Hong Pong

Thomas Jones

  • Fragrant Harbour by John Lanchester
    Faber, 299 pp, £16.99, July 2002, ISBN 0 571 20176 8

First, let me declare a disinterest. John Lanchester and I are both involved, in different ways, with the London Review of Books, but otherwise have nothing to do with one another. Now that’s out of the way, onto the novels. Lanchester’s first, The Debt to Pleasure (1996), begins: ‘This is not a conventional cookbook’ – a more interesting way of saying that it is an unconventional novel. And so we are introduced to Tarquin Winot: gastronome, aesthete, snob, psychopath, and one of the most gloriously monstrous, deluded, hilarious, chilling characters to narrate an English-language novel since Humbert Humbert. Tarquin is making his circuitous way from Portsmouth to his house in the South of France (or the ‘S. of F.’, as he would have it), narrating his unconventional cookbook as he goes ‘with the aid of a seductively miniaturised Japanese dictaphone’. The Debt to Pleasure is organised around three narrative structures: namely, in decreasing order of overtness, the cookbook, arranged seasonally, a method Tarquin filches (unacknowledged) from Margaret Costa; the travelogue of Tarquin’s journey to Provence; and, gradually teased out between courses, the story of Tarquin’s unorthodox life.

At the end of the preface, after a windy rhapsody on the theme of ‘the menu’, the plot grabs you by the scruff of your neck and slams you up against the wall – ‘I’m not sure that this would be my choice for a honeymoon hotel’ – so gently that you hardly notice. Paradox, part of paranoia’s staple diet, feeds Tarquin’s delusions: ‘as Buddhism teaches us, non-connection can be a higher form of connection.’ With this in mind, any inference is possible: ‘I myself have always disliked being called a “genius”. It is fascinating to notice how quick people have been to intuit this aversion and avoid using the term.’ His stalking of the honeymooners, pursued with the help of the Mossad Manual of Surveillance Techniques and an elaborate portmanteau of disguises, is extremely funny, and initially resembles a practical joke more than anything: ‘the chill is kept off by the unfamiliar warmth of my new deerstalker, which I am currently wearing with the flaps lowered but the chinstrap untied. I now feel the need to take a stretch around the promenade and inhale deep draughts of sea air through the slight tickle of my false moustache.’ And while the story remains funny to the end, it is increasingly tinctured with real malevolence and horror.

A remarkable number of the people that Tarquin mentions in his anecdotes and recollections have died. He tends to let slip the fact in the most casual fashion: ‘my Provençal (English) neighbour (now dead)’; ‘Mitthaug, our counter-stereotypically garrulous and optimistic Norwegian cook with an especial talent for pickling, failed to arrive in time to make the necessary preparations for an important dinner party because (as it turned out) he had been run over by a train.’ It doesn’t take long for the reader to realise that their violent ends and their acquaintance with Tarquin might not be entirely unconnected; the honeymooners’ prospects don’t look good.

Tarquin himself, necessarily, is not self-consciously grotesque: he is oblivious to both his absurdity and his barbarity – two of the characteristics he most deplores in others. The novel is a sustained, virtuoso exercise in dramatic irony. At times it’s so deadpan that the reader is in danger of adopting Tarquin’s way of seeing the world (which isn’t unseductive; he has some interesting things to say, incidentally, about the erotics of dislike), a danger averted, as often as not, by the inclusion of another’s opinion in direct speech, unrefracted through the ironic prism of Tarquin’s voice: ‘I prefer the old-fashioned spelling “receipt”, but it was pointed out to me that “if you call it that, nobody will have a f***ing clue what you’re talking about”’ (the decorous asterisks are Tarquin’s).

In Lanchester’s second novel, Mr Phillips (2000), the protagonist is very different, and so is the voice, but the effect of detached intimacy isn’t dissimilar. Mr Phillips is an ordinary man (although the novel calls into question what it means to describe someone as ordinary, Mr Phillips is uncomplicatedly ordinary in the sense that Tarquin is extraordinary), a middle-aged, suburban accountant who has just been sacked, and the book is an account of his first Monday of unemployment. He hasn’t been able to summon the nerve to tell his wife that he’s lost his job, so he gets ready for work as usual and leaves the house at the normal time, to spend the day wandering about London doing things he’s never done before, such as visit a porn cinema and disrupt a bank robery. Mr Phillips is anxious about many things, many of them having to do with sex; and he finds it difficult not to perform irrelevant statistical calculations on the various bits and pieces of information that come his way.

Mr Phillips, unlike Tarquin, doesn’t get to tell his own story. At least one review compared Mr Phillips to John Updike’s Rabbit novels, misled perhaps not only by Mr Phillips’s social identity and the preoccupation with sex, but by the third-person, present-tense narration. Updike’s technique, however, is to formulate the thoughts of his protagonist in the language Rabbit himself would use if only he could express himself as gracefully as he once played basketball: although it’s third-person, and the words aren’t his, it is still in a sense Rabbit’s voice that we hear. This isn’t the case with Mr Phillips. The narrator is a disembodied consciousness that finds itself inside Mr Phillips’s head one morning: ‘At night, Mr Phillips lies beside his wife and dreams about other women.’ The tone isn’t confessional; it’s too cool for that, and insufficiently judgmental – confession, after all, implies a sense of guilt. The result is an impartial, unflinching and detailed consideration of a stereotypically unremarkable man, one of the implications of which is that nothing, and more particularly nobody, is boring if scrutinised with enough of the right kind of attention.

In some ways Lanchester’s new novel, Fragrant Harbour, is the ideal opposite of Mr Phillips: its timespan is not one day but seventy years; it is set in a world that stretches not from Clapham to Soho but from England to Hong Kong; it has not one narrative voice but four (well, three and a bit: one of them only gets a couple of pages); it is concerned not with the ramifications of one man’s mid-life crisis but the grand themes of love, war, globalisation and history. Nonetheless, it is still distinguished by Lanchester’s trademark humour, intelligence and taste for facts.

The principal narrator is Tom Stewart, responsible for a full half of the novel (the interquartile range), and the brief prologue is in his voice, too. ‘Longevity can be a form of spite,’ it begins (the phrase is repeated two hundred pages later, where its particular relevance is clearer). ‘I am an old man myself now, and I recognise the symptoms.’ He was born in 1913 in Faversham, Kent, where his family ran a pub. His parents and sister died in the 1919 flu epidemic. In 1934, restless for travel, his imagination stirred by the stories of customers on their way between London and the Channel ports, he leaves his brother in charge of the Plough and sets out for Hong Kong. The other passengers on board the SS Darjeeling, many of whom will keep cropping up throughout Stewart’s life in the East, include: a young Chinese nun called Maria, who teaches Tom Cantonese; ‘two almost identical young men heading out to take up jobs with the Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank’; Mr and Mrs Marler, a businessman and his wife from Yorkshire, she an altogether more appealing character than he is. With the help of the ship’s captain, Stewart gets a job at the Empire Hotel. ‘In that act of unsolicited kindness, I catch a glimpse of how I must have seemed to other people in those days; how very young.’ The hotel is run by a man called Masterson. ‘In those days, when many people smoked a great deal, Masterson smoked literally all the time.’

Then the war comes, and Stewart, because he speaks Cantonese, gets involved with the British resistance to Japanese occupation. This requires a degree of collaboration with the Triads, as well as pretending to be a employee of the Hong Kong Bank (to be spared incarceration in Stanley internment camp) and making clandestine roof-top rendezvous in the middle of the night. The minor acts of heroism he performs are realistically modest: he’s an intermediary, a messenger, not a major player; but we get an impression of the larger picture from his accurate sense of how much he doesn’t know. At one point, more in the heroic manner, he manages to slip behind the advancing Japanese lines to meet up with Sister Maria, but this is an episode of significance only in his personal history. There is a fine sense of proportionality in the novel between the private and the public, and an individual’s relative significance within each.

The resistance is, inevitably, discovered by the Japanese, and the Bank workers are hauled off to Stanley, after being rigorously interrogated. Stewart’s recollections of Japanese brutality are appropriately stiff-upper-lipped, partly because that’s what he’s like, and partly because what he glosses over is indescribable, more effective if left to the reader’s imagination: ‘The soldiers subjected me to certain indignities.’ End of chapter. Hope is all that keeps people going in the camp. Marler (the Yorkshireman from the Darjeeling) is one of those who gives up, unable to imagine returning to life outside: ‘his despair was so raw it was like a social gaffe . . . A week later Marler was dead. When it happened, it could happen very quickly.’ By contrast: ‘“We should open a hotel somewhere else,” said Masterson one day, a few months after Marler died.’ Masterson survives, but only just: he retires early and returns to England. Stewart loses a friend, but gains a hotel, and ‘the Cold War was good for the hotel business in Hong Kong.’ He doesn’t, however, live happily ever after: when one of his old Triad acquaintances is arrested, and the moral integrity of Sister Maria is put to the test, the consequences amount to the central tragedy of Stewart’s life.

The principal plot twist is a violent torque in the final sentence of Stewart’s narrative. It is fairly unlikely (though less of a coincidence in fact than it at first appears), and depends on a considerable lacuna in Stewart’s account (though his reticence is in character). But the apparent implausibility doesn’t matter, in part because a plot without coincidence would be a) quite boring and b) not very realistic, but more importantly because the moment is prepared for by a scene of high farce straight out of a Jackie Chan movie. Stewart is being menaced by a group of drunken Englishmen:

He raised his arms to my chest and was about to push me again when the Chinese youth, moving incomparably more quickly than it takes to describe, stepped forward and made a pulling-and-chopping movement at his outstretched arms . . .

‘Fucking hell, it’s one of them kung fu chinkies,’ said one of the other youths.

The revelation that follows is swept up before the joke subsides.

Stewart’s narrative finishes in 1984. But before it even begins we are treated to the life story of Dawn Stone, a ‘bright and ambitious and sassy’ (in her own words), amoral, post-Thatcherite English journalist. ‘When I was a teenager I used to play a game called Count the Lies . . . If I had to explain in a sentence why I came to Hong Kong and why I now do what I do, that sentence would be this: money doesn’t lie.’ And she’s a good journalist: it doesn’t take her long to work her way from the Blackpool Argus through the gossip page of the Toxic, a ‘middle-market middle-England tabloid’, to news, features, then the broadsheets, and onto a magazine in Hong Kong called Asia for a 100 per cent pay rise. She finally abandons journalism altogether to become ‘media liaison’ for the massive international conglomerate that owns Asia, getting the job after writing an unpublishable article about Hong Kong’s ‘über-rich, focusing on the issue of where their money came from. In the case of several of the biggest local fortunes, the answers involved the Communists, the Triads, Khun Sa and his opium empire, and the rights to gambling in Macao.’ T.K. Wo, Asia’s proprietor, is one of the richest. Along the way, Stone breaks up with her nice, weak, self-righteous boyfriend who works in a bookshop. Her narrative ends as she goes off to sleep with Wo’s right-hand man, a way of closing the deal on her new job. In old-fashioned terms, she sells her soul. And while, as she would be the first to admit, she’s a self-serving bitch, she isn’t an unsympathetic character: not only is she refreshingly honest, she does what she believes she has to do to get ahead as an outsider in a world where nobody’s going to do her any favours. She also writes tight, funny, readable prose.

On the plane out to Hong Kong, Stone sits next to a young Chinese businessman, Matthew Ho, whose voice concludes the novel. He was born in China in 1966; in 1974 his mother took him clandestinely across the border into Hong Kong, where, when he grows up, he meets Tom Stewart. And, halfway through Ho’s narrative, Dawn Stone at last reappears, 233 pages (too long, you might think) since we last heard from her. In this way, the different threads are drawn together. Very crudely speaking, Dawn Stone represents the future, or rather an attitude that looks only to the future, and Tom Stewart has his gaze fixed unwaveringly on the past. The problem facing Matthew Ho, as he struggles to salvage his foundering air-conditioning company, is how to navigate between the two positions.

Negotiating the voices is one of the problems facing Lanchester, but he distinguishes deftly between them, and the transitions are sharply delineated. Stewart’s tone is immediately softer than Stone’s, more formal, more restrained. He’s less funny than she is, unfortunately, but can afford to be because he’s so much nicer. The first impression Ho gives, with his simple syntax, is that English isn’t his first language: ‘“A good rabbit has three burrows,” my father-in-law said. It is one of his favourite sayings. It was 1996, a year before handover. We were visiting a house in the Sydney suburb of Mosman.’ But the story soon becomes an account of his flight from China, and the style sits more comfortably with a child’s-eye view of momentous events not fully understood. And as his narrative develops, Ho’s confidence with language grows, though he still shies away from complex subordinate clauses.

The novel’s title is explained to Tom by Maria as they come to the end of their voyage on the Darjeeling:

‘It’s Hong Kong,’ she said. ‘Heung gong. Fragrant harbour.’

The harbour had a distinct, dirty smell, too brackish to be mere seawater. I said: ‘That’s one way of describing it.’

Maria smiled. ‘Chinese joke,’ she said.

Or, as Dawn Stone might put it, Hong Pong. But even once the title has been accounted for, there’s still something unsatisfactory about the way it sounds; perhaps my difficulty with it has something to do with Lady Archer.

There are names within the novel, too, that Lanchester seems to have not quite worked out what to do with: it would be fine to give London’s newspapers aliases such as the Toxic, the Serious and the Sentinel, and it isn’t a bad joke, only it sounds slightly odd when the Mail and the Times and the Guardian are in there as well, with their normal names. Likewise, when a couple of writers called Austen and Ingleby turn up in the Far East in the late 1930s you have to wonder how Auden and Isherwood could have put up with their company on the journey out. It transpires that, for subplot reasons, Austen has to be alive later than 1973, when Auden died; but it’s a distracting metafictional subplot which, despite its thematic bearing on the relationship between fiction and history, seems to belong in a different novel. (Professor Cobb, a friend of Stewart’s, dies before he can finish his translation of a work of Chinese history, The Lives of the Emperors. Stewart promises Mrs Cobb that he’ll do what he can to help get it published, and thinks Austen might be of some assistance. The poet sends The Lives of the Emperors to ‘an old friend . . . who taught Chinese for many years at the University of London’, who reveals it to be a more mysterious and complicated text than Cobb said it was.)

That said, the biggest problem with Fragrant Harbour is that, at a mere sixty pages longer than The Debt to Pleasure or Mr Phillips, it’s too short. It’s a broader, more conventional book than either of its predecessors, and could do with loosening its belt, to give itself more room to breathe. The intensity of focus so admirable in the earlier novels leads to a feeling of slight disappointment here. On top of which, it’s such a pleasure to read, you can’t help wishing there was more of it.