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

Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews

Locking back down

Victoria’s woes are a warning for the whole country

Illustration by Jeff Fisher

Weal of fortune

Rebuilding the economy means government investment, but not all public spending is equal

Image of Labor’s Kristy McBain and Anthony Albanese

A win’s a win

The Eden-Monaro result shows that Morrison’s popularity has not substantially changed voting patterns – and Labor has still not cut through

The man inside and the inside man

Crime, punishment and indemnities in western Sydney’s gang wars


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

Greatness may be calling: Bob Hawke and Paul Keating in 1990. © Peter Morris/Fairfax Syndication

The book of Paul

Lessons in leadership and Paul Keating

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

‘1Q84’ books 1, 2 and 3 by Haruki Murakami

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 Labor’s Kristy McBain and Anthony Albanese

A win’s a win

The Eden-Monaro result shows that Morrison’s popularity has not substantially changed voting patterns – and Labor has still not cut through

Image of Patrick Allington's ‘Rise & Shine’

Shelf pity: ‘Rise & Shine’

Patrick Allington’s fable of a world in which perpetual war is staged to fuel compassion is too straightforward for its ambitions

Image of then treasurer Scott Morrison handing Barnaby Joyce a lump of coal during Question Time, February 9, 2017.

Coal cursed

The fossil-fuel lobby could not have created the climate wars so easily without the preceding culture wars

Image of library shelves

Learning difficulties

The Coalition’s political agenda is a gross infringement on academic freedom


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