Friday, 23 May 2008

Nicholas Jose - The Red Thread, faber and faber, 2000Nicholas Jose's The Red Thread (2000) has many subtle surprises and one of these is its similarity - in tone, topic and structure - to a Henry James novel. I think, particularly, of The Golden Bowl (1904).

In a nutshell, The Red Thread is a palimpsest: a love story in 'real life' superimposed - uncannily - onto a fictional one. Shen Fuling, an art dealer, meets and falls for Ruth, an Australian artist exhibiting in Shanghai, where Shen works with a number of aspirational (read: money-hungry and crass) natives and the Oxford-educated poof Ricky Chittleborough.

Shen comes across an old 'masterpiece' called Six Chapters of a Floating Life (written in the 19th century but with a title all Westerners will associate with Japan in its Edo period). Bought from the back-country seer Old Weng, Six Chapters comes to obsess Shen so much that he pulls it from sale on auction night.

He starts to read his - and Ruth's - lives in the mesmeric old text.

Eventually, their floating life comes crashing down - it appears. To get there, they must 'float' - and they do. They bump into Han, a poor Shanghinese karakoe singer with large breasts, and the three of them intertwine their hours and minutes so effectively that they are in danger of becoming totally disassociated from the world around them.

They escape, after Shen loses his job, into the countryside - to Mrs Ma's hotel in a dank, fragrant, rotting burg crisscrossed with canals.

It's Ricky, ironically, who descends to treachery - the paintings are clearly forgeries (Shen discovers) - because their owner is the deputy mayor of the city and the art house needs patronage to survive. There's money involved.

“He’s asking me to betray my own ability to discern quality, the difference between real and fake. It may seem like a small thing, but it’s the biggest thing in the world. It's what art is all about. And life too.” (pp 89-90)

His very being is at stake. And it's ironic because, when the last two chapters of Six Chapters surface (thanks to Old Wang), Shen is the one to handle it.

Once word was out about the find, the news would spread like wildfire among those with a penchant for such things. So I donned my suit and tie and returned to work. (p 184)

Instead of writing about corruption in China, however, Jose has been very clever. Not only do we get a taste of the Orient (as it really, in fact, is) - the poverty and helplessness, the small pleasures and beauty, the dynamism of the city and the desperate charm of the old parts of the country - we also get the 'system'.

Shen's apartment, for example. He loses it, of course (he must lose everything to find his true self). But the way it happens is realistic.

Shen's brother gets into trouble. Shen's father, whose own family had lived in the same house Shen inhabits now (though only one apartment on the top floor) for generations, asks Shen to sell. They need to get Shen's brother out of the clink. In any case, the municipal government wants land for construction.

Shanghai is losing itself and doesn't realise it. The way Shen's two, beautiful imperial Ming stem cups are stolen in a cheat and then resurface in the last pages of the book, is highly poetic. This is because they bring Han together with her husband.

But I'm going too fast. This is the problem, though. There's so much happening. And, because Jose has stolen James' thunder he uses James' tactic: slow development with minimal shock. Some key items can be introduced right at the very end of a section, in a seemingly off-the-cuff subclause. It's like watching an ace tennis champion play.

The Orient has allure and Jose obviously spent time there. In addition, he translated his own passages from Six Chapters (a real work of fiction). And he avoids the big sin of James: a simplistic 'us and them' attitude. James' everlasting curse on the Old Continent - it's corrupt and so are its people, while Americans are "young and free" - is not here. Thank god!

The story of Ruth and the story of Shen and the story of Han work themselves out with passion and creativity but, also, with a solemn inevitability that matches Jose's tone and pace.

This is an unsung masterpiece. Please to read, sir. Whoever you are.

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