A UNIQUE BOOK I READ SOME FIFTY YEARS BACK

March 4, 2014
print this post

Every year my daughter Pratibha observes her parent’s Wedding Anniversary (which falls in February) with some specially conceived function.

 

kamla-advanipratibhaEarly this month, she came to me and said: “This year’s anniversary of yours is very significant. For you, Dada and Ma, who married in 1965, 2014 marks the commencement of your 50th year of togetherness! Let us have this time a family get-together of a kind we have never had earlier.  Kamla, my wife, has one sister and four brothers. Of the four brothers, two are in Mumbai, one is in New Jersey, and the fourth lives in Saint Martin (West Indies). In my case, I have one sister who lives in Mumbai and has two sons and one daughter. The extended families within the country are mainly in Mumbai and Delhi. So for this year’s Anniversary function Pratibha invited all family members, from here and abroad and a few other select friends and relations for lunch, with Brian Silas, renowned Delhi based pianist on the piano to regale the gathering with old Hindi film songs!

 

It happens that Kamla’s youngest brother Manek is an expert chronicler of Hindi film music and a professional compere. He readily agreed to Pratibha’s suggestion not only to compere Brian’s performance that day, but also to conduct a novel sort of a musical quiz for the gathering – questions relating to the songs, lyricists, music directors etc. of the film industry were posed to the audience.

 

This quiz programme proved extremely engrossing. Of course, invitees to the day’s function who were themselves from the film world like Shatrughna Sinha, Anu Malik, Prasoon Joshi, Vivek Oberoi etc. were barred from participating in the quiz!

***

 

My brother-in-law Manek had bought for me this time a book that I had read some decades back but whose brand new 50th Anniversary Edition was a really delightful gift for me. Manek recalled that sometime in the late nineteen sixties, I had strongly recommended to him Whittaker Chamber’s famous book WITNESS.

 

Chambers had published Witness in 1954. I had read the book during the sixties and had liked it immensely. This 50th Anniversary Edition, on its back cover, had summed up this powerful book thus:

 

THE WITNESS ENDURES

 

Fifty years after its original publication, Witness retains all of its searing impact. Whittaker Chamber’s harrowing account of his journey to hell and back – through espionage, treason, and terror ― is, ultimately, a story of faith.

 

Witness is part spiritual autobiography, part spy thriller, part trial drama, told in a compellingly eloquent, deeply moving voice of Dostoyevskian power.

 

What the publishers have described as the author’s “harrowing account of his journey to hell and back” is actually the story of his first becoming part of the communist camp, and later after his disillusionment with the Marxist philosophy, not just abandoning that camp but becoming the principal witness against Alger Hiss, a senior state department official of the U.S. Government who betrayed his country and became a secret agent of the Soviet Military Intelligence.

 

Book lovers who do not have the time to go through chamber’s 800- page tome would do well to read just his 20 page Foreword titled “A letter to my children.” In this blog of mine, I propose to reproduce just some paragraphs from this Foreword which prove quite convincingly why the publisher of this book Regnery Publishing Inc., Washington D.C. described the book a spiritual autobiography. Here are the first seven paragraphs from the Latter :

 

Beloved Children,

 

I am sitting in the kitchen of the little house at Medfield, our second farm which is cut off by the ridge and a quarter-mile across the fields from our home place, where you are. I am writing a book. In it I am speaking to you. But I am also speaking to the world. To both I owe an accounting.

 

It is a terrible book. It is terrible in what it tells about men. If anything, it is more terrible in what it tells about the world in which you live. It is about what the world calls the Hiss-Chambers Case, or even more simply, the Hiss Case. It is about a spy case. All the props of an espionage case are there-foreign agents, household traitors, stolen documents, microfilm, furtive meetings, secret hideaways, phony names, an informer, investigations, trials, official justice.

 

But if the Hiss Case were only this, it would not be worth my writing about or your reading about. It would be another fat folder in the sad files of the police, another crime drama in which the props would be mistaken for the play (as many people have consistently mistaken them). It would not be what alone gave it meaning, what the mass of men and women instinctively sensed it to be, often without quite knowing why. It would not be what, at the very beginning, I was moved to call it: “a tragedy of history.”

 

For it was more than human tragedy. Much more than Alger Hiss or Whittaker Chambers was on trial in the trials of Alger Hiss. Two faiths were on trial. Human societies, like human beings, live by faith and die when faith dies. At issue in the Hiss Case was the question whether this sick society, which we call Western civilization, could in its extremity still cast up a man whose faith in it was so great that he would voluntarily abandon those things which men hold good, including life, to defend it. At issue was the question whether this man’s faith could prevail against a man whose equal faith it was that this society is sick beyond saving, and that mercy itself pleads for its swift extinction and replacement by another. At issue was the question whether, in the desperately divided society, there still remained the will to recognize the issues in time to offset the immense rally of public power to distort and pervert the facts.

 

At heart, the Great Case was this critical conflict of faiths; that is why it was a great case. On a scale personal enough to be felt by all, but big enough to be symbolic, the two irreconcilable faiths of our time-Communism and Freedom-came to grips in the persons of two conscious and resolute men. Indeed, it would have been hard, in a world still only dimly aware of what the conflict is about, to find two other men who knew so clearly. Both had been schooled in the same view of history (the Marxist view).Both were trained by the same party in the same selfless, semisoldierly discipline. Neither would nor could yield without betraying, not himself, but his faith; and the different character of these faiths was shown by the different conduct of the two men toward each other throughout the struggle. For, with dark certitude, both knew, almost from the beginning, that the Great Case could end only in the destruction of one or both of the contending figures, just as the history of our time (both men had been taught) can end only in the destruction of one or both of the contending forces.

 

But this destruction is not a tragedy. The nature of tragedy is itself misunderstood. Part of the world supposes that the tragedy in the Hiss Case lies in the acts of disloyalty revealed. Part believes that tragedy lies in the fact that an able, intelligent man, Alger Hiss, was cut short in the course of a brilliant public career. Some find it tragic that Whittaker Chambers, of his own will, gave up a $30,000-a-year job and a secure future to haunt for the rest of his days the ruins of his life. These are shocking facts, criminal facts, disturbing facts: they are not tragic.

 

Crime, violence, infamy are not tragedy. Tragedy occurs when a human soul awakes and seeks, in suffering and pain, to free itself from crime, violence, infamy, even at the cost of life. The struggle is the tragedy – not defeat or death. That is why the spectacle of tragedy has always filled men, not with despair, but with a sense of hope and exaltation. That is why this terrible book is also a book of hope. For it is about the struggle of the human soul-of more than one human soul. It is in this sense that the Hiss Case is a tragedy. This is its meaning beyond the headlines, the revelations, the shame and suffering of the people involved. But this tragedy will have been for nothing unless men understand it rightly, and from it the world takes hope and heart to begin its own tragic struggle with the evil that besets it from within and from without, unless it faces the fact that the world, the whole world, is sick unto death and that, among other things, this Case has turned a finger of fierce light into the suddenly opened and reeking body of our time.

 

***

 

Chamber’s letter to his children is essentially a powerful denunciation of Communism.  At one point he says: “I see in Communism the focus of the concentrated evil of our time.”

 

Ironically, however, he is simultaneously of the view that the Communist Party is also the most revolutionary party in history.  According to Chambers, this assertion of his is based on the fact that the Party has posed in practical form the most revolutionary question in history: God or Man?  The Party’s own answer is: Man.  It is this that makes the author of this book hold that his role as witness in the Hiss case, leading to his conviction and incarceration, would contribute to society’s return to God.  It is therefore that the publishers of this outstanding book have described it as a spiritual autobiography.   After the publication of this 50th Anniversary Edition, President Ronald Reagan commented: “As long as humanity speaks of virtue and dreams of freedom, the life and writings of Whittaker Chambers will ennoble and inspire.”

 

TAILPIECE

 

Chambers describes his autobiography as a ‘terrible book’. But he also says it is a book of hope.

 

A new foreword written in this Fiftieth Anniversary Edition is by Robert D. Novak that Chambers actually remained pessimistic all his life. Robert D. Novak is a Contributing Editor for READER’S DIGEST. Novak writes:

 

It was Providence that finally enabled Chambers, at such personal cost, to “win” the Hiss case. He sees the hand of God in the selection of the intrepid Thomas Murphy as federal prosecutor of Hiss when the overriding attitude of the Truman administration, from the president on down, was contempt and derision. Had there not been a thirty-five-year-old freshman congressman from California named Richard M. Nixon who insisted on carrying through the case for Chambers, it would have been buried by Hiss’s lies and evasions. Indeed, for some-one with the strength and force of Chambers to sacrifice his life for his country can be called providential.

 

But why was he then so pessimistic about the world struggle? Like Ignazio Silone in The school for Dictators, Chambers could not conceive of a citizenry able to overcome the modern police and military power of the twentieth-century state. That skepticism was confirmed by the failure of popular revolts against Communist rule in East Germany in 1953, Hungary in 1956, and Czechoslovakia in 1968. But in 1989, when revolution again seized the old capitals of central Europe, the ramparts of Communist tyranny were brought down in a wave that finally extended all the way to the Kremlin.

 

 

 

L.K. Advani

New Delhi

04 March, 2014

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

*