Unlikely as it may seem, the novel cited by commentators from each side of politics as most relevant to the current US presidential contest is a bizarre spy thriller about brainwashing and incest that appeared more than half a century ago.
That sense of applicability requires some explanation.
A lurid tale of a Cold War conspiracy featuring mind manipulation and assassination, as well as sex between a mother and son, Richard Condon’s The Manchurian Candidate is an odd book that was written in strange times.
The novel was published in 1959 during the age of anxiety – as the era was dubbed by the poet W.H. Auden – when nuclear angst gripped America and fears of deep Communist infiltration could be exploited for populist political ends. It was a period when even the most outlandish popular science fiction projected fears of nuclear war and Communist infiltration in stories of extra-terrestrial alien invasion.
Condon’s book channelled the zeitgeist with enough persuasion to prompt a Hollywood adaptation directed by John Frankenheimer that premiered in 1962 with the star billing given to Frank Sinatra, Laurence Harvey and Janet Leigh. For a mainstream film of its time, the movie is fairly faithful to the text, though needless to say the incest aspect was not made explicit.
In our own age of self-directed terrorism, political fragmentation, social dislocation, endless spin and disinformation, and economic turmoil, perhaps we are reliving the nightmare of boundless suspicion and uncertainty. The Manchurian Candidate, not unlike the original James Bond novels by Ian Fleming, recreates the highly charged atmosphere of Cold War conflict in spy fiction notable for its grotesque villains, garish plots, horrific violence and overheated sex.
In Condon’s novel, a group of US soldiers is captured by the Chinese during the Korean War and taken to Manchuria. There, with the knowledge and approval of Communist ally the Soviet Union, the American captives are brainwashed into believing that one of them is a war hero who saved his comrades. The prisoners, their minds thus reprogrammed, are then released back to the Allies.
Awarded the Medal of Honor by Congress on the basis of the implanted memories, Sergeant Raymond Shaw, who is the member of a prominent political family, has been programmed by his Communist captors to assassinate prominent targets by remote command as a means of disrupting the political process and thus destabilising the West.
Because of his heroic status and family connections Shaw has the opportunity to get close to his targets and kill with impunity on behalf of the foreign enemy without remorse nor indeed any memory of what he does.
Shaw’s ruthlessly ambitious mother Eleanor is the wife of Senator Johnny Eslin, a prominent populist Republican senator and vice-presidential candidate whose career she is pushing. Iselin, who simply makes things up, is described as “a man who shall forever stand guard at the door of the mind to protect the people of this great nation from facts.”
It is only when one of Shaw’s former comrades, Marco, recovers from his brainwashing that the assassination plot is uncovered. Despite Eleanor’s apparent allegiance to the far right faction in Congress, she is in a fact a KGB agent and her son’s handler.
Shaw is awakened to his own role in the conspiracy by Marco, and proceeds to kills both his mother and her husband, who is his stepfather and thus despised by Shaw not least in purely personal terms. Tormented by oedipal self-loathing, Shaw, who by this stage actually has slept with Eleanor, then kills himself.
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