Martin Alexander

From the Editor - November 2012



It is not power that corrupts but fear. Fear of losing power corrupts those who wield it and fear of the scourge of power corrupts those who are subject to it.

Aung San Suu Kyi, Freedom from Fear



Corruption, though our cover may suggest otherwise, is no laughing matter – at least not for its victims. Harry Harrison’s cartoon exposes the grinning faces of those in power who benefit from corruption, but between these covers we offer a glimpse of the incalculable damage it causes across our region. Zhang Bingjian’s expanding collection of portraits (‘The Colour of Money’) showcases the number officials convicted in China, and we are introduced elsewhere to countless victims and the circumstances that force them into complicity.

Those who benefit seem to enjoy increasing impunity and are even admired as role models. Is corruption now the exception? Or the rule?

Several of our writers differentiate between individual and systemic corruption. Every society has its criminal elements, but when institutional corruption dominates, many of those who would otherwise be inclined to abide by the law may cease to respect it. In the worst cases, we are reminded of what Sir Hersch Lauterpacht described in his opening speech to the Nuremburg Tribunal in 1945 as: ‘dictators and gangsters masquerading as a state’.

We explore these issues in their different manifestations across Asia, but it’s not all grim reading. Some of our poets convey a yearning for the ideal, and a tender sense of that imperceptible transition from the simplicity of innocence to the complexity of experience. The ideal of unimpeachable integrity is essential to the way we define our humanity and measure the depths of our corruption.

But vice is often more interesting than virtue: we open this issue with John Burdett’s long-lunching lawyer, meet a priest whose forensic skills uncover a macabre – and thankfully fictional – series of murders, follow an inexperienced but keen Taiwanese detective, and see Tokyo’s seedy nightlife through the eyes of immigrant Nigerian touts surviving on their wits.

The thin end of criminality’s wedge affects us all. As our contributor Dilip D’Souza suggests, few of us have never broken a law. Sometimes, otherwise minor transgressions can turn into a nightmare, as it did for Paco Larrañaga, the subject of Michael Collins’s award-winning documentary, Give Up Tomorrow.

The makers of the film recorded hundreds of hours of footage; however, the shape of the documentary didn’t emerge until late in the process. We’ve had a similar experience. We invited writers to tell us about crime and corruption and asked them not to pull any punches. Several shied away, often to avoid compromising their positions; others delivered complex and compelling commentary. At least one has written under an assumed name.

On page 50 we welcome our first Bhutanese writer, Gopilal Acharya, who was longlisted for the 2009 Man Asian Prize for Literature. We also include an interview with Jeet Thayil, whose poetry we feature and whose debut novel, Narcopolis, was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize this year. As we go to press, his inclusion on the longlist for the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature has been announced.


On a final and very different note, this issue concludes with a tribute to the late Gore Vidal, an old friend of our publisher, Ilyas Khan. Vidal encouraged him to bring Asian voices to the attention of Western audiences, and was one of the first subscribers to the Asia Literary Review.


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