A box-car full of imperial gold; ragged armies riding across the steppes; adventurers of the world joining lost causes.
Sometimes there’s no need for fiction, because truth is so fantastic.
For tales of adventure and excitement, great upheavals overturning established orders, the extremes of human nature for good and evil, and different cultures being thrown together, it’s difficult to think of a more profound time than Asia in the early 20th century, particularly the 1920s and 1930s.
Over the years, I’ve been accumulating a small library of memoirs by people who experienced the Russian Revolution and the Russian Civil War; books by foreigners who were in China and Central Asia during the same period, during the Warlord era, and during the early years of Japanese expansionism.
I find these books mouldering away in second-hand bookshops in various places. Their authors are often long-forgotten – footnotes in official histories, if they ever rose out of obscurity in the first place. Some of them are politicians; others connected to the British Raj, exploring what was happening on the other side of the Himalayas or the Pamirs. Others were businessmen, refugees, or chancers chasing a dream in the hungry days of the Great Depression.
Many of these writers wound up interacting with famous names of the day, but their books also contain glancing references to some of history’s minor players – character actors in the grand drama of history, if you will – who leave the reader wondering…. Just who was that? Why were they there, and what happened to them afterwards? It’s usually impossible to answer these questions.
For example, I have one book by a Swedish writer. Originally in China as an engineer building railways, he became an expert in Chinese antiques – due to the number of archaeological sites disturbed by the construction work. Later, back in Sweden, he was appointed as an expert to the national museums, and sent back to China to find material for their collections. Sometimes wealthy, sometimes in rags, he travelled around all parts of China. Possibly for his own safety, he’s often vague about names and dates in the stories he tells. In one, he becomes the – partly unwilling – guest of an anonymous warlord. At first he is almost killed, being suspected as a Bolshevik spy. He’s saved by the intervention of an Irish pilot, the head of the warlord’s small air force; the Irishman and the Swede had met on a previous occasion, a raucous drinking session in Shanghai’s Long Bar. The Irishman plays an important role in the anecdote that follows, and we learn a lot about his wild, romantic nature. But who was he? I’ve done a lot of Googling, enough to work out who I think the warlord might have been – but the Irishman? Not a single lead.
That place and that time are fascinating because so many epic events in different places were crashing into one another. The Russian Revolution and the Civil War may seem to be completely separate from what was happening in Shanghai and Beijing at the same time – but Comintern organisers were everywhere in China, and the Bolsheviks helped to organise the Guomindang, before being massacred in Shanghai by Triads in league with Chiang Kai-Shek. Events in Xinjiang took a different course because of White armies that took refuge there; Ungern-Sternberg’s White cavalry drove the Chinese out of Mongolia, being defeated in turn by Red armies invited in by Mongolian revolutionaries. The closing of Mongolia forced the camel trains between Central Asia and Beijing into new routes, as recorded by Owen Lattimore.
I find all this utterly fascinating. I’m moved to write about it after discovering a fictional account that shows the complexity of the time, and the way quite disparate interests were brought together – and into conflict. It’s Corto Maltese in Siberia, an animated film. It’s based on a cartoon character, the eponymous Corto Maltese, created by Hugo Pratt – despite his name, an Italian. Here’s someone else who had a very, very interesting life.
I’d encountered Corto Maltese before. A glowing article in a magazine – possibly Monocle – led me to buy the first book in the series: The Ballad of the Salt Sea. I enjoyed it. The characters, their motives, and their interactions were complex, and a lot was left for the reader to work out. However, it was set in a time and place – 1920s Micronesia – that, although interesting, doesn’t really appeal to my interests so, after finishing it, I didn’t feel that I wanted to read more. However, last week, I came across a reference to further stories having ventured into China and Russia – that sounded more my thing, so I followed up the reference. It turned out that Corto Maltese in Siberia featured Maltese, in league with a Chinese secret society, meeting Ataman Semenov and Baron Ungern-Sternberg, in pursuit of the Tsarist gold reserve – taken into Siberia by Admiral Kolchak, and missing since his betrayal by the Czechoslovak Legion… Well, now I was definitely interested! It turns out this the story was turned into an animated film, which can be found on YouTube. This really needs to be made into a movie…
It’s in French, subtitled in English. Because of YouTube’s length restrictions, it’s been split into ten parts. Here’s the first part, and you can then follow the links on YouTube to watch the rest.