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Sensible or Spineless? By: Theodore Dalrymple
FrontPageMagazine.com | Friday, May 01, 2009


Recently I visited a woman who dealt in old books from her home. Since she was accumulating books faster than she was selling them, her living space was gradually reducing. One could foresee a time when she would not have painted, but booked herself into a corner.

There was not enough shelving for all the books, many of which were piled up from the floor to a height of eight or nine feet. Some of the windows of her house were in effect blacked out by books; and it seems to be a natural law in such circumstances that the book you want is very nearly at the bottom of a pile, and to remove it without assistance is to risk being buried under an avalanche of books and bookish dust.

The book I wanted was a first edition, not much sought after I should imagine, of a novel by Eric Ambler, the English thriller-writer now nearly, though undeservedly, forgotten, at any rate by people younger than fifty. He was a master of prose, and is his writing worthy of close study by aspiring writers. He could convey the atmosphere of an alien land of which the reader knew nothing in simple, but accurate, euphonious and rhythmically beautiful language. Although – one is tempted these days to say because – he had not attended university, his work is also intellectually astute.

The book was The Night-Comers, published in 1956, and set in an island republic called Sunda that, a neighbor of Indonesia, was once part of the Dutch East Indies. The action takes place shortly after independence, when a rebel Islamist movement attempts to topple the first republican government, citing its corruption, neo-colonialism and betrayal of Islam as a pretext for its rebellion. In reality, of course, it is only a power struggle.

The narrator of the story, an English engineer, finds himself trapped with his casual lover, a young Eurasian woman, by the rebel movement, which is about to be crushed by government forces. There is a high likelihood that he and the woman will be killed in the process; a situation arises in which he is able to escape, but without her. Although their liaison is only a temporary one, he refuses to save his own skin without saving hers, and returns to face the danger with her.

Although Ambler is a writer who aimed mainly to entertain, nevertheless he was always capable of evoking reflection: and the situation of the narrator was particularly evocative for me.

Those who have led safe lives always wonder how they would behave in situations of danger, and on a few occasions I have been able to find out.

I was in Albania for the second time in my life. The first time was before the downfall of the communist regime, the second time shortly afterwards. The new leader was Sali Berisha, a cardiologist, with whose government I sympathized. He was said to have treated the great Albanian monster, Enver Hoxha, and I wondered whether he had ever felt tempted to do less than his best for him.

During the elections that were being held at the time, there was a demonstration by communists in the main square of Tirana, the capital; and the police, no doubt eager to prove their anti-communist zeal, waded into them with batons, though they were doing no more than shouting their repellent slogans.

I took out my camera to photograph what was happening, and felt myself clutched in a grip of iron by policemen, who bundled me into the back of a police van. They also bundled two Albanian journalists, hostile to Dr Berisha, who were watching the demonstration, into the back of the van, and then took us to the police station. We were hauled out and I was given one or two blows over the back with a truncheon, enough to cause a bruise for a few days.

We were all put into a cell, and I could hear the sound of a man in a cell nearby being beaten by the police. I got the impression that this was very much standard operating procedure; the police, who a few months previously might have abused him as an imperialist spy, were now abusing him as a communist reactionary.

Fortunately for me, my arrest, if that is what it was, had been seen by some friends, who lost no time in contacting the authorities. I had dined the night before with a high official in the new government, and he, no doubt embarrassed, and also worried about bad publicity, duly pulled strings to have me released.

A policeman who spoke a few words of English, and who had snarled at me on arrival, came to the cell, opened the door, bowed to me ingratiatingly, and told me I was free to go. The other men in the cell were not free to go.

I had to make up my mind in an instant. Did I stand by them and refuse to go, or did I save my own skin and try to do something for them from the outside? It will probably come as no surprise to learn that I did the latter, but though I did indeed ensure that representations were made on their behalf once I left (another factor in my decision was that I had a plane to catch, not a factor that should have been morally compelling), I still wonder whether I did the right thing. Was I being prudent and sensible, or merely cowardly? Would it have done any of us any good if I had refused to be released without them? I still don’t know.

At the very least, I did not behave heroically. The thing about heroes, of course, is that they are not very common: if they were, they wouldn’t be heroes. I do not think it is a reasonable moral demand on anyone, however, that he should be a hero, only that he should not be a swine. But as I read Ambler, I felt was not as good a man as his protagonist. It is true that my relationship with the two other men in my cell was not as intimate as the protagonist’s with the Eurasian woman; but there is nothing like being held in a cell with others and with the likelihood that you will all be beaten for creating a fairly intense, if not long-lasting, relationship. As Doctor Johnson might have said, ‘Depend upon it, sir, when a man knows that he or his cellmates is to be beaten in five minutes, it creates a sense of obligation to one another.’

I don’t think the present-day equivalents of Ambler’s novels are as good.


Theodore Dalrymple, a physician, is a contributing editor of City Journal and the Dietrich Weismann Fellow at the Manhattan Institute.

Theodore Dalrymple, a physician, is a contributing editor of City Journal and the Dietrich Weismann Fellow at the Manhattan Institute.


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