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The Politics of Passion: Norman Bethune’s Writing and Art

by Larry Hannant ed.

With The Politics of Passion, Victoria author Larry Hannant offers us the collected writings of a Canadian who, in many ways, is better known outside of Canada than in his homeland.

Dr. Norman Bethune, born in Ontario in 1890, is best known for pioneering medical innovations in battlefield medicine during the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s, and for aiding China during the invasion by Japan. In China, he met – and apparently impressed – Mao Tse-tung, and Bethune remained a communist hero throughout the 20th century with his image occasionally adorning Chinese stamps.

Hannant’s book offers a much more comprehensive compilation of Bethune’s writing than the only previous collection, Roderick Stewart’s 1977 book The Mind of Norman Bethune. Stewart’s 150-page book is less than half the length of Hannant’s, and focuses heavily on Bethune’s wartime writing, from his arrival in China until his death in 1939 from blood poisoning after cutting himself during an operation.

Hannant has wisely taken a much more personal approach. Bethune was certainly a prolific writer, but though competent, he was not brilliant. A radio play he wrote about tuberculosis is so cheesy it makes one cringe. His fiction often has the drab tone of communist propaganda. Nor was Bethune a particularly thoughtful political theorist. His conversion to communism in the mid-1930s after a trip to the Soviet Union left him an uncritical enthusiast. Even in his private letters he had few concerns that communism was anything less than perfect.

But Bethune was a completely engaging character, perhaps because he was a man of contrasts. In Spain, he demanded to bypass bank lines and be served immediately because of his status as a famous surgeon: at the same time he worked very hard to get medical care to the poor. He married his wife after she inherited money, and apparently earned her family’s scorn after the couple went on a long, luxurious trip around Europe spending most of her inheritance. But even after their second marriage ended in divorce, Bethune scrupulously sent money to his ex-wife.

Hannant’s heavy use of Bethune’s personal letters lets us vicariously look into Bethune’s private life as he goes from a socially conscious playboy to a communist saint.