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Book Review : Story, at Length, Takes Place in China

October 26, 1987|CAROLYN SEE

From a Far Land by Robert Elegant (Random House: $19.96; 735 pages).

This is a late review because "From a Far Land" is a very long book and--you've heard of books you can't put down?--this is one that you can't pick up.

There may exist more dull and uninspirational volumes than this at-large in this country right now, but, if so, they're lying, dusty and lifeless, on the shelves of some long-forgotten elementary school library.

It's as if Robert Elegant has been living in a state of perfect amnesia for a very long time. He forgets that he has written 12 previous books on the Orient and that in the last four years, at least another 20 have appeared, covering the same material he's dealing with here. (This is, I forgot to say, a historical novel set in China, covering 31 years, from 1921 to 1952.) So, disregarding "Shanghai," "110 Shanghai Road," "Shanghai Tango," "China Saga," "Empire of the Sun," "Julia Paradise" (a brilliant story that totally transcends this by-now sorely fatigued genre), and forgetting as well all the movies and television that we must have seen set in the Orient, Elegant begins with a stupefyingly doltish introduction: Before he can begin to bore us to death, he must explain what he is doing.

735 Pages to Fill

" War lords were ambitious generals," he tells us. " Strong foreign influences throughout China from treaty ports like Shanghai. . . ." The man has 735 pages to tell his story. Don't you think he might be able to work that material into the text? (Imagine Louis L'Amour reminding his readers in an introduction that " cowboys herded cows across what was then called the Wild West . They sometimes encountered tribes of what they referred to as Indians . . . .")

But then comes Elegant's novel, and by comparison that makes the introduction look great. A Caucasian woman named Julie marries a Chinese man named Tommy who has a sister named Emily who has a long-term romance with a Caucasian writer named Richard. (Why the Chinese here have names like Rosamonde and Donald and Eurydice is a problem, but it's Elegant's problem, not ours.) Because the years 1920-1950 cover, among other things, the Chinese Civil War, Emily is a fan of Chiang Kai-shek and Julie a fan of Mao Tse-tung. (These people may variously be called reactionaries or Communists, in case you've been living on Mars for the last 50 years. The reactionaries were corrupt in China, while the Communists were often brutal .)

With his characters safely introduced, Elegant goes on automatic pilot and cranks out some of the standard accouterments of the standard Chinese historical novel. We get a nostalgic reprieve of a pre-revolution banquet: "Several tables against the wall were stocked with champagne, claret, whiskey, brandy, and port, which stained the damask table cloths as harried waiters filled fresh glasses. Before heaped lobsters, oysters, crabs, and shrimps, carved-ice dragons with flashing electric-bulb eyes guarded mounds of caviar, smoked eel, and pickled salmon. Other tables offered entire roast geese, ducks, pheasants, and suckling pigs." Gee whiz! No wonder they had a revolution! (Although, on second thought, the concept of an "entire duck" can be assimilated by an alert and open mind.)

White Skin, Red Satin

What would one of these novels be without a weird sex scene or two? They're here, with plenty of white skin and red satin. But what Elegant has for us mostly is political exposition, and after that more political exposition: Here, for instance, two friends catch up on old times: "Two years and two months, my friend. We crossed the Hankow-Peking Railway in October 1932 on our way west. Chiang Kai-shek's Fourth Campaign to Exterminate the Communists concentrated on us. I had already set up the Szechwan Soviet area when you and Mao Tse-tung finally decided you couldn't hold out against the Fifth Extermination Campaign."

That's some dialogue. But try this: Here are Julie and Tommy, after 20 years of marriage, just chatting along (Tommy doesn't talk, he "riposts savagely"): " 'Julie, please spare me the half-baked rationalizations of Shanghai Labor University. How any decent Chinese could justify todying to Moscow--.' "

Elegant should have remembered he is writing in a form called a novel , which often has believable depictions of people called characters that ideally we should care about. Also, there should be a structure called a plot , which, ideally, should move . . . .

Gimlet Gulps

But Elegant simply can't be bothered. His characters "gulp their gimlets" over and over, sometimes twice on the same page. "Feckless Amahs" appear only 20 lines away from a reference to a "feckless city." Julie, the Caucasian heroine, escapes from Communist China inconspicuously dressed in an imperial yellow silk suit. Gen. Claire Chennault (who founded the Flying Tigers) makes a brief appearance in which he remarks, "Find me men with no flight training, instead of those dodos who think they're hot pilots . . . ." ( Dodos! )

Did Elegant even read this thing over before he turned it in? Usually you can think of someone to buy a book for or else it wouldn't have been published. But I'd be careful with this one. The cover is beautiful, so it qualifies as decoration. And the book is heavy enough to use as a lethal weapon. But giving it away to be read, even to your worst enemy, could carry severe karmic implications.

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