Her Guns

Jeremy Harding

  • The View from the Ground by Martha Gellhorn
    Granta, 459 pp, £14.95, September 1989, ISBN 0 14 014200 2
  • Towards Asmara by Thomas Keneally
    Hodder, 320 pp, £12.95, September 1989, ISBN 0 340 41517 7

As a young girl growing up in St Louis, Missouri, Martha Gellhorn had a habit of poring over maps; riding on the city’s tramcars, she would imagine she was bound for distant places with exotic names. Seventy years later, her war dispatches, fiction, travel writing and the peacetime journalism – collected here – bear witness to a lifetime of wanderlust. From the clattering cars of the St Louis Transit Authority, the dreamy child has disembarked as a grown woman in Europe, Asia, the Middle East, Latin America, the Caribbean and Africa. In all these places she has set down what she saw in her journalism and worked what was less readily apparent into her fiction: five novels, two collections of stories and four groups of novellas.

Gellhorn’s reputation rests largely on her work as a war correspondent who cut her teeth in Spain during the Thirties, going on to cover most of the major European fronts in World War Two and never quite retiring from the game. In her seventies she was in Nicaragua and El Salvador, fulminating against the Reagan Administration’s Central American policy. Her fiction is less well-known, although the first collection of novellas, The trouble I’ve seen (1936), received generous praise from Graham Greene and H.G. Wells. For years, her literary standing was compromised by her ties to Ernest Hemingway in the Thirties and Forties. This has long since ceased to be the case. The Face of War, her collected war reporting, is one of the most readable accounts of conflict in the 20th century, unspoiled by convictions which would have been disastrous in a less able writer. Two new editions have appeared since it was first published in 1959. There is one group of novellas currently in print, a book of travel writing and two novels. The View from the Ground, which spans half a century of peacetime journalism, is a welcome addition to the list of Martha Gellhorn’s available work.

Even in her peacetime reporting, Gellhorn has stuck to her guns: those of the convinced anti-Fascist, champion of labour and critic of American foreign policy who has witnessed one catastrophe after another with a growing sense that governments are on the whole pernicious things, and that poor people must remain in their place if they wish to remain in their skins. Hers is an unambiguous view of the world, which has many villains and countless victims: refugees, orphans, conscripts, persecuted minorities, the unemployed and the disenfranchised. Yet her beliefs are expressed with a grace and good humour largely absent from the two hegemonies – those of Reaganism and Thatcherism – which she takes to characterise the Eighties (‘an infuriating decade’). In her career as a reporter, Gellhorn has rarely let her anger slide into self-righteousness and, in the end, amused self-deprecation is never far away.

Gellhorn left the United States for Europe in 1930, at the age of 21. By her own account, she cut a rather comic figure. ‘I intended to become a foreign correspondent within a few weeks,’ she writes, ‘and Paris was the obvious place to launch my career.’ She took a cheap room with a mirror on the ceiling – curious, she thought, ‘but perhaps that was a French custom.’ She showed up at the New York Times offices and announced that she was available for work. Little came of it beyond a lunch invitation – ‘my enthusiasm for free meals was unbounded’ – and a tip from the bureau chief that she was staying in a brothel.

By 1934, she was back in the United States looking for work. Harry Hopkins, the director of the Federal Emergency Relief Administration, agreed to see her. ‘I painted my face like Parisian ladies, lots of eye shadow, mascara and lipstick, which was not at all the style for American ladies then and certainly not for social workers in Federal employment.’ She told him she knew ‘a lot about unemployment and was a seasoned reporter; the first was true enough, the second not.’ Hopkins hired her to report on the successes and failures of the Roosevelt Administration’s welfare policies. For a year, she travelled up and down America filing reports to her boss on the state of the nation’s poor. Three of these are ‘cut and stuck together’ in the first section of The View from the Ground under the title, ‘My Dear Mr Hopkins’. They are interesting only in so far as they show off her powers as an ‘advocacy journalist’ – she used the reports to press for more comprehensive and generous relief – and because they prefigure The trouble I’ve seen, her first literary success, which drew directly on the same material to produce a more dramatic study, this time in fiction, of American poverty.

The book appeared in 1936, introduced by H.G. Wells, with whom she was staying in London. The dust of favourable notices had scarcely settled before she set off for Madrid, moved by the Loyalist predicament but with no idea of how or for whom to write in support of la causa. The first unsolicited dispatch she sent to Colliers in New York earned her a job with the magazine. Her career as a war correspondent was under way. In 1938 she arrived in Prague, her disillusion with the role of the major powers in Spain fired to anger – against the British, above all – by Munich and the annexation of Sudetenland. Salvation, however, might still come from across the Atlantic, where her readership lay. In Prague she embarked on another attempt to alert the American public to the dangers of Fascism, just as she had hoped to do in Spain.

‘Obituary of a Democracy’, her report on Czechoslovakia, appeared in Colliers in December. It contains much of the background material she would use a few years later in A Stricken Field, a full-length novel set in Czechoslovakia. It is one of the finest reports in this collection, depicting a country in turmoil, with large numbers of refugees on the move like insects seething over a tree stump. Yet the scale of the disaster is relentlessly human. ‘In the north,’ she writes,

you got a feeling that the whole country was moving, lost, fleeing. On the road you passed a peasant’s cart with a blue enamel pail hanging from it, with a funeral wreath of dead flowers sitting up on top of the mattresses. Four people walked beside it. The women were eating dry bread; they had two slices apiece in their pocketbooks. They did not speak to each other and they walked with great weariness.

This is Gellhorn at her best, the eyes wide and the mouth set, invoking the lowest common denominator of political upheaval: the displaced person.

There are only four reports from the Forties, since Gellhorn spent the first half of the decade covering the war and, in the time she had left, fighting a rearguard action against the subversive resentments of Hemingway, whom she met shortly before her departure for Spain in 1937 and married in 1940. They parted in December 1944. In the interim, Hemingway had jeopardised her career, and arguably her life, by signing on as a Colliers correspondent to cover the war in Europe. One front-line reporter per paper was the rule laid down by the American Forces. Hemingway’s reputation was the bigger of the two and Gellhorn had to wing it through Europe, reporting for the magazine with no official accreditation. Within weeks of the break-up, she was covering the Battle of the Bulge and by May 1945 she had written one of her finest reports – on Dachau. She would mull over the question of Nazi atrocities in two more reports, one from Nuremberg in 1946 and another, published here, on the trial of Adolf Eichmann, 16 years later.

Spare and matter-of-fact, Gellhorn’s thumbnail portraits of Nazi dignitaries raise the familiar but disturbing issue of the individual whose atrocities seem all the more puzzling because he does not look like an ogre. Speer had ‘a face you could see anywhere, in any subway, in any drugstore’, while Frank ‘looked patient and composed, like a waiter when the restaurant is not busy’. At the trial of Adolf Eichmann in Jerusalem, she paints a more sinister, Baconesque portrait of the defendant caged in bullet-proof glass, occasionally producing a large white handkerchief and blowing his nose.

Although they languish in a rather different cage – one of delinquence and resentment – Gellhorn’s Palestinians are almost as grotesque. A staunch supporter of the Jewish state, she has clearly decided that her friends’ enemies, must, in the nature of things, be hers as well. ‘The Arabs of Palestine’ was written three years before the PLO came into existence and another five before it became a significant force. The Palestinians whom she interviews are thus Nasserites, faute de mieux. Many of them appear to have had no political education and most tend, in her view, to exaggerate the catastrophe which has befallen them. She finds them eaten up with hatred: they ‘gorge on hate, they roll in it, they breathe it’. They are Nietzschean slaves with one crucial shortcoming: their resentment is inauthentic and so they cannot win. They have no serious wish to return to their homes and within one generation they will ‘merge into the Arab nations’.

Israel at any price was the understandable priority and one senses that at this point in her career Martha Gellhorn has cut a number of losses. The Palestinian question is too complex, too tiring to consider after the epic struggle against Fascism, the shock of Dachau, and the eerie business of the Nazi trials in which justice is, in the end, as unsatisfactory as the crimes in question are absolute. This is not to say that Gellhorn steps down. That would be out of character. But there is a hint that her terms are being redefined. It is to be found, alongside the anger and dismay, in her report on the Eichmann trial. In the conclusion to her own summing-up, she casts the figure in the cage not merely as an uncommon criminal but as a ‘warning that the private conscience is the last and only protection of the civilised world.’

Gellhorn’s pact with conscience seems to adjourn some lengthy trial of her own, in which the writer who has practised journalism as a form of political intervention for 25 years acknowledges defeat – defeat in Spain, in Czechoslovakia, at Dachau, none of them quite redeemed by the Allied victory – and accepts that her case against oppression and injustice, having failed to change the world, will now have to rest largely on personal conviction. In fact, the court never convenes for a full session again, for Gellhorn is quickly bored by questions of personal motivation. Instead, she makes a run for it, returning to the fray with all her former anger and energy. On handguns in America, the war in Vietnam, the miners’ strike, El Salvador, the approach is more or less unaltered. Similar conclusions about the ills of American imperialism, the follies of government and the evils of poverty are drawn. Regimes commit the same crimes, the powerful are still cowards and abusers, the poor are still pushed around. From pasture to pasture in Martha Gellhorn’s extensive grazing, there is no such thing as greener grass.

What emerges instead is a set of archetypes for 20th-century politics, disposed like figures on a ground: from Spain, Czechoslovakia, Vietnam and Central America comes the stooping refugee; from the Depression, the ‘basement’ of the Great Society and the dole queues of London at the end of the Seventies comes the poor man in the developed capitalist state; from a bestiary of bad or indifferent leaders – Franco, Hitler, Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher – comes the bully. Finally there is the figure of technology, the only abstract on display, which has haunted Gellhorn ever since she saw the effects of German armaments in Spain and which remains for her an instrument used by the powerful to punish the poor. In her writings from the Seventies and Eighties, these archetypes have solidified in the collieries of South Wales, the prisons of El Salvador and the homes of the unemployed in London, but seldom does the work feel like a rehearsal of old preoccupations. It is wholly attentive to the matter in hand.

In much of Gellhorn’s fiction, the characters develop against a backdrop of war. The same is true of Thomas Keneally’s most recent novel. It is set in Eritrea, the former Italian colony on the Red Sea which the Emperor Haile Selassie annexed to the Ethiopian empire in 1962. Since 1961 the Eritreans have fought a long and often intensive war for independence. When the Emperor was overthrown, the Eritreans found themselves fighting against a Soviet-backed regime in Addis Ababa, if anything more intransigent than its predecessor. The war has gone on for nearly thirty years and only last autumn were there dim hopes of a negotiated settlement.

Towards Asmara – Asmara, now under Ethiopian control, is the capital of Eritrea – sets four non-Africans in search of themselves, or aspects thereof, in a war zone controlled by the EPLF, Eritrea’s main liberation movement. They are an odd crew: an Australian journalist with troubles on the domestic front, an eccentric British lady of means who wants to stamp out female circumcision, a morose American aid worker and a young French girl in search of her father, a network cameraman, who long ago went missing to work in the hills with the rebels. (The last character is based on the extraordinary filmmaker, Hilal, who has spent years in EPLF territory.)

The detail of the struggle rapidly reduces the non-Africans to ciphers. One’s efforts to follow them on their respective quests are impeded by a mass of political and historical information about the Eritreans: so much so that the reader is aware of two projects, a travel narrative and a work of fiction, lying in unconsummated partnership between the covers of a single volume. Actual members of the liberation movement crop up in the story – Askalu Menkorios, a prominent figure in the women’s section, and Isayas Afewerke, the General Secretary of the EPLF – while others are more obviously imagined. To a man and a woman they are models of excellence, and this is another problem about the book. For it sings the praises of the liberation movement to the MiG-ridden skies. To Keneally, like his cameraman who has found in Eritrea the perfect revolution (la femme particulière), the EPLF’s struggle is a flawless political object.

This is dangerous even in fiction. The Eritreans have a chequered history and their movement is not exempt from the vices of any protagonist in a military conflict. What they have achieved in a wasteland of rock and sand is remarkable; they are fanatical about healthcare and education, they are excellent soldiers, and they do their best to balance the contradictory values of compassion and expediency. They are also masters of intrigue, capable of acting on the harshest judgments, as you would expect of a group which has fought its patch for so long. Alas, Keneally’s mild-mannered beings in the hills are implausible – which undermines his account of their success.

Yet he is much more than a tourist of the revolution. He has taken physical as well as intellectual risks and on the whole they have paid off. Despite the palpitating heart on the sleeve of this novel, Keneally’s other vital organ, the imagination, is in sound working order. It produces several moments of dramatic tension during the journey, including a superbly-handled air attack, and it quickens the colours and textures of the Eritrean landscape. No aid agency briefing or journalist’s copy could give such a vivid impression of the war. Towards Asmara is grist to the mill of an admirable independence movement; and if the Eritreans get what they deserve, Keneally should be one of their first guests in liberated Asmara.

Hunger is another lurking presence in the novel, as it is in the Horn itself. This year the forecast is bleak. Famine alerts are not newsworthy, but famine proper is a telegenic affair which brings the news crews out in droves. We may be spared another African calvary on TV this year if there are good rains in May and June, full grain donations (roughly 750,000 tonnes were still needed in December) and firm guarantees on the passage of aid through war zones.

Famine is not good for Addis Ababa. It brought down Haile Selassie in 1974 and drew attention to the brutishness of Mengistu’s empire in 1984-5. Perhaps that is why the regime has toyed with the idea of letting relief trucks into rebel-held areas. Though this is unlikely, the bargaining table should now offer more by way of sustenance to Addis than unwinnable war on the fringes of empire, especially since Mengistu’s appetite for arms is no longer a source of enthusiasm in Moscow. Peace alone would not fill every stomach in Ethiopia and Eritrea, but it would ease the worst effects of drought.