Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Hans Janitschek and the Elephant Erection at the UN

From the Guardian Comment is Free
Journalist Hans Janitschek personified postwar Austria and the world. Ebullient and humorous, part Renaissance man and part dizzying dilettante, he had a hyperactive hand in every pie right up the moment he collapsed at the age of 73 with a fatal heart attack in the United Nations on February 21.

I met him the UN canteen during his candidacy for president of Austria, early in the 90s, and he confided, eyes twinkling behind his thin-rimmed glasses in his strong Austrian accent (which made him sound like Henry Kissinger, minus the pomposity and plus a self-deprecatory sense of humour): "You know Ian, I am bit worried that I might win, because I am on the verge of getting my green card, and I don't want to lose it." He lost the election, comfortably, and won his green card.

With his impatience for accepted channels and decorum, it is not entirely surprising that his career with large and bureaucratic organisations was sometimes less than smooth. Hans was a former secretary-general of the Socialist International and helped ferry cash to Indian socialists like George Fernandez who were being hunted by Indira Gandhi during the Emergency. He supported Bangladesh after the mass killings by Pakistani troops, and Chilean President Salvador Allende. But he did not fit in with organisations' more staid work style.

His career at the UN was equally rocky. With the odd "Red-Brown" condominium in Vienna between Christian- and Social-Democrats, it was not as surprising as it should have been that the recent head of the Socialist International was invited by UN secretary-general Kurt Waldheim to go to the UN as, he thought, press secretary. The UN bureaucracy differed and downgraded and sidelined his post. At a time when one of the mayors of New York was getting the usual cheap shots against the UN, Hans was caught in a vox pop on camera outside the UN, and expressed his trenchant opinion of Hizzoner. He was too well-connected internationally to be fired, but a UN staff member not turning the other cheek was too much for the bureaucracy who used the excuse to squeeze him into the position of a consultant.

Hans's phone book spanned the worlds of literature and politics, and he delved into it when he became president of the UN Society of Writers, which helped him exorcise his journalistic instincts. He instituted awards, which went to figures as various as Mikhail Gorbachev, Stephen Hawking, Norman Mailer, Arthur Miller, Vanessa Redgrave, Arthur M Schlesinger Jr, Gloria Steinem and, in all modesty, myself.

An enthusiastic Austrian who continued to promote his homeland, notwithstanding his green card and chosen residence in New York, he did get carried away with enthusiasms for even more anomalous Austrians than former SS officer Waldheim, whose autobiography he ghosted. His socialism not withstanding, he also translated and published rightist Joerg Haider's book in the US and hosted him in New York, and he also wrote Arnold Schwarzenegger's biography for publication back home in Austria.

Taxed with his support for Haider, he suggested variously that the politician had been misunderstood and that he was a refreshing change to the stale conservative/socialist duopoly of Austria.

For a heavyweight gadfly like Hans it is perhaps fitting that his most tangible legacy was a life-size bronze elephant. Bulgarian sculptor Mikhail had downed an African bull elephant with narcotic darts and made a latex mould for the casting. Whether it was the rubber or the drugs, the effect considerably enhanced the pachydermic bullness. "It vass eeNORMous," Hans told me in a TV interview. The organ was cut to detumescent size for the final casting.

But Hans spent several years combating the UN bureaucracy who felt, with some justice, that headquarters was already bulging with white elephants donated by member governments and a real bronze one would be pushing it. They felt that the UN Charter began "we the peoples", not "we the fauna" of the world. Hans enlisted four elephant-populated countries as sponsors, so the UN had to give way, but their revenge was to site it in a wooded copse in a corner of the UN gardens, as far away from the actual building as possible.

The night before Kofi Annan was to unveil the statue, his chef de cabinet, Iqbal Riza, took a watchful walk to check, and peering under the veil noticed that even the bowdlerised bull elephant looked like it had a fifth leg - much thicker than the trunk. He promptly ordered up a coy hedge of shrubs to be planted around it to spare the secretary-general embarrassment. But it still looks like it has five legs.

It is a fitting monument to Hans Janitschek, substantial and memorable yet colourful and quirky. The UN, and the world, will be a duller place with his going.

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