Sunday, January 1, 2012

Lost In The Middle Kingdom

This appeared in yesterday's The Hindustan Times


Novels, like human beings, sag in the middle. Between the set-up and the denouement falls the shadow, as Eliot would have phrased it.  Some novels, in fact, never quite recover from this tapering off of tension as they progress. It is into this category, alas, that one must place Kunal Basu’s The Yellow Emperor’s Cure.

Earlier this year, both David Mitchell and Amitav Ghosh published novels based in earlier centuries where characters are changed by coming in contact with a walled-off Orient. In Mitchell’s The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, a young Dutch book-keeper falls in love in 18th century Japan; in Ghosh’s River of Smoke, the second in his Ibis trilogy, a bevy of characters, primarily an opium trader from Bombay, confront their destinies in 19th century Canton. Basu’s new novel, too, charts the fate of an European in late 19th century China – although it must be said that the author, better known for his moving short story, The Japanese Wife, has dealt with similar subjects almost from the start of his writing career, as evidenced by 2001’s The Opium Clerk.

The Yellow Emperor’s Cure deals with the travails of young Portuguese surgeon Dr Antonio Maria, possessed of “the most precious pair of hands in Lisbon”. In the words of his friends, he’s “rock steady with the scalpel, but a prize idiot when it comes to women”. The good doctor is shaken out of carousing at the Lisbon festa with the news that his beloved father has been stricken by the then-untreatable syphilis. He resolves to travel to China to find a cure for the “French Disease, Spanish Itch, German Rash or Polish Pox -- it was the same old curse Dom Columbus had brought home from Hispaniola along with gold and talking parrots”.

After a brief stint in Macau, Antonio ensconces himself at the summer palace of the Dowager Empress, adjacent to Peking. Here, he learns of the yin and yang of traditional Chinese medicine under the tutelage of the mysterious Dr Xu in a period when, as his friend tells him, "The grand libraries of Florence and Paris, London and Heidelberg, contain all that's known to mankind. We Europeans know as much as there is to know about the yellow race, more than they know about themselves!" Soon enough, in the time-honoured manner of Europeans before and after him, Antonio is quickly entranced by the enigmatic Fumi, Dr Xu’s assistant, a woman with a chequered past.

The doctor from the west has the misfortune to be in China at the time of the so-called Boxer Rebellion, the incipient nationalist uprising opposed to foreign influence.  The Boxers, one of the characters breathlessly asserts, are "...spirit soldiers, a ragtag bunch of bumpkins passing themselves off as god-sent saviours of China. There are eight million of them, or so they say, each capable of flying in air and spitting fire, immune to bullets and bombs”. The uprising will bring secrets to light and have defining consequences for Antonio and his compatriots.

Basu is adept in conveying locale, background and customs, be they of Lisbon’s bustling streets, the hubbub of Macau or the imperial courtyards and crowded marketplaces of Peking. There’s also a gallery of engaging, eccentric characters: Jesuit scholars, a pair of eunuchs, doctors, diplomats and merchants. After the novel’s brisk beginning, however, plot and character development become mired in thickets of cultural and historical detail (something that Mitchell and Ghosh also fell prey to). Moreover, especially when it comes to the Boxers, much is told and little is shown, rendering many episodes bloodless.

“A book is like a garden carried in your pocket”, goes the apocryphal Chinese proverb. The garden of The Yellow Emperor’s Cure is well-landscaped, with a defined entrance and exit; it’s the walkways within that are nebulous.  


Anu said...

My review of the book :

Unknown said...

Thanks, Anuradha. Will check it out.