Asa Baber reads from and discusses his book "Land of a Million Elephants"
BROADCAST: Jun. 8, 1970 | DURATION: 00:53:02
Having spent time as a Marine in southeast Asia and his military experience became material for Asa Baber's first book, "Land of a Million Elephants". Baber also talks about how he formulated his book. "Writing is music. Writing is jazz," said Baber. He didn't believe writing was about concepts and structure.
Tap within the transcript to jump to that part of the audio.
Asa Baber "Try this; a jungle dawn, see? The night sky dying and monkeys calling; the birds get ready for heat. Smoke, river mists, low clouds on the hills. The charcoal porters walk the trails. Out of the brush comes one Khong riding his elephant. Tall grass falls under the slow shifting weight. Da-dum da-dah, you expect to hear trumpeted. Into the circle he rides, beast kneels, dismounted is one Khong. Not a word. He waits. A tall girl has bathed in the stream. She comes back up the hill with her hair dripping. She is naked to the waist and the water oils her skin. She faces the rising sun and combs her hair with an elephant comb, and her face has the look of seeing nothing."
Studs Terkel Asa Baber is reading the opening passages of his book, a very beautiful, a delightful, in a way a tragically prophetic book, yet hilarious, too, as life is, as stupidity is, and as hope is. It's called "The Land of a Million Elephants." William Morrow the publishers, and the opening music, even though the opening music is Vietnamese, it could be Cambodian, and Asa Baber's book is about the mythical land of Chanda. Where is Chanda?
Asa Baber Chanda is somewhere in Southeast Asia. Most of Southeast Asia. It could be Laos or Cambodia or Vietnam. Any of those.
Studs Terkel We should talk -- really it shouldn't be so much talk as reading from the book, because it makes for very good out loud reading. Perhaps you might ask, or I'll ask Asa Baber himself how he came to write this book, that has a sort of style to it. It makes you think a little of "Catch-22." At the same time it isn't. A little of Kurt Vonnegut's, at the same time it isn't. Asa Baber. You were with the Marines.
Asa Baber Right. I was in the Marines for three years, from '58 to '61, and in 1961 during the Laos flap, I spent a very brief time in Southeast Asia and had my eyes opened as to what kinds of operations and manipulations we were engaged in there. It was a sort of loss of virginity. I guess I'd call it a loss of political virginity. And I wrestled with this when I got out of the Marines. I came back, went to Northwestern grad school for a while, and I didn't -- I wanted to talk to people about that war, and I didn't know how to do it. And it's rather amusing as I look back on my own ignorance and my own posing. I, I began to try to catch people's interest in what we were doing over there by sort of trying to tell war stories, not always true, and say, "You know, this is the way it is, man." And that didn't get much response, because people have heard a lot of war stories and they do get tired of them. As the years went on and the war got worse and my prognostications, at least in my opinion were confirmed time and time again as I think they've been confirmed with the Cambodian situation of this year, I found myself wanting to write about it, and I tried. And so I began to write to tell sort of Hemingway tales. You know, ambushes. The first time I used Buon Kong as a character, he was a government driver driving some people up to the Plein de Sha, which I manipulate around something else here. And finally, finally after years of struggling with it, I realized I was taking myself too seriously. I realized that melodrama in connection with this war does not give the, the zoo-like absurdity of everything we're doing over there, and I stumbled through my own reading and through help from people in the Iowa Writers Workshop into this form.
Studs Terkel And the form also has -- there's a lyrical form, but also your knowledge, too, of a certain culture. Well, you're reading also about about South East Asian cultures, too.
Asa Baber Absolutely. I was reading as much as I could and also I was experiencing, I spent three years in the Middle East, and I think that Buon Kong is as much a Hoji character, sort of Middle Eastern wise man, and some of his stories are very definitely from that as well as from Southeast Asia.
Studs Terkel The very opening two words of the book itself, there's a poem preceding it of Asa Baber is "Try this, and I say try this." And here [he says?], the history of Chanda is happy and sad. "When the great god Khang came out of the sky and chose his living place many thousands of years ago, he settled in what was to become Chanda. He loved the trees and rivers and hills. He mated with a sea serpent and they had four sons. Three of the sons were OK guys. The fourth was a real [makes an odd sound - in the book it says, "was a real shit"]. His name was Yak. He was short and ugly and his mother dressed him funny. For 10 or 12 centuries, everything went pretty well. Khang had his way when he wanted it. He ruled the world and the boys played together in the great outdoors while their mother baked papaya trees and buffaloes for fancy dinners. Then one day Yak killed his father. He did it very sneakily and by the light of a new moon. No one saw him do it. He simply came home, announced that from that day forward he was the grandest son of the jungle, and since the other three sons were spiritual innocents, and since the mother was too old by now to fight it, Yak had his victory. Yak was a bad king. He loved to fight and he started wars and other conflagrations for his own amusement. It was Buon Kong's opinion that Yak still lives. That is, his phi, P-H-I, his phi does in the hearts of many men today. It is Roger Blake's opinion that there's no such thing as a phi. This is why Roger Blake left his parish and came to Chanda. He wanted to destroy ignorant superstitions." And so we have a dry humor of Asa Baber. So let's dwell on this for a moment.
Asa Baber Okay.
Studs Terkel So we have Chanda, the kingdom that could be, you know, you know as as [Ballby? Bowlby?] says in "American Dream," [I don't know what Studs is referring to here -- the novel by Mailer or another "American Dream"] "there's a boy like you and an old woman like her," so this could be like Cambodia. Chanda.
Asa Baber It sure could, and in many ways it's what I had in mind. What I really thought of was Laos, because that's where most of my reading had focused and where some of my experience had focused, but Cambodia would fit just as well, and there's no doubt about it.
Studs Terkel So we talk of the mythical, this legend and Yak, the bad guy came, his phi is his spirit. What's a phi?
Asa Baber Well, the phi are in Southeast Asian religions are spirits, ghosts, ancestors. They are in the rocks and the rivers and the trees, they're and people. Every person has a number of phi or souls and they symbolize if you want to, if we have to, I can't think of another word, the the more independent and lethargic and licentious spirit of man.
Studs Terkel And so the phi is also, there's the evil phi of Yak, Yak is this [phi-ful? feeble?] guy years ago, and you're saying that phi's around pretty much today.
Asa Baber Yes. I'm saying that it definitely is and it falls into my -- I don't want to turn propagandist here, but part of the thing that I was thinking of as I wrote this, and as I became more and more discouraged with those people who get power, was this vital question that a lot of us are facing today. Why are there kings like Yak? And why do people who have power seem to use it so aggressively and badly? And I've really come to the conclusion myself right now that years from now, as Astrov likes to say in Chekhov, years from now, 200 years from now if we're still around, that is if our phi are and the world is, the psychological urge for power will be a little bit better understood, and there will be big silent rooms like the one we're taping in, and anybody who wants power will be put in these rooms, and they'll be given maps and overlays and grids and radios and airplanes and everything and people will say, "Go, do your thing. Have your wars and everything." And that's, and they'll let them stay in these rooms and they'll feed them every once in a while and they'll keep them out of our way.
Studs Terkel You're also about power and competition for power, and one of the aspects of many of the young is that there's a lack of this competitive
Asa Baber They don't buy it, and they are chastised for it, they don't fall into the into the routine. There is, and I -- I do not think that, by the way I'm not trying to say that I personally am like this, because I'm I'll be 34 this month. I was bred in the sort of aggressive Midwestern Chicago muscle steel thing, the Marine Corps I think is a reflection of that kind of mentality. And even now I'm, I'm very feisty at times, and I, I I do still fight. I'm not a pacifist completely. But the real thing that I see happening among the young, at least the number I've -- I'm teaching in, I've been teaching in universities for a few years now, is that they are not buying the the the competitive thing.
Studs Terkel How did you before we read more and you should read some, maybe the sayings of Buon Kong and also about our friendly missionary trying to reach Charlie Dog with his Christianity. How did you, here you were a Marine. As you say traditionally aggressive, competitive background that so many of us are part of, how
Studs Terkel How'd the window open?
Asa Baber I suppose the window opened first in a very personal fashion. I found my own aggressiveness was tearing me up. My first session at Quantico, Virginia when I was in OCS was a rather frightening thing. We were -- some 200 of us were in a very hot auditorium and a colonel came in to talk to us and everybody yelled "Attention" and we stood up straight as ramrods, and his theme was, "Don't let anybody push you out of elevators. In other words, when you see an elevator and you want to go into that elevator, don't let somebody shove you aside, don't let them kick sand in your face. You go into that elevator." And that struck me as kind of a funny thing to say. And it strikes me as even a funnier thing to say now, because there are just a lot of people waiting for elevators including women and children and some very kind people, and maybe we can't run on that ethic anymore, so that the window opened first because I couldn't live with the ethic myself. Second, it opened because the young and I guess I can use that phrase now at my age, they've educated me. By staying and teaching and by staying with what people call the longhairs, the dropouts and the freaks and the kooks, I've learned and I've changed that way. It's sort of like that Crosby Stills and Nash song where they end up saying, "Children, teach your parents." [sic - The line is "Teach your
Studs Terkel So, that was the beginning. And then of course your adventures again with quotes about it, your adventures as a Marine in Southeast Asia.
Asa Baber Right.
Studs Terkel And out of it came this book. It's in pieces it seems, and yet it's all of one piece, it builds. Here we are in Chanda and you find American military people as well as a Soviet agent there, as well as a man of all countries, Andreas the operator, a Levantine Greek Middle East. Everything's going on there. But here's this nice gentle culture in which all these aliens come to take over.
Asa Baber Right. Which is the nature of I guess any colonialism and it's very definitely I think the nature of the of the American influence in Southeast Asia. The Laotian Cambodian mind does not have much room for aggressiveness. There are too many other things to do and too much fun to have. And this is what, what I was, you want me to read some of the sayings?
Studs Terkel Why not just be -- who is Buon Kong? You see, the hero of the book really, the wise man hero is someone named Buon Kong.
Asa Baber Right. Buon Kong is, as it says somewhere in the book, nobody really knows where he comes from. He's he's a head. He's an opium smoker. Some people say that if you want to hear him tell a story, you've got to buy him a pipe. That hasn't been confirmed. He's an old man filled with what I think is wisdom. What I think some of my more critical colleagues will call cornpone, and he has some sayings here, I'll read a few of them. In the fashion of the book they aren't woven in artistically, they're just listed. And maybe we can talk a little bit about that kind of writing in a while. Here are some of the sayings of Buon Kong: "To judge an elephant, you must look at its tail and tusks. To judge a woman, you must look at her mother." "Believe with only one ear." "Wars will not cease until we refuse to be vultures just because we are told we are vultures." "Eat when food is hot, dance when you can, drink enough to forget. As for my pipes, well." "The voice of the poor man is no louder than the call of the sparrow under a buffalo's foot." "White is a stain on black." "The tiger is more honest than man, for the tiger's stripes are outside." "A man can find any number of drinking companions and table companions and fishing companions; he will be hard pressed to find a death companion." "If work was the source of all property, this would be a different world." And the last one: "When you are told that a policy of war is in your best interest, you should answer that when buffaloes fight, it is the grass that suffers."
Studs Terkel Asa Baber, who is a young Western man, teacher, former military man, and these sayings seem of another culture. Are these those you in -- did you find some of these?
Asa Baber Sure. Sure I did. I found some of these in various -- the last one, when you know, when buffaloes fight it's the grass that suffers, is I think even the title of one history book on Southeast Asia. Anyone who's been in the area knows some of these sayings and is familiar with them, and then some of them I did invent. It's a mixture, it's sort of like at the beginning of -- I'm not trying to flatter you here, at the beginning of "Hard Times" you start talking about, you know, well, what is truth and what is fact? And we come to the point where sometimes I don't even know.
Studs Terkel Yeah. Of course, that's the beautiful -- that's the very exciting part of it, too. Asa Baber guest and these sayings, well one of course hits me, the last one he mentioned. And of course each one can find his favorites here, but the one and this is what it's all about really, wars will not cease until we refuse to be vultures just because we're told we're vultures. And here we go again with some of the popular pseudo-anthropologists and the aggressive nature of man, and wars will always be someone says man aggres-- who said? And then we go into that again, don't
Asa Baber Yeah, we do. We go into, into into why am I such a mean person and that's because my government tells me so. And I think that if enough people like Lorenz on aggression, some of the more scientific minds can go into the nature of man, we really might learn a lot and destroy some of these political cliches that we've been struggling with for thousands of years.
Studs Terkel Lorenz himself has been misused by others, Ardrey did misuse Lorenz. Not that Lorenz isn't a great man becomes to the members of the subhuman world as he is.
Asa Baber Right.
Studs Terkel Or I shouldn't say subhuman world, you can't use that word anymore, "subhuman world," the non-human world because
Asa Baber That there's a judgment!
Studs Terkel It just occurred to me now, subhuman, oh, my -- who,
Asa Baber Who's feeling superior here?
Studs Terkel [Assume?] what we're doing. But isn't that funny, there's my cliche, my stereotype. The form. Asa Baber, the form. The form itself.
Asa Baber The form as you were trying to explain was, and is fragmented. Short chapters sometimes hardly connected it seems. And this of course is in the tradition of a lot of our humorists, and that is our literary humorists, and I think that obviously it's derivative of Vonnegut. It has something to do with Nathanael West and Twain and Heller and I mean, we're all of us trying to tell some kind of humorous story among other things. Get involved with how do you keep momentum going? How do you keep pace going? And you don't do it by taking 10 pages to describe somebody going up the staircase. This is for the melodramatists, you know. And I think we retreat more and more to the -- what? "Laugh-In" maybe. The blip. The quick thing. And the thing that does not wear the patience of modern man. I don't know if if many of us have time to read great heavy long books, and I really don't think I have time to write 'em. So that's part of the reason for the form and the other part of the thing that that has always bugged me and the reason why I for example just list sayings rather than try to work them into some kind of artifact is my belief, and it's a solitary one I think, at least in the field in which I work, that you have to stay primitive. That writing is jazz, writing is music, writing is not conceptualization and structure and the finer things of intellectual life. Writing is like balling [Sixties' slang for sexual intercourse], if I can say that on a -- writing is a, is a thing out of your nerves and guts as much as it or maybe more than out of your intellect and what I've done in my Ivy League years and my Writers Workshop years, graduate, has just stayed ignorantly defiantly primitive and it's got me in a lot of trouble and it's gotten a lot of people mad at me, but it's fun, too.
Studs Terkel Well, of course, as Asa Baber is talking, it's my language. It's my favorite kind of talk, too. I know there will be the accusations sometimes by some, this accusation made by senior faculty members sometimes of young
Asa Baber And some junior ones.
Studs Terkel Students, too, that anti-intellectualism, isn't that at all. It's there's a gut writing as well as a head writing. I mean head, small "h" in this case. That it's both, that there should be a fusion of as I like where the book and the street or of the mind and the phi.
Asa Baber Right.
Studs Terkel Of both, and but also something you said earlier, jazz, you see. There's a sort of almost a sudden astonishing nature, too, as jazz does, the improvisation, the air of improvisation and yet at the same that there is a beginning, a middle and an end.
Asa Baber Yeah, there is, but this is also and I probably shouldn't say this, because it may really be held against me. This book is one writing. That is, it's not a heavily rewritten, worked-over thing. This is the way it was written. It is improvisation. I've done -- I used to play the drums, I know the jazz scene fairly well and now the rock scene, and I've done a lot of acting, and improvisation to me is what makes it and not this studied, more solid kind of thing.
Studs Terkel Well, this is interesting. All these then are factors in your writing.
Studs Terkel Not just in, as far as the -- as far as the content is concerned only, but also the actual feel, the flavor, the form.
Asa Baber I think I spend more time listening to music than I do reading. There's no doubt about it. And music has always been as central to my life as anything else. And so sure, this is part of it. This is part of what's going on.
Studs Terkel So as we hear all these -- for the want of a better word at the moment, essences that are coming at you, Buon Kong sayings, the nature of the people, the life that was there. You describe some of the crops, the food you list. We have as against this certain military guys. And here's a guy named Kelly, Colonel Kelly and Lieutenant Goodfellow. And here's Kelly. He doesn't quite know what the hell he's doing there, does he?
Asa Baber No, he's trying hard, but he doesn't really understand quite what's going on. He's a very busy man. He has a lot of things going for his -- he's industrious, as so many people in the military are industrious, and I respect that. I mean I'm not trying to say that he doesn't have energy, but what I hope he is is as a character is sort of living proof at least in my mind that military solutions don't always work.
Studs Terkel But he's also -- there's a crazy nutty kind of Parkinson's Law at work here. He's doing many things. He doesn't know what he's doing, a lot of paperwork involved here.
Studs Terkel A lot of heavy thinking. You know. He reminded -- Lieutenant Goodfellow came to join him. Kelly -- Lieutenant Goodfellow always wanted to do the right thing. He was eager, industrious, square. He'd been raised secure in the glow of educational institutions. His moral outlook could be described best as American modern, realizing as you must this term covers many viewpoints, but could probably be said to center speaking analogies as lying somewhere between courthouse square and the high school football field. And then Lieutenant Goodfellow didn't think he wanted to make a military career, but he wasn't sure of that. He reminded Colonel Kelly that in the Colonel's nightly [wonderings? wanderings?] he'd forgotten to compute wind direction and velocity. I guess Kelly here was talking about
Asa Baber Kelly had -- Kelly was interested in the possibilities of using nuclear weapons in Chanda. I guess there are some other people interested in that now, but Kelly was one of the first, and every night Kelly would take out -- this was very late, when nobody could see him. He'd unlock his special safe where he kept all his atomic calculations, and he'd sit down and try to figure out "Well, if I have a nuclear blast here over the plane of elephants, and the wind" -- you know, "The temperature is this and so forth," what'll happen. And Goodfellow came along to remind Kelly that Kelly had forgotten one little item that made some difference: namely wind direction and velocity. And Kelly took that advice as most senior officers do with a very tight grin.
Studs Terkel "Atomic-wise," said Lieutenant Goodfellow. "It's an ill wind that blows nobody good." So atomic-wise, so this of course there's you're talking about mad, you're talking about insanity here.
Asa Baber I'm talking about the kind of insanity that is going I suspect this very minute in many capitals because most people don't realize -- can I go into this for a minute?
Asa Baber Most people don't realize that -- the general public considers nuclear weapons to be apocalyptic. That is, the end of the world is near if we use them. There is almost no political leader or military leader who believes that, and I have had some training in what they call ABC school, Atomic Biological Chemical Warfare School, and what you do, Studs, is you sit down, and you get a map of say the United States, and you place your target grid over Cleveland, and you say given this wind direction and this temperature and so forth, and you drop a 10,000 kiloton bomb at the height of 100,000 feet, absurd numbers there, will you get Chicago? And under certain conditions you will get Chicago, and another, under other conditions you'll go to, the, the fallout will carry to New York in the blast and so on. Now, the problem is that nuclear weapons will eventually be used. There is, there is no doubt in my mind that they're are going to be used in Vietnam as soon as our troop levels are low and we need nuclear weapons to hope -- in certain tactical situations. And this is exactly what Colonel Kelly was involved in. Every person who has the responsibility for it, for terrain has to at least have the computations for nuclear capability.
Studs Terkel Of course, this is -- as Asa Baber is talking, all of us know he's right. And of course we're terrified, and this is the madness of it, isn't it?
Asa Baber Yeah,
Studs Terkel The guys who do this work, the Kellys, who are utterly mad, are doing it as a matter of form. This is what you do.
Asa Baber The real problem I think is that they are utterly mad but they are taken as examples of virtue and industry and and correctness. They are the men in our society, and this is the problem.
Studs Terkel Our guest is Asa Baber, author of the novel, a rather fascinating one, too, "Land of a Million Elephants." We'll return in a moment to our guest after a word from our sponsors. [pause in recording] We return to our guest Asa Baber, author of the novel, the strange and wondrous novel, "The Land of a Million Elephants" published by William Morrow. Something you said earlier, another dimension you said is equivalent that of many veterans coming back. They're talking about something else that they [seem?] can't, can't seem to register with civilians here.
Asa Baber They can't, and this is -- this is an experience that I suppose by now hundreds of thousands of men have gone through, the propaganda that we are now subjected to, where we get letters from soldiers who say, "Gee, I'm glad we're over here" in some way. No doubt the letters are valid in some ways, but I think at least from what I know of people returning, there is a tremendously realistic appraisal of what's happening over there now by the people who've been there who have no stake in it, that is, just the men, the the the grunt, the the kid of 19 who comes out of South Chicago and doesn't know anything else and finds himself in Saigon and then in the boonies. He's not fooled, and he's not, he does not assume he's superior, and right now for the most part those guys are just trying to stay out of trouble from from what I know of it there.
Studs Terkel And yet there has been the effect, has it not, I mean the idea of being superior, you know, the references. We think of My Lai of course and how it happened and how the other My Lais when the reference is made to the slope-heads and the gooks.
Asa Baber Yeah, I think you got me there. I suppose there is really even on a very low level a racial contempt.
Studs Terkel The conditioning. But this happens also with Black as well as white American soldiers. Both, this is a phrase used as, they're both, we shall overcome our common humanity in murder. This
Asa Baber Yeah, I would -- this -- not to get into a debate here, but I don't think that the Black soldier feels really racially superior to the Vietnamese in the same fashion that the white does. That is, I think that sure, there were some Blacks involved in My Lai, and in there and probably in many other incidents. But somehow, I would want to argue anyway that this isn't quite
Studs Terkel No, it isn't, it's not a question of -- I think it's a question of being part of this big winning, this big superior machine. His own life, white or Black being so bleak or made bleak. Coming back to "The Land of the Million Elephants," you point out too just as with big powers, you got both big powers going a little on the nutty side and you got an Adols-- isn't it Dolsky who's there?
Asa Baber Nadolsky is the Russian ambassador. He wears wool suits and he sweats a lot and he's really kind of interested in trying to figure out what kind of deal he can set up with Kelly and so forth, I mean you know, let's split the turf, let's not bother each other, which I think is a part of
Studs Terkel It's is a very, there's a very remarkable astonishing ending to this, in which they split the turf, but there was nobody to split it about. We come to that, when there's the great trek that takes place in the part of the people there, natives again, quote unquote. Coming back to, we come back to the point of "Land of the Million Elephants," the elephant figures in this, and you should read more from the book I think Asa, usually, the elephant itself, Buon Kong was bribed by the military of both East and West the military with limousines, but it's the elephant he, he liked. We come back to another matter of of a of a culture, too, of a people, of someone trying to impose something else upon another people.
M19 Yeah, I wish I was little more organized here
Studs Terkel That's okay. We'll improvise, by the way, we're improvising now as we're
Asa Baber I'll tell you what let's do, let me just read a bit. Well really, I'll read you a whole chapter from
Asa Baber That is about a page.
Studs Terkel Is that with Roger Blake?
Asa Baber This is, no, this is Charlie Dog. This is just how he got to Chanda. And it's it has something to do with a whole lot of things here. "Charlie Dog came to Chanda by way of two busts in America. The first in Texas where he was sent up for having two joints rolled in his field jacket liner, the second in California. In both cases he was coming across from Mexico. Charlie Dog loved Mexico better than any place he'd ever been, but he kept getting caught doing one thing and another. About a year after his second term, Charlie Dog was picking tomatoes on the prison farm under the watchful double-barrel eye of the guard when he fell to listening to chatter in the next field, Mexican chatter that is, spoken by wetbacks. Enough of it was understood by Charlie Dog; oh, yes, an old man of bent back sang a song about Chanda. Charlie Dog listened and translated it that night. 'There is a place called Chanda where the women all are free, ay-y, and more dope than you could hope for unless your daddy peddles pot, ay-y, so you take your caffeine and leave me my amphetamine. Oh baby, baby, baby, your daddy's getting old.' There is some question as to whether Charlie Dog translated this song literally, and there might even be some question whether he heard the song at all. But so be it. There in the middle flats of California, he dreamed of Chanda and what life might be like for him there. The next day he escaped, hopped a freight to Sacramento, broke into a laundromat changemaker, called a friend and got himself a little-dittle pot franchise, saved his silver and sold his gold, and within a year he bought a one-way ticket for Chanda. That's how Charlie Dog made it." And Charlie Dog's one of my favorite people. Charlie Dog's living in San Francisco right now, by the way, he was
Studs Terkel The Charlie Dog you know.
Asa Baber The Charlie Dog I know, you met the guy that's based on, is one of my very best friends and was in the Black Writers Workshop for a while. But this is
Studs Terkel Yeah. You know, you keep, you keep -- you take it over, Asa. There's a, so Charlie Dog here understood something too about Chanda. He also wins the mute girl, too.
Asa Baber Yeah, he wins Dawn and I'll talk about her in a minute. I think that Charlie Dog doesn't really win her, they just sort of get together. That's an interesting word. I'm not picking on you. It's the way I would talk about it, too. But it does "win" is a competitive word in this whole sexual thing that men
Studs Terkel So there you got, no, you see, now you got me. See, you got me there. You got me, I used a competitive word, didn't I? I said Charlie Dog wins Dawn, of course the Women's Liberation Front would get me on that pretty good, too. You know, that getting together is what you're saying. Again we come to a difference in attitudes and to some extent generations, don't we?
Asa Baber We do, and you know women's liberation, I don't know if it will happen but may it happen, and I think in terms of having joy in a culture, in terms of taking pressure off the male psyche, wouldn't it be nice if we just got together instead of having somebody win somebody else, you
Studs Terkel The very fact I said Charlie Dog wins
Asa Baber -- I woulda said it too. I would have said it, too.
Studs Terkel But you know throughout, what's beautiful about "The Land of the Million Elephants" and Asa Baber's use of language, too. There's the lyrical language, the [age of?] -- at the same time the idiom and the gamey language of today too, the jazz too. You have both, don't you?
Studs Terkel And as Asa Baber and I are talking, it's quite clear that it's quite a book here, but it's quite an approach too of Mr. Baber and that is as I'm talking to him now I feel very free. You can almost take any part of this book, any part anywhere, and yet there is a beginning, a middle and an end, and it does build to an astonishing conclusion.
Asa Baber But I don't want you to really try to -- yeah, I think you've got, you feel some kind of burden to try to show that right now, and I don't think you can do it with this kind of book.
Studs Terkel No, I don't think
Asa Baber It really is, would be rough.
Studs Terkel But I think we can go almost anywhere. For example, as we're talking about Kelly, and there's General Grider who is in Virginia and they've got it laid out so it'll be like Southeast Asia.
Asa Baber Yeah. It's not hard to do in
Studs Terkel That they do that. Well, you there. No, you were at
Asa Baber I was in Quantico, Virginia.
Studs Terkel Quantico, you were. So then this is all based -- I come back to your quiet observations and finally this came out of it. Plus jazz, plus the horror of what you felt. So as it gradually built I assume.
Asa Baber Yeah, I think as it gradually became revealed it's a, it's a lesson in psychology I suppose to try to find out when things that really haunt you first began to haunt you. I think the military experience was a peculiarly haunting one and it is still with me, and I don't mean that in in the usual overly dramatic sense of great memories of of close scrapes in war, because I was not that involved in that kind of thing, and I'm not trying to pose as a son of the Green Berets. What it involves and what it comes down to is a way of thinking about the world that overwhelms you finally when you realize how much momentum and power this society has given to this kind of thought. In terms of my nightmares and they are vivid and often they have plots, what it involves is not just this simple ambush on a road, but this decimation of people, this this double think that we are involved in, whereby an invasion is called a thrust for peace. I mean, Orwell was so right! Orwell had it all I do believe, and doublethink is what we are engaged in now. Look at the kinds of arguments that are made for this Cambodian affair. It's not an invasion.
Studs Terkel "Incursion."
Asa Baber It's an incursion. It's not an invasion because it's mostly North Vietnamese over there anyway. So that we come all of a sudden then therefore territory doesn't mean anything? Therefore there are no national boundaries? This is the kind of
Studs Terkel Of course a crazy thing has happened, what Asa Baber of course is talking now about the euphemisms that are used, the doublethink and doubletalk of Orwell, pacification which really means napalming a village.
Asa Baber Napalming a village or moving a population out. Taking them -- let me give you one quick example of that. There's in Laos and in parts of Vietnam and Cambodia, there are many mountain tribes. To show our ignorance of that area, at least when we first went in there in the late '50s and early '60s, we didn't even really know enough to try to organize those tribes for our own purposes until about '61, '62 when we sent in what we called White Star training teams to get these people to learn how to kill each other rather than just animals. When we finally got them involved, we would move whole villages down into the lowlands. We're still doing it. Take them out of their native habitat, take them away from their homes and their animals and their huts and their fields. They use a completely different kind of agriculture, and we'd take, took them out and put them down where we could use them, making guerrilla fighters out of them and leading them into various forays, and this is how we ruin and destroy and annihilate a culture. Not just -- I mean, it's like in a sense more than just bodies. Maybe we should have in addition to a body count every week a culture count.
Studs Terkel A culture count of what's happened
Asa Baber Yeah.
Studs Terkel And the other thing, I mentioned, you said "invasion" isn't used, "incursion," now a strange thing has happened to our language. "Incursion," by the way, is a criminal word. In courts of law when a house is -- no, it's true
Asa Baber I
Studs Terkel Murray Kempton pointed this out.
M7 That now we use a more pejorative word than "invasion," because when a man robs a house, an "incursion" onto someone's property, so now we use it blandly, our -- we want to avoid what we think is a bad word, "invasion," we use an even worse word now, "incursion."
Asa Baber But isn't it beautiful that we've, in this system we've educated a number of Murray Kemptons and there are people around who can catch that kind of thing. I think that's great. I think it's great.
Studs Terkel You know, as you're talking about apocalypse in a way, this is -- it's hilarious, that you will howl out loud as you read the book, too. And it's very beautiful and very moving, and I hope that Asa will read one part of it particularly, but also the apocalyptic, you got these State Department guys, a guy named Seven O'clock, a guy named called Englishman, another guy, and they're kind of idiots as a great many are, you know, they're kind of light-headed, you know, they have a -- and they're sitting at the cafe I guess that's run by this this guy Andreas who's been around. Andreas I guess has no one country, he's Greek, he's Middle East, he's everywhere. He's the operator. And Seven O'clock laughed tightly. And here they are in this strange fantasyland Chanda, and he's saying to his friend, "You're almost right. When I'm really thinking that the end of the world might begin here. Isn't that a silly thought for someone of my training?" So this is a sense Chanda is where it not even may have begun once upon a time, where it may end, too.
Asa Baber Yeah. And any scenario that you make up in your own household or that is being made up right now might include that. One of the things I was trying to do with the with the music of the book, and what with the drumbeat behind, was to build up to get you to the point, you know, cymbals and drums and work the snare hard and get to the point where it seems inevitable that you're going to have a war. I mean there just ain't no way out. There's going to be death and destruction and annihilation, and then to pull that little switcheroo that we were talking about a little before the broadcast that may or may not work, I don't know if it does. But the the idea was to try to, to match the modern tempo, and our tempo right now is insane and I think we all know it. And then to back off and say, "Well, life could be like this. You know? It could be nice."
Studs Terkel And this is what is happening it seems toward the end of this work. Here the military, the both powers. We happen to be there or in that particular case, they and some other part of the world, and the people suddenly a side headed by Buon Kong, they leave, you know the old Carl Sandburg phrase, and the people yes, you know the little girl said "One day they'll declare war and nobody will show up." In this case they left and the military boys are left without anybody to kill or -- this is beautiful, this part here. Why don't you read, you read, it's your book.
Asa Baber Okay, I'll read it. I don't mind. This is a, this is just before they take off on their trek to the plane of elephants and Charlie Dog is lying in the opium den and they've been caught in a rainstorm and his chick Dawn -- yeah, maybe I shouldn't say chick, women's liberation listeners forgive me. As a woman is rubbing his back with coconut oil and Buon Kong is smoking a pipe, and they're all sort of getting ready to get out, and they know things are bad. And Charlie Dog says, "Tell me about them phi, Buon Kong. Tell me about the way the phi can help us." And Buon Kong goes into a little routine here. "The phi are very disobedient," said Buon Kong. "And they help the disobedient." "Hey, that's okay, Buon Kong. That's [beau penang?]." "The phi are those spirits in us that seek liberty." "I got mucho phi in me then, Buon Kong." The old man nodded through the smoke. "All men are born disobedient. They must be forced to work, to fight, to respect leaders. They are twisted out of harmony." Charlie Dog sat up. "That may be, but I don't see the world changing, no sir. Trouble with the phi is, they can't do anything, you know?" "Perhaps," said Buon Kong, "but perhaps if we are ready to accept them, they can do things." And then, as he does so often in the book, Buon Kong comes out with the line, "I will tell you a story." Maybe in a way it's a children's book. I hope it is, I think I'm a child anyway. "I will tell you a story," said Buon Kong. "Once upon a time when Yak was king of Chanda, there was nothing but war. The people were tired of war, but Yak always said war was necessary for them. No one could break through his arguments because no one else had his means of knowing things. If Yak said the country was being attacked, how could the people debate this? He rarely came to the marketplace himself, his ministers were able to make up convenient reports. How could the people know what to do? But one day Yak did come to the market. Too many people had been protesting his remoteness, and he wished to pacify them. 'I am here to answer your questions,' said Yak. There were many questions from the crowd, but they were not disobedient questions, for Yak chose those who would be permitted to ask things of him in public. Then a voice asked, 'Do you eat rice, o King?' Yak smiled and said that he did. A vendor came forward. He held one small grain of rice between his thumb and forefinger. 'This is for you, o King,' the vendor said. The crowd laughed uneasily; they were not sure if this was insult or ignorance operating. 'Please eat my rice,' said the vendor. Yak raised the grain to his lips in a sporting fashion, and the vendor grabbed his wrist. 'But first I must tell you that my rice is grown by the phi, o King.' Yak stiffened and the people gasped. The vendor went on: 'Each grain represents the hide of one buffalo. The harmonious man eats my rice and licks his lips and says, 'My, what good rice.' But the man out of harmony eats just one grain of my rice, and the buffalo hides swells to its full size, and that man is immediately marked for life with a stomach as large as a pregnant woman's, so eat my rice, o King, and let us see what you are'." Buon Kong puffed on his pipe and was silent. "Well, come on, Buon Kong," said Charlie Dog. "What happened? Did he eat the rice?" "Of course not. He handed it back, saying that there were too many hungry people in his country to waste rice on the leaders who were so well-fed." Charlie Dog sat up. "So that pissed people in the marketplace, didn't it? They wanted to see the King take the test." "Perhaps, but the ministers and others in the crowd cheered the king, and many people followed their gestures." "But the king was all shook up and things like that and there wasn't no more war while he was king, huh, Buon Kong?" "Oh, no. There were many more wars while Yak was king." "What's the point, Buon Kong?" asked Charlie Dog in exasperation. "I thought you were all for the phi, but I don't see what you got to prove with this story." The old man handed his pipe to Dawn and stretched out in his pallet. "Well," he sighed, "I am sorry, too, but sometimes my stories don't turn out the way I want them to."
Studs Terkel Beautiful. That, in a sense this is part of what, the key to what Asa Baber's book's about. It's yours. In the time remaining, Asa, why don't you read the last part, the part that you had read that day at the University of
Asa Baber Okay.
Studs Terkel The book is "The Land of a Million Elephants," and William Morrow and it's a beauty. It's a beauty because as you say it's jazz, it's Cambodia, it's Vietnam with Chanda, it's you and I, and even the language we use today in talking about it now, suddenly I realized the word I was using. And you caught me on it, and I caught you. This is great.
Asa Baber I'll read this section here and I'll I'll try to introduce it in this fashion and right now you have an author taking himself seriously. So so bear with me, because this is a serious passage for me. It's one I read to myself a lots of times and it's one that fit in very well with the moment in our own history, our contemporary history a few weeks ago when those students were killed at Kent State and then what? A week later two black students killed. This is the last speech that Buon Kong makes. It's given at night just before an eclipse of the moon and it's what I would hold to if I may be totally open about it, it's what I'll hold to for the next ten years or so, because I think it's going to fit. And here we go: "To die is hard, to die is painful, yet death is a feast. We celebrate the life we are trying to lead. Here on this plane we will take doubt as our pillow and freedom as our food. Up in the sky the moon is about to die in the Earth's shadow. In Chanda this is known as a time when the frog swallows the moon. In the same way perhaps, we are all about to be swallowed by the things in this life that are unharmonious: by governments and armies, by those who would tell us how to live if it can be called living. Some have said that if our children grow to maturity on this plane they will spoil and rot. I say we must train our children as we train elephants, with sugar cane and songs and stories so that they learn to know life instead of death, so they learn to live instead of spending a lifetime preparing for death. If there is darkness coming upon us as there is upon the moon tonight, then let us remember that no eclipse is total and that light shines from the deepest shadows, and times may pass but they will return again as surely as the seasons. If we are to be crushed by what has become the world by the forces that may destroy us, if the phi cannot protect us, if we forget how to live in pleasure with each other, then our deaths will be hard. Our deaths will be painful. But we will return again with our laughter and singing and loving and all those things not permitted by the unharmonious, the powerful, the judging. We have tried to break away. We ask only to be left alone. But perhaps this is the greatest sin. Nothing is more frightening to those who would control us than that we ignore them. Truly that sends rage to their mangled spirits. Soon, sometime soon there will be tanks coming to crush us and planes to bomb and burn us. Let us trust in ourselves and the phi and see if the gentle spirits are any match for those who pursue us. It will test us fully, yes, but remember that the phi have been through at least one life, and they know what some people in the world do not: that life is sweet and to be valued over property or borders or faiths. And we say to those who are now assembling in the valley of royal city, we say, 'You may kill us. That remains to be seen, but at least we will not be dying for you any more. At least we will die with the right things in our hearts'."
Studs Terkel Nothing further to be said after that other than Asa Baber was reading from his book, "The Land of the Million Elephants," Morrow the publishers. It's a beautiful book of course. It's very funny, it's hilarious, and it's a wise book. It's a beauty. Thank you very much.
Ensemble from "Hair" ["The Flesh Failures/Let the Sunshine In" from