Cold Harbor

6 minute read
Bryan Walsh

Fragrant Harbour, John Lanchester’s new novel of Hong Kong, begins with a map; two actually. Unless the book in question is Treasure Island, this is rarely a good sign. A map sends a warning signal that what lies ahead may be so complicated that readers will be unable to keep their bearings without graphic aids. But this is a book that seeks to map the heart of a city. In its geography lies its spirit. Stretching over seven decades, and narrated by three different characters, Lanchester’s novel tells the story of Hong Kong: its murky past, its riotous rise, its uncertain present. Lanchester paints an exquisitely detailed picture of the city the Chinese call hueng gong, or fragrant harbor. But this landscapedevoid of human emotionis oddly empty, much like his maps, which are clean and stark, with just a smattering of well-known buildings. Fragrant Harbour wants to be an intimate epic, but it’s too rushed to be epic, too reticent to be intimate.

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The novel begins with the acerbic Dawn Stone, a self-described British “features hack,” who takes a magazine job in Hong Kong during the heady days of 1995. Dawn fits in perfectly in Hong Kong’s money-mad atmosphere, and Lanchester cuts loose, describing her rapid transformation from wry observer to gleeful participant to seductee, a metamorphosis that culminates when Dawn quits to do P.R. work for her shady billionaire Hong Kong boss. Not that the change from British tabloid hack to media conglomerate shill represents a measurable step-down in ethics.

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Pakistan’s Pervez Musharraf
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Past Issues Vegetarianism Jul. 15, 2002 —————– Understanding Anxiety Jul. 8, 2002 —————– Being Tom Cruise Jul. 1, 2002 —————– Asia’s World Cup Jun. 24, 2002 —————– China’s Labor Problems Jun. 17, 2002

Korea: Naval Clash

Malaysia: Anwar’s Last Hope

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Piracy: Faking Harry Potter

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Dawn is then banished until the final chapter, and the story is taken up by a second narrator, Tom Stewart, a British lad who makes the sea trip to Hong Kong in 1934 at age 21. It’s here that the narrative slows. On the trip east he meets Sister Maria, a Chinese nun “not so much pretty as perfect.” She somehow teaches him Cantonese in six weeks, they become friends and Tom launches his career as a hotelier in Hong Kong, where his Chinese gives him a double-edged insight into the divided colony. The years pass and Stewart comes to love Hong Kong, but his romantic horizon remains clear of so much as a Suzie Wong, let alone a Mrs. Stewart. As it is ever so slowly inferred, he’s in love with Sister Maria, and she with him. As affairs go, this is a 0-0 tie. It’s a cold flame that animates the heart of Fragrant Harbour, a love that gives off little heat.

Lanchester could be forgiven for building his epic around an untenable love triangle (Tom, Sister Maria, God). Thwarted passion has always been ready fuel for romantic works, but it requires that someone actually show passion. We know how Tom feels about the changing moods of the South China Sea, and how Sister Maria feels about God, but we aren’t given a single overt clue as to how they feel toward each other until Lanchester stoops to the positively Victorian device of a misplaced letter. Lanchester neither shows nor tells, infuriatingly keeping every important moment of emotional revelation offstage. That sort of writerly reticence would exact a stiff toll in a shorter book; in an epic, it’s lethal.

Lanchester is a skilled stylist, though, and he writes brilliantly of such things as Hong Kong’s brutal occupation by the Japanese during World War II. Here his emotional distance serves him well. At the Stanley internment camp, Tom says, “morale was surprisingly high, not least because when it dropped, people tended to die.” Understatement is perhaps the only appropriate response in the face of brutal suffering. His deadpan style is as clean and potent as a rifle shot.

In contemporary Chinese entrepreneur Matthew Ho, who narrates the final section of the novel, Lanchester manages to create a character even more restrained than Tom. Matthew ably illustrates the complexities of running a Hong Kong business after the 1997 handover, but makes such a light impression that he threatens to disappear from the page. As a result, the novel ends with a whimper.

Fragrant Harbor has been advertised as the Great Hong Kong Expat Novelhardly a genre fraught with competition. Fortunately, Lanchesteran Englishman raised in Hong Konghas a familiarity with the city that extends far beyond the numbing bubble of contemporary expatriate life. He shows that almost everyone who has helped build Hong Kong over the past 50 years has been, in effect, an expatfrom the Westerners with empty pockets and overflowing dreams to the mainland refugees who made the city their own. Each of the three narrators of Fragrant Harbour has vivid memories of first seeing Hong Kong. Dawn in her business-class Cathay Pacific seat, enduring the white-knuckle approach to Kai Tak Airport; Tom hanging from the rail of his steam liner, drinking in the “junks like overgrown children’s toys”; Matthew, the refugee, who crawled into Hong Kong through weeds and barbed wire. Those first impressions inform the life of their relationship with this fluid city.

Hong Kong of late is no longer an expat town. The flow of eager Westerners has slowed, for better or worse, and third-generation Hong Kongersthe descendants of refugeesseem eager to shut their doors to abode seekers. Lanchester is smart enough not to predict the future of Hong Kong, but one wonders if the city’s endless capacity for renewalits greatest giftwill survive without the constant influx of new schemers, dreamers and refugees to clap fresh eyes on that bustling harbor, and breathe deep its pungent fragrance.

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