the song says, ‘do you know what you’re fighting for?’

So he runs to his work, in an office. He runs from his work. He runs through bars, through libraries, through America, and, after losing a shoe and his jacket, through the jungle.

I wish that that had not been the case, as I subscribe to the Agatha-Christie school of literature: until the last moment, I don’t like to be sure. But then I like to be very sure. I would have liked for there to have been a twist, or at least some suspense—an element of not being entirely sure what was to follow. But the director clearly believed in making things very easy for his audience, as essentially you already have the entire story.

I am afraid there is nothing in the plot that will come close to surprising you from now on. But, as is my duty, I will tell you the missing details: and as is yours, you must feign interest. For this to work, you must internalize the lie, and not only force yourself to believe it, but become yourself the lie.

 

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One comment on “The tragedy and farce of Charlie Marks
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