November 2011

Encounters

Shane Maloney and Chris Grosz

Morris West & Ngo Dinh Diem

Words: Shane Maloney | Illustration: Chris Grosz

It was 1963 and Morris West, Australia’s most successful novelist, was researching his next book. Dismissed by the literati as a middlebrow Graham Greene, the former Christian Brother had won a huge international readership for his religious thrillers – page-turning blockbusters that mixed political and ecclesiastical intrigue with big moral questions and topical world events.

For a Catholic writer with an eye for Catholic subjects, a novel set in South Vietnam must have been an irresistible temptation. Its president, Ngo Dinh Diem, was a pious Catholic of the mandarin class who owed his office to a rigged election, a vicious secret police, wholesale corruption and the military backing of the United States, itself ruled by a Catholic president. His nepotism, despotism and religious bias antagonised the Buddhist majority and fanned the communist insurrection.

West arrived in a country officially dedicated to the Virgin Mary where Buddhist monks were setting themselves alight in protest while the president’s Catholic sister-in-law applauded and called it a barbecue. The Viet Cong were gaining strength and an army coup was brewing, oiled by the CIA. Saigon was a sinister and cynical city, wrote West. He would come to look back on his time there with feelings of guilt and responsibility.

After conversations with a “prelate of episcopal rank” – probably Diem’s older brother, Ngo Dinh Thuc, the archbishop of Hue – West was introduced to Diem himself.

Short and roly-poly with glossy slicked-back hair, Ngo Dinh Diem was a smiling face in a white sharkskin suit. Puffing on a cigarette, he told the author of The Devil’s Advocate: “I want the Americans out.”

West felt like “the man carrying the bomb, but I couldn’t control the explosion”. He found Diem personally impressive but felt obliged, as a citizen of a country about to commit troops to South Vietnam, to report his remarks to the Australian ambassador, who immediately passed them to the Americans. A month later, the military arrested Diem at morning mass, tied his hands behind his back and shot him in the head, an event recorded as ‘accidental suicide’. John F Kennedy had okayed the operation.

West felt guilty that he had somehow contributed to Diem’s assassination. In The Ambassador he thinly fictionalised the events, framing his customary spiritual conflict in the disaster of US policy. By the time the novel appeared in 1965, Australia was conscripting troops for Vietnam. West joined the anti-war movement. It was, he said, “One of the things I’m proudest of in my life.”

Shane Maloney and Chris Grosz

Shane Maloney is a writer and the author of the award-winning Murray Whelan series of crime novels. His 'Encounters', illustrated by Chris Grosz, have been published in a collection, Australian Encounters.

Chris Grosz is a book illustrator, painter and political cartoonist. He has illustrated newspapers and magazines such as the Age, the Bulletin and Time.

Cover: November 2011

November 2011

From the front page

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In This Issue

Quarterly Essay 44, 'Man-Made World: Choosing between Progress and Planet', by Andrew Charlton, Black Inc., 142pp; $19.95

What we learned in Copenhagen

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The book of Paul

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'1Q84', Books 1, 2 and 3, By Haruki Murakami, Harvill Secker, 952pp; $39.95

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Dreamland

A journey through north-western NSW with Ivan Sen


More in Encounters

Words: Shane Maloney | Illustration: Chris Grosz

Rupert Murdoch & Kamahl

Mark Oliphant & J Robert Oppenheimer

John Monash & King George V

John Howard & Uri Geller


Read on

Image of Vincent van Gogh’s ‘Portrait of Joseph Roulin’

‘MoMA at NGV: 130 Years of Modern and Contemporary Art’

An eye candy–laden, educational treasure hunt of an exhibition

Image of Malcolm Turnbull and Peter Dutton

Turnbull fires back

Unlike Tony Abbott, Malcolm Turnbull never promised ‘no wrecking’

Image from ‘In Fabric’

Toronto International Film Festival 2018 (part one)

A British outlier and a British newcomer are among the stand-outs in the first part of the festival

Image from ‘Patrick Melrose’

Benedict Cumberbatch is perfect as the imperfect Patrick Melrose

The actor brings together his trademark raffishness and sardonic superiority in this searing miniseries


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