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Novel Describes Contrasts in China : Author Makes Killing Before 'White Tiger' Is Published

October 23, 1987|KAY BARTLETT | Associated Press

NEW YORK — It couldn't have been a better summer for Robert Stuart Nathan, a former journalist who dared to follow his boyhood dream of becoming a novelist.

"My picture was in People magazine," said the 39-year-old author unabashedly. "I always thought I would give my left thumb to be in People."

Nathan's suspense novel, "The White Tiger" (Simon & Schuster), a book he had wanted to write for 23 years, came out late in the summer. Even before the publication date, rights to issue it in 17 languages were sold for somewhere around the $300,000 mark, an event so unusual that Publisher's Weekly put out a little blurb noting the sales.

Then a television network flew Nathan to Los Angeles to talk miniseries, and a movie maker expressed interest. The book also became an alternate Book-of-the-Month-Club selection. And the paperback auction had a $100,000 opening on the bidding, which means those rights will zoom.

An earlier novel, "The Religion," which Nathan co-authored under the nom de plume Nicholas Conde, was turned into a John Schlesinger movie, "The Believers" which starred Martin Sheen. It played throughout the summer, grossing a respectable $18.5 million by the beginning of August.

Dream Began at 16

Nathan's dream began when he was 16, sitting in the Clayton, Mo., library, absorbed in Theodore White's "Thunder Out of China."

"If I believed in reincarnation, and I don't, I'd say I must have had a prior life in China," he said. "I was absolutely fascinated by everything Chinese. I wanted to go to China when I graduated from high school, but that was when it was closed down and then came the Cultural Revolution."

Nathan was born in Johnstown, Pa., the middle of three sons of a toy wholesaler. When Nathan was 10, his father died and his mother moved to Clayton, a suburb of St. Louis.

After his graduation from Amherst, Nathan worked as a journalist for about six years, including stints as New York bureau chief and later White House correspondent for National Public Radio.

For two years before his 1984 trip to China to research the book, Nathan had repeatedly filed requests for permission. He wanted to go alone, to be free to mingle with the people. He met with constant rejection.

Right Connections

Then he had a stroke of luck. He met Sue Yung Li, whose high-ranking family had fled China but still had "good Guanxi." That means, loosely translated, it's not what you know, it's whom you know. She had the right connections and within days Nathan's trip was arranged.

Nathan, who agreed to write three travel pieces, was assigned an official high enough that he was not afraid to talk. They often stayed up half the night in conversation.

The mystery novel is a classic whodunit in which the protagonist starts to suspect the funeral he attends in the first chapter may have been a case of murder. The title, which contains a clue for Chinese scholars, comes from a Wang Wei poem, "The Old General's Song."

But the book's strongest point may be Nathan's view of modern-day China.

He was there five weeks, traveling by bicycle, steamer and train, alone and in the company of Communist Party officials. He was able to speak to some Chinese in French and English and official translators were provided.

Curious Chinese often sought out this 6-foot-3, fair-skinned Westerner asking questions.

Asked About Nixon

"Everybody wanted to know about Nixon," he said. "How he was. They don't quite understand why he fell. They wanted to know how many cars I owned, how many houses I had, how the economy was in the United States. They are very curious about the West."

A Shakespearean professor who was forced to pick vegetables in the fields during the Cultural Revolution for "teaching bad things, like Dickens and Shakespeare" told Nathan that what happened to him was a good thing, winking as he recited the official line.

A Chinese youth took Nathan to a rock 'n' roll concert where he heard rock versions of songs from "The Sound of Music" and "Hava Nagila" with a rock beat.

In Nathan's book, an old Communist Party stalwart exclaims of rock: "Wonderful. Decadent and wonderful."

In this classless society, Nathan heard an educated Chinese man refer casually to the peasants as "hicks."

Class Contradictions

In this socialistic society, he heard a high official grousing that the tour boats down the Yangtze River were not showing enough profit.

Nathan reflected on his departure from China and how it had changed him.

"When I left Canton on the train to Hong Kong, I left behind a 17th-Century world and moved into a world of high-rises as far as the eye can see. I relaxed for the first time in five weeks and I internalized that a part of me had become Chinese.

"In the book, I wanted to make what came true for me come true for every reader, to know that the Chinese are not people dressed in blue Mao outfits who are robots. They are marching to different tunes, but they worry about their children, they fall in love, they have the same storytelling needs as we do."

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