Daughter of the East
Political autobiography, as a genre, tends to produce tiresome, self-serving, ghost-written works. But once in a while a book stands out; not necessarily because it is better written than the usual stuff, but because it is the closest thing we have to classic mythology. The message is moral; the characters stand for Good and Evil; the story is a variation of the quest for a holy grail, involving not just hardship—“tests”—but exile of one kind or another. The authorship is often anonymous—ghostwriters seldom reveal their names.
When the heroes and villains come from countries where pure myths still cast their spells, where, as a Pakistani politician recently put it to me, “words have magic,” these political fairy tales follow the traditional patterns more closely than in the modern West, where the drama tends to get lost in media buzzwords, earnest political analysis, academic jargon, or a ghastly combination of all three. Besides, the complexity of modern life leaves little room for mythical feats of heroism. Good and evil are not so clear-cut. Our politics, as puritans of all persuasions keep telling us, has lost its moral dimension.
We can be just as much enchanted by myths of course, and sometimes something approaching classic myth will occur: Winston Churchill emerging from “his years in the wilderness” (exile) to save the world from evil dragons in the name of freedom and democracy (the grail). But this could only happen in a war, and Churchill was rather exceptional in that he was the greatest narrator of his own myth—no ghostwriters for him. Today’s great leaders, the Iron Lady, the Gipper, even Gorby, might aspire to mythical status, but cannot really pull it off convincingly.
No, for the truly inspiring tales we must turn to that mythical land called The Third World. That is where we can escape from not so much the decadence as the banality of Western life, and be enchanted once again, like children, our disbelief suspended. More than that, in the third world we can retrieve the pure moral order that we feel is lost to us in the West. The story of Cory Aquino—already made into a TV miniseries, by Australians I believe—was perfect: she, a religious paragon of modesty and virtue, her opponents, symbols of villainy and greed. How enchanting it must have been in 1986 for American senators and congressmen to take a break from their daily affairs and don yellow ribbons for St. Cory of Manila.
Kim Dae Jung tried his hardest to be a mythical hero, and many Western reporters did their best to help him, but he never quite made the grade. His story had all the makings of the real thing: evil generals, exile, heroic hardship, the quest for freedom…. But then something went wrong: Kim suddenly appeared less heroic, more like his opponents, aggressive, intransigent, hungry for power. Perhaps South Korea is too…
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