An Insular Possession 
by Timothy Mo.
Chatto, 593 pp., £9.95, May 1986, 0 7011 3078 4
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The Story of Zahra 
by Hanan al-Shaykh.
Quartet, 184 pp., £8.95, April 1986, 0 7043 2546 2
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The Lightning of August 
by Jorge Ibarguengoitia.
Chatto, 117 pp., £8.95, May 1986, 0 7011 3950 1
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‘Mastah Eastman just now come chop-chop say you plomise give him sketch-y lesson, you no lemember bime-by?’ It is shocking to find such dialogue – so squarely within the racist convention of the comic ‘Chinaman’ – seven pages into Timothy Mo’s novel about the first Opium War. Is this shameful convention, with its ‘all rightees’ and ‘yes Missees’, being endorsed as mimetically accurate by a writer at home in both English and Chinese cultures? If he does endorse it, he does so only to the extent of using it to show how small the point of contact between two cultures can be. Mo’s hero compares language to a delta; and just as the Western traders in the 1830s had access to China only through one part of the treacherous Pearl River delta and through the precarious stockade of ‘Factories’ at Canton, so linguistic contact also was straitened and treacherous. The pidgin that defined for popular consumption an image of the Chinese (along with opium dens and tong gangs) has its origin, Mo shows us, in purely commercial exchanges, where it functions as an adequate bridge between cultures so long as it carries only commercial traffic: ‘ “Half-um?” he says witheringly. “Half-um? Me tink-ee mak-ee half-um silver dollar can buy all-um duck market hab got Canton-side.” ’ (This time it is the American Eastman talking.) For any other form of cultural exchange it is worse than useless – ‘ridiculous nonsense’, as Mo reassuringly calls it later in the novel. The word ‘pidgin’, he might have added, is simply a Chinese corruption of the word ‘business’. Pidgin English is business English, purely instrumental in origin.

Such straitened exchange was all the Mandarins would allow in the 1830s. Europeans were forbidden to learn Chinese, and the only channels of communication were authorised Chinese merchants. But commerce was, in fact, all the West wanted: the commercial ethics of the Free-Traders (equivalent in inscrutability and hypocrisy to any Chinese secret society) required nothing qualitatively different from this when they demanded that China should be ‘opened’ to the West. The sinister Fu Manchu dope-den stereotype is one of several cultural spin-offs of the trade cycle described in An Insular Possession: cotton produced by slaves in the Caribbean goes to Manchester, is turned to cloth by wage-slaves, sent to India and exchanged there for opium which is sent to China as the only ‘commodity’ at least some Chinese are prepared to exchange (illicitly) for the silver bullion that China demands in payment for the tea that British traders send to Britain for a further increment of profit when it is sold to flavour the cheering cup that dulls the misery of Manchester’s factory hands.

To open China to such trade was the purpose of the Opium War, as was the resulting settlement and secession of Hong Kong – the ‘insular possession’ of the novel’s title. A progressive ‘dialectical’ history might want to trace as an unintended consequence of this opening a simultaneous cultural exchange, and up to a point Mo’s story can be read as such an account. His hero, Gideon Chase, begins as a raw 17-year-old, an all-American boy, and having been secretly educated in Chinese language and scholarship, interprets for the British during the war, and then takes his knowledge to Boston, where he joins the Transcendentalists. He finishes life loaded with honours as one of the principal intermediaries between Chinese and Western thought. The interdependence of cultural and material processes is illustrated in the novel by an emblematic expedition inland to Canton by a route through the delta (the Broadway or Inner passage) hitherto closed to Westerners. But ‘cultural and material processes’ is too leaden a term to encumber this incident with: Mo’s descriptions are superbly vivid, and the expedition is as gripping as a Boy’s Own Paper adventure. The paddle-steamer Nemesis, a commercial vessel temporarily seconded to the Royal Navy, clears the channel, knocking out shore batteries and scattering opposition with rockets. At the bow sits the world’s first modern war correspondent, doughtily failing to capture the action on daguerrotype, while at his side an artist exploits his licence to sketch the scene as it would appear from land. Under the command of the British Plenipotentiary, Captain Charles Elliot, who defers to the advice of Chase, his interpreter, the expedition succeeds in its aim without alienating the Chinese populace.

A little too emblematic, perhaps; especially the name of the steamer. But an appendix to An Insular Possession directs one to Hall and Bernard’s Narrative of the Voyages and Services of ‘The Nemesis’ (1844), where one will find that Mo’s account is accurate enough, even down to the role of the interpreters – though there seems to be no record of daguerrotypists in the area before the early 1850s. The progressive history neatly implicated in this incident failed to unfold, however, and after lobbying of Palmerston by the Free-Traders, the enlightened Plenipotentiary Elliot was recalled in disgrace for his lack of zeal. Likewise the Free-Traders’ newspaper (the Canton Monitor, later the Hong Kong Gazette, and in both incarnations hypocritical and chauvinistic) will outlast its opponent, the Lin Tin Bulletin and River Bee, set up by Chase and his friend Eastman (the daguerrotypist) to oppose the opium trade and show Chinese culture as both rational and intrinsically interesting. The future will lie with commerce and missionary societies.

Chase’s experience remains, nevertheless, as a model meeting of cultures, and hence represents a kind of victory at least. The ghost of an intellectual trade cycle not quite the equivalent of the destructive cycle of imperialism can be discerned through the hints found in the appendix about Chase’s subsequent life, with its shuttling between academic and diplomatic posts in Europe, the US and China. The ideas he includes in his columns in the Lin Tin Bulletin are of a type that has fascinated Western intellectuals, not merely because the information has curiosity value (for example, the account of how cormorants are used by the Chinese for fishing), but because in rationalising another culture it de-naturalises our own. When Chase writes, in one of the many newspaper articles An Insular Possession reproduces, that the Chinese language has no tenses and the Chinese sense of time is circular, he is contributing to a tradition that will eventually undermine Europe’s confidence in its own linguistic and representational categories. ‘The Chinese confuse TIME and DISTANCE,’ proclaims Chase, in a way reminiscent of the linguistic relativism of Benjamin Lee Whorf. Other remarks on language recall Ernest Fenollosa, who presented Chinese as an inherently more natural language than English, though Chase (whose influence in Boston would have been of the kind to have interested the young Fenollosa in the Orient) seems more of a relativist. Knowledge of other languages and cultures, so desirable in itself, has nourished the paralysing scepticism that since Descartes has accompanied scientific and material progress.

Chase’s friend Eastman, the self-confident editor of the Lin Tin Bulletin, warns him of these dangers when Chase announces his plan to learn Chinese. Chase will lose all the formative influences (good and bad) that have fashioned his self, since they, and his self with them, will be reduced to representations of an arbitrary cultural system: ‘Madness lies there, Gideon.’ Yet Chase does grow, even if it is towards a Nietzschean ‘immolating moment of verity’, while Eastman only acts, confined to the (by no means contemptible) satisfying certainties of an energetic material life.

Mr Mo’s painter, Harry O’Rourke, an unsuccessful ex-rival to Gainsborough, remarks that an artist should use all the techniques that previous practitioners of his art have developed, and Mo’s own re-creation of the life of Canton and its environs between 1833 and 1841 carries an imaginative conviction comparable to that of the work of the predecessors he invokes: Defoe, Scott, Poe, Conrad and Forster. He creates his scene through straightforward narrative (classically elegant and in the timeless present simple tense, the English equivalent of tenseless Chinese), through extracts from diaries, from correspondence and from the two rival newspapers.

Poe may seem out of place in the list of predecessors. The Lin Tin Bulletin hails his edition of The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym as an enthralling factual account, which earns the paper the ridicule of the Monitor: a reminder that we are on treacherous ground. An Insular Possession is fiction, not fact. It is not history written unequivocally within that tradition of Vico, Hegel and Marx, confident that what man has constructed he can construe. We should not be too reassured by the appendix of biographies which, in delimiting ‘fact’ from ‘fiction’, indicates the degree of artist’s licence employed: Sir Charles Elliot is real, but the ‘historical’ Chase and his doings have been redistributed between his fictional avatar and the obscure Eastman (perhaps one of the Kodak Eastmans?). As a novelist, Timothy Mo is heir to a literary tradition, not just a historiographical tradition, and ‘fact’ has a fairly low status in the Post-Modernist phase of the Novel. A reader interested by An Insular Possession could profitably take a look at (or even a look for) some of the texts cited in Mo’s appendix, since the work is so closely entangled with them.

There is little doubt that Mr Mo could have written an orthodox history of the Opium War and the secession of Hong Kong had he wished. But it may be precisely because Post-Modern literature is even more riddled than history with a scepticism it has come to terms with that he chose to write a novel. There are clues to this in a second appendix to the book, which is made up of extracts from the unpublished autobiography of Professor Chase, apparently written not long before his death in Rome in 1908. Chase, who was perhaps one of the hundred recipients of the 1906 private edition of The Education of Henry Adams, and wrote while still under the spell of that monument to historical scepticism, describes the ‘truths’ of record (journalism, documents and photographs) as treacherous and unreliable. His friend Eastman had, in the novel proper, a penchant for photographing corpses, and Chase points out how all records, besides being unreliable, are relics – tinctured with the pathos of nostalgia and death. By contrast, ‘perhaps the essential truths may only be possessed by utter contrivance, where the artifice is openly acknowledged, as in a painting or a work of fiction where no facts are to be found at all.’ But, taking the ‘latest work of France’ in painting as an example, Chase continues presciently, a discourse programmatically artificial and contrived leads to obscure works of art ‘couched in a cypher to which only an élite hold the key’. Timothy Mo’s own work of art is a work of contrivance, but is certainly most accessible: its timeless present is the medium of a magnanimous artifice that brings the dead to life, rescuing them from the pathos of record – or supplementing it at least – without being too distractingly fascinated by the intricacies of its own reflection.

Self-reflexivity is there, though. In a meandering exposition of his thoughts, Professor Chase disparages Marxist ‘scientific’ interpretations of history (maybe science itself) as the reflection of a vulgar cultural schema: the Melodrama. The Novel, it is implied, allows subtler moral discriminations.

An Insular Possession is an impressive reclamation of the material of history for the literary imagination, but, though particular incidents and passages are powerful and enthralling, its discriminations may be a little too reserved. It seems to lack intensity, as if its purpose were somehow detached or withheld. It is a book waiting for a context, perhaps: fittingly, since its hero is the author of a study of Vico, believing that ‘in the history of the individual and also in the wider chronicles of the evolution of our human societies, there are some years where the essence of all that is new is a concentrate, where development is ... “telescoped”, where the perspective of the years is foreshortened.’ History will no doubt renew that context, as the West’s primary interest in Hong Kong and China again proves to consist in no more than a greed for markets.

‘May you live in interesting times’ is an old Chinese curse that would fail to disturb a reader of Mo’s novel. Although it contains a few atrocities, its message seems to be that interesting times are the best sort to live through. History has its accidental victims, but it is exciting and provides food for thought. By contrast, the history that presses on the young Shiite woman Zahra in the contemporary Beirut of Hanan al-Shaykh’s The Story of Zahra is an unmixed curse. There is no faith here in any reassuring rationality in history: public and private events alike are the symptoms of some hidden hereditary mental illness. On the face of it, Zahra herself is the one who is deranged. Locked as tightly inside her own mind as she frequently is physically locked in the bathroom, she silently puts her body at the disposal of a man with a will to use it. After two abortions, a surgically restored virginity and some electro-convulsive therapy, she has the chance in Africa to make another man happy, but having married him she still doesn’t cheer up, indeed she shows a grotesque inability to socialise normally (her dress-sense is disgraceful), and she only seems to pick herself up when she returns to the murderous streets of Beirut. Here she at last stops picking the acne on her face, secretly begins a daily routine of sexual intercourse with the sniper who terrorises the neighbourhood, and begins to see some purpose in life. Despite being on the pill and having had some very heavy periods, she discovers she is four months pregnant, and announces the fact to the sniper. Shortly afterwards she is bleeding to death in the street, shot, it seems, by her sniper lover.

The Story of Zahra has been banned in several Arab countries. It is easy to see why. Read simply as the story summarised in my insensitive résumé, it could appear as nothing but a slur upon Islamic womanhood. Yet the real offence of this distressing novel is deeper than this. It works within a psychological paradigm likely to be more familiar to Western readers than it is to guardians of morality in the Middle East. Zahra’s self-destructive moral paralysis is a response, logical in its own way, to the demands that family and society make on her: it is simply the condition of the Lebanon internalised. By passively reflecting this she does nothing different from what the men in her life require, and it is their vain and childish politicking, their brute sexual bouts, the drugged looting and slaughter which comprise their ‘freedom-fighting’, that ultimately stand condemned in this despairing novel. No historical account of the forces leading to the Lebanese civil war emerges from al-Shaykh’s pages, nor is any path leading out of it mapped for us. ‘Victory’ is simply a hoped-for imprimatur that will certify that all this futility is not arbitrary but does bear a meaning: ‘If the war should end without any gain, it will be a terrible loss, a dreadful weakness ... Everything will be a lie.’

The book includes a glossary to explain some of the historical references and the untranslated Arabic names of various foods and dishes consumed in the novel. These are the true poetry of a destroyed Lebanon, one feels – the proof that life there can be good for men and women. Shawarma, for instance, is explained as layers of closely packed meat cooked on a revolving spit; how right to avoid associating it with that disappointing snack which tries the jaw for size and strength, sold in Britain as the doner-kebab.

With Jorge Ibarguengoitia’s The Lightning of August, we move from history as tragedy to history as farce: a Mexican revolution of 1929. In common with Mo’s and al-Shaykh’s novels, it contains a short section apparently anchoring it to the real world. The generals it treats of were a ‘new military generation whose main concern between 1915 and 1930 was self-annihilation’. The Lightning of August is the memoirs of General José (‘Lupe’) Arroyo, and like all such memoirs it is a work of self-justification, fending off in this case the malicious aspersions made on him in the memoirs of General ‘Fatty’ Artajo, who managed to keep clear of the 1929 debacle – for such it turns out to be. Ibarguengoitia’s book is a small satirical masterpiece, written with a strange affection for the comic-opera generals who so unscrupulously manoeuvre and manipulate themselves in and out of power. Lupe Arroyo begins to win the sympathy that is the due of all literary rogues whose naive openness reveals more about their activities than they realise. His narrative has the brisk economy of a good military anecdote, while the plotting and counterplotting has the inexhaustible complexity of political in-fighting at its most petty. Every paragraph carries its own small sting, and the book never swells with the flatulence of whimsical (‘surrealist’) fantasy.

The forming of a coalition party should augur well for the generals, since a large party is more likely to win power: but ‘when the time came to hand out jobs there wouldn’t be enough good ones to go round to reward such a big party.’ Lupe is asked to join the coalition and support the incompetent Juan Valdivia. ‘ “But Juan Valdivia isn’t popular,” I protested. “That’s precisely why he needs the army’s support,” they answered. That made sense.’ The Party has policies (‘our political program consisted of a campaign of smears against the socialist parties’) and gains popular support: ‘an exuberant crowd unhooked our candidate’s railcar and pushed it themselves for three kilometres (this display of enthusiasm cost the Party a small fortune)’: yet Lupe finally has to resort to military force. Good general that he is, he convincingly shows that the failure of the coup is not his fault: indeed his prowess brings it close to success.

The Lightning of August is, in its way, rational history. Every action has a cause, and is followed by a consequence. But it is a history with no meaning – only victims and survivors. Ibarguengoitia, who himself sadly fell victim to an accident whose causes have a rational history (an air crash), had the satirist’s instinctive knowledge that it is the rational that is really absurd.

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