M.L. Malcolm Interview
June 9, 2010
the author of Heart of Lies
It was a pleasure to interview M.L. Malcolm, author of Heart of Lies, on June 9, 2010. Heart of Lies is about a Hungarian Jew who flees to Shanghai between the World Wars.
What inspired you to write this story?
Over the years I collected many riveting anecdotes about how various members of my husband's family managed to escape the Nazis, one of whom had gone to Shanghai. I knew there was a book in there somewhere, but I didn't really want to write a WWII story, so I looked for a way to explore those experiences in a meaningful way within a different historical context. The events in Hungary after World War I struck me as a tragic precursor to the Holocaust, and my husband's grandfather was Hungarian, so I chose that period as my starting point. Then during my research I came across the Hungarian counterfeiting scandal, which was the perfect catalyst for Leo's escape; the timing also enabled me to write about Shanghai during its "golden age," another topic I'd been eager to write about ever since I visited the city 20 years ago.
Leo's background as a Hungarian Jew offers a change from novels exploring German anti-Semitism. What drove the anti-Semitism in Hungary?
Unfortunately the same forces that have driven anti-Semitism throughout history: economic disparity and the inexplicable need to find a scapegoat for misfortune. When WWI began Hungary had a thriving entrepreneurial class, largely made up of well-educated and highly-assimilated Hungarian Jews. The aristocracy retained its land and much of the political power, but the rest of the population had nothing. When the war ended Hungary fell into complete economic and social chaos: the perfect breeding ground for hatred. Soviet Russia capitalized on this mess by helping to set up a communist government led by a Hungarian of Jewish heritage. This regime used extreme violence to counter any resistance to its "reforms," and the whole disaster ended with a Romanian invasion. The Hungarian war hero Admiral Nicholas Horthy finally seized control, but some of his followers sought vengeance for the "red terror" and the empire's demise by slaughtering Jews, communist or not, along with others deemed "intellectuals." During this "white terror" they killed an estimated 5,000 people.
What made the authorities in Shanghai so relaxed about foreign visitors that even someone in trouble with the police could settle there with no questions asked?
Shanghai was too far away from everywhere else for the municipal authorities to keep up with who was wanted for what and where, a problem aggravated by the fact that no single government was in charge. Moreover, stricter entry requirements would only hamper the international mobility that helped feed Shanghai's lucrative economy. It was the ultimate "laissez-faire" society.
Review of Heart of Lies by M.L. Malcolm
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