Monday, March 12, 2007

Gore Vidal Speaks in Hong Kong

'You've got the hottest ticket in town,' Rosemary Sayer told the audience at HKU tonight.

Indeed, a chance to sit in a small lecture hall and listen to Gore Vidal was not to be missed, knowledge reinforced by the waiting list queue outside. Those of us who had the coveted ticket sat with rapt attention as former NSW Premier Bob Carr introduced the venerable American historian/novelist/humorist/raconteur.

Carr asked mostly general questions about US politics and history, letting Vidal tell us all about which presidents were sissy (Theodore Roosevelt), which ones were creative thinkers (John Quincy Adams), and which can't read or write (Dubya).

Interviewer Carr, actually a US Civil War buff (but you wouldn't know it from his questioning), sailed a very narrow vein of questioning, which got a big agonizing, prompting the kind of answers from Gore that we could simply read in his books.

I shot my hand up at the Q&A, which must have been a familiar move in the eyes of all my old HKU English profs. I was allowed to ask him to tell us about his meeting with Gorbachev, circa 1985. Vidal proceeded to wax on for a good 10 mins about that rather amazing moment in global politics, when the last Soviet premier gathered 700 international greats in arts & letters, no politicians, no journalists, and began with, "Chernobyl scared us." He simply asked for opinions over the next few days... what should the world do now, how to approach disarmament with the US, etc, and he listened. Next thing, Gorby offered a deal to Reagan, which he accepted without hesitation as the two of them sat, nearly alone, in... what would it have been... Helsinki? It apparently took the persistence of Nancy Reagan to circumvent a gang of neocon advisers who tried to rope the Prez back to their version of reality. Kind of a revelation. I feel safe in saying that all of us present felt in on a big scoop.

Shivers were to hit me twice. In the first instance, Vidal mentioned to us all something that Gorbachev told him, in fact a statement which I had also just heard from my Jordanian taxi driver on my way to the San Francisco airport. "They're sleepwalkers in Washington."

Sit with that a moment.

Vidal concluded with a mesmerizing image of Gorbachev himself, stopping to notice, on a misty day, hundreds of Russians, just common people, pausing at points along the river's edge, staring at it flow by. "I thought," he told Vidal, "that they were like sleepwalkers. When suddenly something is so large and their reaction is, I must be dreaming."

Vidal imparted a great respect for the man who was ready to change the Soviet Union. Ever a sharp observer, he complimented Gorbachev, saying, "He just watched these Muscovites. He was a very poetic man. That image was very beautiful."

Sad that Gorby was not given a chance, in the aftermath of the dissolution of the union, to do the careful work his citizenry needed. I suppose it's blown, now, with Putin sitting pretty in the G8, implicated in the killing of journalists and whistleblowers.

* * *

On a cheerful note, I want to say how wonderful it has been to see old friends here. Hong Kong U, my alma mater, where I ran into four old professors, had a chat with each one.

Poet and teacher extraordinaire Martin Alexander was there, and he gave me the surprise of the month: a copy of the spanking new Asian Literary Review, special issue for the HK International Literary Festival, containing a story of mine, Argon.

This makes an even four of my short stories published in this journal, including its earlier incarnation, Dimsum. I was amazed and a little humbled to find my work nestled in with that of Seamus Heaney, Christine Loh, and P.K. Leung. My dear friend Nury Vittachi, who finds time to edit the journal while masterminding the vastly amusing Feng Shui Detective dynasty, seems to always surprise me with these. It's usually, "oh, didn't I tell you? I love your story and it's in this edition."

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