Thursday, October 2, 2014

A Paean to McCarthyism: Neither Five Nor Three by Helen MacInnes

I had only a vague idea of what McCarthyism was. There was a Hollywood Blacklist and there was some sort of persecution of Dashiel Hammett because of what was feared to be his communist leaning. That's it. So reading Helen MacInnes Neither Five Nor Three was like getting an education. I never knew that there was a time in the US when the word Communist was a synonym for all that is dirty and unclean in the world.

'No tactics are too low for a communist'




Paul Haydn, a veteran of World War II returns to the US from FRG. It is the early fifties and Haydn has had first-hand experience of refugees seeking asylum in the American zone. He thinks that he'd find some much needed rest in the US. But it is not to be. On the flight back, his senior officer makes some references to the danger that threatens US but Haydn is not too concerned. As the novel progresses,one gets to know that the danger that the senior officer was referring to was the Red Scare: The Communist Infiltration into the academic,business, media, and other institutions of the US.


Haydn runs into his former girlfriend Rona who is now engaged to Scott Ettley who is on his way to become a committed communist under the guidance of Nicholas - why not let himself be called Nick - Orpen, a former academician.


 Rona has no idea of Ettley's new found values but with the reentry of Haydn into her life, she does start questioning things she had ignored earlier. Complications ensue but you know that Paul Haydn with his American values will win the bout against the traitor Ettley. And bout it is, descending to the level of fist-fights...

It'd only be stupid to believe that all was well in the communist regimes of the world. In fact, things were pretty horrendous but is everything milk and honey in the United States? Going by MacInnes, Yes! Everything is fine and light and bright in the land of liberty but for these dregs of the society. And dregs of the society they are. And in case we have missed this point, MacInnes makes Haydn bundle a semi-conscious Ettley in a cab (after that fist-fight in which he lays low his rival just with one blow) asking the driver to dump him in with the garbage.



There was also a leit-motif in the novel that made me pretty suspicious and Wikipedia confirmed my suspicions. Here is what Wikipedia has to say:

Suspected homosexuality was also a common cause for being targeted by McCarthyism.... Homosexuality was classified as a psychiatric disorder in the 1950s. However, in the context of the highly politicised Cold War environment, homosexuality became framed as a dangerous, contagious social disease that posed a potential threat to state security. As the family was believed to be the cornerstone of American strength and integrity, the stigmatisation of homosexuals as "sexual perverts" meant that they were both unable to function within a family unit and presented the potential to poison the social body. This era also witnessed the establishment of widely spread FBI surveillance intended to identify homosexual government employees.




The McCarthy hearings and according "sexual pervert" investigations can be seen to have been driven by a desire to identify individuals whose ability to function as loyal citizens had been compromised.

And sure enough we have the ideal American family in the novel,representative of all that is good in the US: Jon who is a sincere hard-working professor, his wife Peggy who is an uncomplaining companion, a loving mother, and a brilliant home-maker, and their two cute as button kids. In fact, Ettley's only hope for redemption lies in his marriage to Rona. But what about Nicholas Orpen, the only American who declares himself publicly to be a communist? We are told (hold your breath):

"Why does Nicholas Orpen always avoid women so much? ... He seems to surround himself with young men."

Should one laugh or cry?

Reading this book was extremely problematic. Recent declassified documents have revealed that the CPUSA was under the control of Moscow but in a novel that deals with a troubled time in American history should everything be presented in such a biased and one-sided manner?

source: http://www.glogster.com/mollyj24/mccarthy-red-scare/g-6l6c4921v9oh94lj7666ma0


Last year, I picked up a few books by Helen MacInnes because she was compared favourably to two of my favourite authors: Eric Ambler and Graham Greene. May I know who writes these blurbs? I do not claim to be an authority on either Greene or Ambler but what little I have read of them shows that everything is not this cut and dried for them. (And since I have read more of him than Ambler) When Greene deals with a clash of ideas and ideologies in his books (It's a Battlefield, The Human Factor, The Quiet American) he never presents them as black and white. People and their beliefs are presented in both their positive and negative aspects. Greene was a staunch Roman Catholic but even the communist Police Lieutenant in his book The Power and the Glory (that deals with the persecution of the RC Church in Mexico) is presented sympathetically as a man sincere in his duty and committed to his cause. How can anyone even compare the two writers is beyond me.

I wonder what I should do with the other books of MacInnes that I bought because going by this book, she is simply not my cup of tea.


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First Line: The dawn came slowly,cold and clear, thinning out the night sky.

Title: Neither Five Nor Three
Author: Helen MacInnes
Publication Details: Glasgow: Fontana, 1979
First Published: 1951
Pages: 350
Source: Bought @ Delhi Book Fair,2013
Other books read of the same author: None

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Entry for FFB @ Pattinase



10 comments:

  1. Great review Neeru - it would be laughable if it weren't true. The McCarthy era remains a black mark on American history - always fascinating to read books from that era, but this sounds incredibly dumb and the homophobia makes it even worse - I'll consider myself warned. EL Doctorow's DANIEL provides a fascinating parallel take on the times - not an alternative, but a fascinating exploration of those who considered themselves liberal and wanted to fight the corprorate establishment and how they were crushed from without and within.

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    1. Thank you so much Sergio. The book was really painful reading. DANIEL seems interesting,I have put it on my TBR list.

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  2. Neeru - Yes, sad to say, McCarthyism was all too real. People really were persecuted and blacklisted for suspected Communist sympathy. I agree with you about this book, but the era itself is, as Sergio says, really fascinating.

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    1. Indeed,too real Margot. I saw certain pictures and I thought my god this is almost like the 'big brother is watching you' syndrome.It is sad that MacInnes is not an Orwell.

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  3. Interesting post, Neer. I recently bought quite a few Macinnes books. I knew that Communism and Soviet agents were seen as evil, but had not heard this much opposition to how it was handled in the books. You did quite a lot of research.

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    1. Thanks Tracy. I didn't do much research, the book was just too one-sided.

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  4. Doesn't sound like my cup of tea either, Neer. I have one Helen MacInnes on my shelf, unread as yet.

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    1. It was a big disappointment, Peggy. Here I was thinking I am going to discover a wonderful new author but she didn't turn out to be any such thing. Still a lot of people like her so ... can't really say.

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  5. I haven't read this one and I most likely won't thanks to your warning, Neer. But don't write off Helen MacInnes, please. She did write a couple of really terrific books (well, more than a couple, actually): ASSIGNMENT IN BRITTANY (which I read recently and loved and recommend highly) and ABOVE SUSPICION (another one I loved and recommend highly).

    The McCarthy era was, indeed, a blot on our history. A terrible time which brought out the cowardice or heroism of the arts and political community.

    Playwrite Lillian Hellman in refusing to 'inform' on fellow writers: "I cannot and will not cut my conscience to fit this year's fashion."

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    1. Oh that Hellman quote is priceless, Yvette. Thanks so much for sharing it. If only all of us have this sort of courage.

      And if only MacInnes had shown the ambiguities, the dilemmas of the time rather than presenting everything in black-and-white.

      Since you have recommended her, I'll definitely look for ASSIGNMENT... and ABOVE SUSPICION.

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