Once a Great Leader

Once a Great Leader is Rodge’s novel-in-progress, four books in one which were started while travelling through South America in 2013. An early version of the first chapter was publishing in The Scotsman and is available here. An early version of the second chapter, ‘The Chilean Way’, was published in Gutter Magazine, #13, in 2016.

A series of six essays about Rodge’s travels, researching Once a Great Leader in Chile, Bolivia, Peru and Argentina, were published by 3am magazine,. These are available in an archive titled ‘Reports from Latin America’, available here. The essays are:

1: A Ghost Giving a Speech

OAGL page 3am 1
Roberto Matta‘s La vida Allende la muerte, 1973

2: A Human Being Made Out of a Statue

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3: Borders of the Land and Mind

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4: Memory Games With Bolaño, or, Of What Is Lost

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Roberto, Lost

5: Post-National Me

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6: Dancing With Bolivar

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As a taster for the novel itself, here is the synopsis for Once a Great Leader, as written by the narrator of the book, Zvi-Moshe Hillel, intended for potential publishers.

Once a Great Leader Synopsis

by Zvi-Moshe Hillel

Starting in the desert heat of 1970 and spanning the next fifty years of history in both Europe and Latin America, Once a Great Leader tells the story of Britain’s first immigrant Prime Minister, Gabriela Moya, who escaped from Pinochet’s Chile in 1974 with her parents to Scotland at the age of just four. Growing up in the notoriously tough East End of Glasgow, she then joined the Labour Party as a teenager, earned a scholarship to Oxford, moved to London to make tea for Jeremy Corbyn and started her dramatic rise, becoming an MP during the 1997 Labour landslide, just weeks after giving birth to a daughter, the now-infamous artist Ana-Maria Moya. Hillel tracks the story, switching between the personal details of Moya’s extraordinary life and the political big picture, often dramatizing, and often slipping into personal memories and opinions of his own. He also throws in large amounts of secondary evidence, quoting liberally from Moya’s speeches, academic books, also his own many interviews, as well as using excerpts from Moya’s private unpublished diaries. In one of a series of major claims, he says these prove that his subject escaped to Chile on a night boat as part of a pilgrimage to the tiny Chilean town where she was born, in the days after she fell from power.

Few readers who come to Once a Great Leader out of interest in Gabriela Moya will be familiar with the work of Zvi-Moshe Hillel. Born just outside Manchester in 1978, he studied Politics at Glasgow University and has spent much of his life since travelling, living in countries as diverse as Israel, Chile, Tunisia and Bolivia. His early career was spent writing uncontroversial articles about famous political Scots such as Gordon Brown and Alex Salmond, and in 2008 he secured a Lectureship in the Politics Department of his alma mater. Nothing too out of the ordinary then. However, shortly before that appointment, he had begun the work on Gabriela Moya which eventually led to him losing his job. In the short biography he presents alongside the manuscript of Once A Great Leader, Hillel self-diagnoses in rather dramatic terms, as follows: ‘I am a clinically obese, Commie-loving, self-hating, anti-authoritarian, middle-class, white, male, Scotophile, anti-Zionist, English nerd and member of the worldwide underground Jewish conspiracy which works to undermine gentiles at every opportunity’. Until leaving his post at Glasgow University (officially for medical reasons, though in reality he was kicked out) he was also a Visiting Lecturer at the University of Strathclyde, though he also left under a cloud during the writing of this heavy, 1000-page tome which started out as an article ten years ago (when Moya was a little-known figure) before mushrooming wildly.

From an outsider’s viewpoint, it looks like Hillel spent the majority of his career in Glasgow making enemies, but outside the academy his career appeared to be developing. He was always looking to develop a public profile, often commenting sympathetically in the Scottish media, on radio and television, about Scots in the Labour Party and SNP, as well as contributing to the two major Scottish newspapers, The Herald and The Scotsman. But all that time, he was working away on Moya’s story: in terms of research, he has focused exclusively for the last ten years and more on writing this biography. Some feat. Especially once you know that he has only met the subject of his book once. And that the context kept changing so radically as he was writing.

When Hillel started out on Once a Great Leader: The Life of Gabriela Moya in 2007, Moya was an upcoming but little-known Junior Cabinet Minister, though she had been tipped for greatness by Tony Blair as early as 1999 in a conversation with Alastair Campbell, recalled by Campbell in his memoirs The Blair Years. In its early days as a book, Hillel’s working title was Gabriela Moya: An Immigrant’s Tale. Little did the author know that before he could finish his project, history would overtake him, and soon Moya would be catapulted from relative obscurity into the limelight – first to Labour Leader after Jeremy Corbyn’s resignation, then Prime Minister after a snap election. Within a year of gaining the top job she would lose it in dramatic fashion, disappearing several days after a bomb disguised as a book was left on her chair in the Thatcher Room of Ten Downing Street: and all this on the very same day that she was deposed as Labour Leader.

As detailed in his own narrative, Hillel became consumed by his biographical task, and by the challenge of tracking Moya down in the weeks, months and years after her disappearance. In the Preface he acknowledges his prejudices, and admits this may invalidate much of his research, but insists the risk of irreparable reputational damage had to be taken, in the name of uncovering the truth about his elusive subject. This applies directly to the Moya diaries, which Hillel admits to stealing from a Chilean hotel room. (Addicted, perhaps, to acknowledging debts, Hillel also states that the style of his book is inspired by that of the British historian Orlando Figes, who is widely admired for seamlessly intertwining social and political history with close-up biographical narratives.) Once a Great Leader takes readers up to the year 2022, with the biographer chasing his subject into the wilds of the island of Chiloe, where he believes her to be hiding. By which time the biographer has lost his academic job, his wife, his friends, and much of what little reserve funds he had to finance the completion of the project.

Within this vast tome, Zvi Moshe Hillel fantasises that he has much in common with Gerald Martin, the revered biographer of Garcia Marquez who spent 17 years researching, interviewing 300 people from his subject’s extended family to Fidel Castro, and who finally persuaded the elusive auld bugger to speak to him,  giving him a happy ending of sorts. In Gabriel Garcia Marquez: A Life, Martin refers to the ‘brief’ version which his 900-page biography constitutes, reminding us that the art of biography is collating everything: an unending, Borgesian task. In more confident moment, Hillel believes he is like Martin – a grown-up, with utter mastery over his project. In less confident moments, Hillel is more like a kid in panic. He has a vast amount of material, a huge pile of unanswered questions. And he doesn’t know if he can finish without breaking the law, or going broke, or both. Hillel presses on, perhaps, because he has no choice, despite the inevitable fragmentation, the undeniable doubt. At the end, as he puts it, ‘it’s up to readers to decide whether it’s been worth the trouble’.

For more information on Once a Great Leader, or on the author, please contact Jenny Brown at Jenny Brown Associates, Edinburgh.

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