Not many first-time novelists can boast a Nobel Prize winner as a mentor. But then again, Patrick Allington – who was mentored by J.M. Coetzee in the early stages of writing Figurehead – has not written your average debut novel. Instead of the fairly routine practice of drawing on life experience for his first outing, this writer has drawn on history, creating what he calls ‘an absurdist version’.
Figurehead is a tightly crafted, sharply satirical novel about questions of culpability, responsibility and idealism as played out in Pol Pot’s Cambodia and the decades that followed. Australian journalist Ted Whittlemore is famous for reporting on the war in Vietnam from the side of the North Vietnamese. In the late 1960s, he lives in Phnom Penh, where he is friendly with both the Communist insurgents (who will become the Khmer Rouge) and Cambodian leader Prince Sihanouk. In 1967, he saves the life of future Khmer Rouge leader Nhem Kiry, later to become Pol Pot’s right-hand man. The novel follows the machinations and trajectories of both Whittlemore and Khiry, two flawed idealists who both influence and are influenced by history.
‘I was interested in the passage of time and the way that moments in history and particular decisions and particular events have reverberating effects in the years and decades that follow,’ says Allington.
The two main characters borrow liberally from real-life historical counterparts who Allington used as ‘starting templates’. Nhem Kiry was inspired by Pol Pot’s right-hand man, Khieu Samphan; Ted Whittlemore by controversial Australian journalist Wilfred Burchett, often accused of being a Communist ‘agent of influence’. Other historical characters, like Sihanouk, Henry Kissinger, Pol Pot and Fidel Castro are similarly drawn from the historical record, but fleshed out with positively gleeful fictional licence.
Allington is careful to point out that he uses these historical events and people (‘fictional creations’) as a starting point to tell a story and explore his central ideas, rather than the other way round. Readers curious about Pol Pot’s Cambodia, its aftermath and the Cold War politics of the 1960s and 1970s will still find plenty of historical detail to enlighten and entertain. Allington may wear his knowledge about the period and its main players lightly, and have a great deal of fun with the facts, but the book – which took approximately four years to write – is steeped in evocative detail and sharply telling observations that obviously stem from a rigorous grounding in the subject. His unconventional, yet successful, approach calls to mind the adage about knowing the rules in order to break them.
Figurehead is mostly set in the years leading up to the Pol Pot regime (1975-79) and the years that follow, with very sparse reflections on the four years that represent ‘one of the most truly horrific regimes of the century’. The absence of those years is especially chilling – what the reader imagines took place is more effective than any necessarily brief telling could be. ‘It’s a representation, I guess, of what happened in the West in terms of what people imagined was happening in Cambodia. There was a great silence and almost a blanket over Cambodia during that time … It wasn’t really until early 1979, when the Vietnamese invaded, that the full extent of the horrors became known to the general public. I wanted to convey something of that – of not knowing, but also of us being more collectively at ease with not knowing.’
That kind of self-delusion is a strong theme throughout. The main characters have idealised versions of themselves that uneasily contrast with reality. Khiry and Whittlemore have inflated ideas of their own importance on the world stage, married with heightened ideas about their responsibilities to world affairs – and the necessary compromises they feel licensed to make in order to influence world events in ways they see as positive. Allington was keen to explore ‘that sense of the disconnect between an individual’s ideals and how they imagine the world might work – and what their impact on the world might be’.
Does Allington think that all ideals are dangerous when they’re followed too literally, without being balanced with other considerations and looking at how the world really is? ‘Idealism is a double-edged sword. Momentum and the possibilities for positive change come out of people pursuing new ideas and engaging in acts of dissent that are designed to rupture the status quo. But these things can develop their own momentum – and nothing works in practice as well as it might appear to work in theory. Self-perception can take on a more insidious perspective, where there isn’t the ability to take a step back, to look at the big picture critically, as well as idealistically.’
Nhem Kiry, who becomes ‘the acceptable face of the Khmer Rouge’ after the collapse of the regime, is ‘ideology in its purest form gone horribly wrong’, says Allington. In our earliest encounter with Khiry, his ‘mouth turn[s] dry’ at the thought of the Cambodian military beating the peasants. Post-1975, he coolly reflects on the importance of grooming and manners on the world stage: ‘You can’t leave anything to chance … when you’re selling a million and a half dead people.’
Allington made ‘extensive use’ of Wilfred Burchett’s life and writings in creating Ted Whittlemore. He was particularly interested in the ongoing ‘passionate’ debate about whether Burchett (who, like Whittlemore, was a committed socialist and reported from the North Vietnamese side of the war) was a journalist, an agent of influence or both. This question is teased out in the character of Whittlemore, who we see actively participating in world events – like saving Khiry, an act he bitterly regrets later, and playing matchmaker between Sihanouk and the Khmer Rouge – and doctoring his columns to serve his view of those events. ‘He’s partly of the view that the whole world is peddling their own perspective and having it masquerade as truth and that it’s important to do that for all sides. He’s got a view of history and of day-to-day current affairs that gives him justification in his own mind for this approach and allows him to see himself as a legitimate journalist. As far as he sees it, he’s not doing anything different to anyone else, he’s just coming at it from a different angle.’
Allington himself has some sympathy with the kind of advocacy journalism epitomised by Whittlemore (and Burchett) at his best – though he draws the line at deliberate deception. ‘There is a lot of journalism that has this facade of objectivity and you don’t have to search very hard beneath the surface to see that objectivity is feigned or loose or at the very least, limited … It’s something that I think we as readers push upon them and expect of them. But the reality is that everyone who writes must have their own views.’
He believes that journalists who are granted the freedom to push an argument are in some ways both more truthful – and able to delve deeper into the issues they explore. ‘It doesn’t become a matter of taking the fixed facts in a story and considering them to be facts that we’ve all learned, but rather, engaging directly with the journalist and forming our own views about whether we agree with what they’re saying. Ultimately, that’s a much more productive way of collectively getting our heads around issues. And a lot more realistic. Because we know that we don’t all agree on things. And the idea that we need to is itself a little bit ludicrous.’