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Passage to Hong Kong

FRAGRANT HARBOR: A Novel, By John Lanchester, Marian Wood / G.P. Putnam's Sons: 342 pp., $25.95

July 07, 2002|JONATHAN LEVI | Jonathan Levi is a contributing writer to Book Review.

Summer is icummen in, and loudly we go cuckoo for DVDs, CDs and books that would--in the colder months--quickly find their ways into cardboard boxes and potbellied stoves. John Lanchester's "Fragrant Harbor" is too mild a book to give off enough heat to warm a frigid December, but for those with no more energetic ways to pass the hours between Piz Buin and cocktails, Lanchester's novel of 20th century Hong Kong is a harmless tonic.

Tom Stewart, Lanchester's narrator and hero, is one of those accidental clerks of literature: not important enough to be killed, but not so negligible that he escapes the forces of history altogether. Born in 1913 in rural Kent, the son of a publican, Tom sells his share in the Plough to his brother and turns the small bankroll into a passage to Hong Kong (which translates into English as "fragrant harbor") to test his wanderlust and avoid a lifetime of pulling pints.

He falls in with a dull crowd in the second-class mess (one might imagine a passable Agatha Christie taking shape in the upstairs dining room), enlivened only by the arrival in Marseilles of two nuns, one French, the other Chinese.

To prove a bet made around the dinner table, Tom agrees to try to learn Cantonese by the time the ship docks in Hong Kong. The real bet lies below deck. In his understated British, teenage son-of-a-publican kind of a way, Tom has a crush on the petite Chinese nun, Sister Maria.

Thanks to Sister Maria, soon the boat is alive with the sound of Chinese. Tom does, indeed, learn enough to change the shape of his subsequent life (even though the bet is called off out of arbitrary moral principle). It gets him a job at the Empire Hotel, which he more or less keeps through wars with the Japanese, the Communist Chinese and the triads turning him--on the cusp of the 1997 handing over of Hong Kong from the British to the Chinese--into a very wealthy bachelor.

Sister Maria, however, takes the narrow road into the deep north, to establish a mission among the rural poor. Every few years she emerges in moral splendor to engage Tom in conversation:

"Death is bigger than you, and it is that you are choosing," she says, in warped Dickensian, at a hot crossroads in World War II. Or later, when the Cultural Revolution on the mainland creates a flurry of panic in the colony, she asks Tom, with some concern:

" 'I hope you weren't caught up in demonstrations or anything like that.'

" 'Of course not. Just a bit of arm-waving. People waving their little red books. Looks oddly like a Bank deposit book, doesn't it?'

"She gently, reproachfully, tapped me on the arm with a folded-up devotional pamphlet."

Sister Maria, of course, is Tom's road not taken. She is by far the most interesting event in his life (and one wonders, with a summer sigh, why Lanchester didn't take her road into China, pen in hand), even if their banter is reminiscent of some of the duller bits of Leonard Woolf's memoirs. Indeed, their relationship does have consequences and reverberations that lead up to the end of Hong Kong's dramatic century.

The inevitable conclusion is that Lanchester is far more attached to his setting than to his characters. A writer raised in Hong Kong, Lanchester presumably assembled "Fragrant Harbor" out of stories and details mined not only from his own childhood, but from those of his grandparents and parents.

"Fragrant Harbor" is full of detail, from wartime internment to the up-to-date travel itineraries of its latest generation of clerks, the expat capitalists from the disillusioned counties of England and the peripatetic Asian "astronauts" who pass the time zones of their global lives shuttling from offices in Hong Kong to Sydney, London and Ho Chi Minh City.

And yet, Lanchester's detail is disappointingly prosaic. Our first sight of the Empire Hotel, which is to play such a large role in Tom's fortunes, shows it to be "a lovely, cool colonial building with ceiling fans, palms in the lobby, and a Belgian cook." Our last sight of the city is on the ferry where, "in the cabin, three boys were crowded together trying to watch 'The Matrix' on a portable DVD player. All three were wearing caps with the Nike swoosh." One might learn more about Hong Kong over a bowl of soup dumplings in Chinatown. Even in summertime, one expects more poetry than an adjective from Column A and a cliche from Column B.

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