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International Socialism, June 1976


Bryan Rees

The Dream and the Destiny


From International Socialism (1st series), No.89, June 1976, p.24.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


The Dream and the Destiny
Alexander Cordell
Hodder & Stoughton, £3.95

This book has everything – a medical student (the hero/narrator) who is in love with a girl (his sister, but he doesn’t know it), and who is accidentally caught up in the Long March of 1934. In the course of the March, they discover their relationship and split up, but she is pregnant by him. Her new lover (who has tuberculosis) thinks the child is his. Our hero then falls in love with a girl who, despite a harelip, is still beautiful. Meanwhile the child is born, but his sister dies in childbirth; her new lover goes progressively mad and dies. The girl with the hare-lip nearly dies of black malaria on the March. But they make it to Yenan and live happily ever after.

Add to this sundry episodes of lust, debauchery, violence, disease, surgery in a field hospital, even an interview with Mao Tse-tung with his trousers down, picking lice out of the seams, and admitting that he wouldn’t have started the Long March if it hadn’t been necessary.

What do you get? One of the worst books it has been my misfortune to read.

For the pulp-fiction market – which is where this book will end up – anything goes, even revolutionary struggles. One day, even Lenin will be rehabilitated and will find himself staring out from station bookshops throughout the land. But it won’t have anything to do with the Russian Revolution – of that you can be certain. Alexander Cordell has tried to write about the situation around the Long March of 1934 from Juichin to Yenan, and I think he has failed.

To write a novel about people in a revolutionary situation – to see how their ideas of the situation and themselves develop, how they relate to their friends and the world around them, how they relate to their leaders – is probably one of the most difficult things to do. Difficult not to impose one’s own view of how the events should go, rather than relate why they go the one way and not the other; to convey the exhillarating uncertainty in the balance of forces; to rewrite, or invent what did not happen.

I do not think Cordell is re-writing history in order to defend Mao Tse-tung – he is not re-writing history, neither is he discussing via the characters the political questions which must have surrounded the march – apart from the token Political Commissar, there is little discussion of politics.

The book lacks uncertainty – when you read a book like Steinbeck’s In Dubious Battle or Sinclair’s The Jungle, you are there, sharing the doubts and passions of the characters. Nothing is certain, and it is marvellous, for it drives on to an equally marvellous certainty.

It is absent in this book; it makes it poor stuff and I don’t recommend it. But I might be wrong, so if you want to read it get it from the library it’s almost certain to be there.

NB: I have just typeset this review and also just finished reading the book, borrowed from Battersea library. And I enjoyed it. I think Bryan Rees’ outline of the book is a caricature. Once you’ve read Steinbeck, Sinclair and the other classic socialist authors, you’re hard-pressed to find new ones. The Dream and the Destiny is a good racy novel but at the same time has a lot of odd interesting facts and detail in it. It certainly says the Long March was a defeat and there are doubts and passions. I do a boring, manual, tiring job and find it difficult to read worthy, serious, political histories, but this book has aroused my interest in the Long March and the history of the Chinese Communist Party and I intend to try something more. If a book can do that I reckon it’s worth recommending.

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Last updated on 16.3.2008