Hello, friends. I’m halfway through a novel by Paul Scott called The Chinese Love Pavilion. I know, I know: SKETCHY TITLE ALERT! Don’t worry: this is, and will remain, a PG-rated blog.
Mostly, it’s research for my novel-in-progress (which is set in Malaya during the Second World War). The Chinese Love Pavilion (another suggestion from my well-read friend Mary Alice Downie) takes place mostly in Malaya just after the war, so I get to experience another writer’s vision of the place. I’d heard excellent things about Scott’s Raj Quartet – four linked novels set in India during the twilight of British colonial rule. I also knew the first novel of the quartet, The Jewel in the Crown, was adapted as a miniseries by the BBC in 1984 to massive acclaim.
The Chinese Love Pavilion, published in 1960, is about a friendship between two Englishmen in the colonies. The narrator, Tom Brent, is younger and in search of a shape for his life. He meets the unconventional, charismatic Brian Saxby in 1930s Bombay and, over the course of a whiskey-soaked evening, falls under his spell. This sets up the men for long conversations about the soul, fate, and the meaning of life. I have a limited tolerance for cod philosophy at the best of times, and that limit plummets when the “exotic” East is used as a picturesque backdrop for these kinds of musings. However, I stuck with it.
The story then skips over the Second World War and picks up in 1946 or so, when a war-injured Brent is brought to Malaya and instructed to find Saxby. Apparently, Saxby is hiding out the Malayan jungle and might be responsible for the revenge-slayings of some Chinese civilians. The metaphysical novel morphs into a kind of homage to Heart of Darkness, with Brent travelling deeper into jungle-dark territory to find his legendary but tortured friend. Promising, right?
Actually, I can’t remember the last time I was this appalled by a well-reviewed novel. The self-indulgent metaphysical musings drove me nuts, but I am predisposed to like most things thriller-ish, and the pacing of the novel’s second half is excellent. Also, Scott is gifted with an extraordinary sense of place. His descriptions of the Malayan landscape are vivid and entirely convincing, and his eye for natural detail is impeccable.
However, there’s one massive problem with the novel that (from my current perspective, 3/4 of the way through) taints everything else it attempts: the way it handles prostitution. Women – specifically, the sexual services of young Indian and Chinese girls – are the common currency of this novel. I’m not exaggerating in the least. Here are three conversations from the novel, in the order they occur:
At a restaurant in Bombay, where Brent and Saxby have just dined:
“[The girls are] clean. Clean now, you understand, not later. Later the bloom goes. Disease enters.”
“Does he sell them too?”
“To us first. Honoured guests. Then to others.
When Brent visits Saxby after a three-year gap:
“The little one holding the curtain so patiently, is for you. She is an untouchable, and, I am told, a virgin.”
I looked from Saxby to the girl and back to Saxby. “That was very thoughtful of you.”
He smiled. He said, “I have always been accommodating to my friends.”
In small-town Malaya, where the officer-in-charge offers Brent the use of “his” designated prostitute:
“Did you like her?”
“Yes, I liked her.”
…”Well while you’re here she’s yours. It all comes under the contract but you’ll probably like to give her the occasional present.”
“It’s very hospitable of you. What about you?”
“I’ll manage, I expect.”
Do you see the progression here? Prostitution is first an economic fact, and then a gesture of welcome between friends, and finally a common courtesy, like a cigarette or a cup of tea. I wondered, at first, if this obsessive attention to prostitution could be read as a kind of critique of colonialism, or a comment on the moral effects of the British imperial project. But no.
In a still-later scene, Brent describes a prostitute named Suki “who by European standards was no more than a child and looked absurdly fragile in his beefy arms”. This is an isolated moment of light-hearted physical contrast in a novel that otherwise takes itself extremely seriously. Significantly, it features a young woman who, if she was “European” – that is, worthy of civilized treatment – would be “no more than a child”. I don’t think the word “beefy” is an accident, here. It’s an evocation of what’s familiarly, essentially English. And the “beefy” Englishman who holds Suki – a loud-mouthed but fundamentally loyal and reliable soldier – has the approval of all characters. Could the subtext be any clearer? Child prostitution is a harmless joke, as long as the women are brown and the men are white.
*Let us all pause for a moment to bellow in rage and disgust.*
I am going to finish this novel, because I need to be as thorough as possible in my research. I remain open to the possibility that I could be wrong, and that something towards the end of the book will demolish all my objections. But I’m sad and afraid I’m on the right track.
I have a terrible taste in my mouth right now. What are you reading, friends? What do you recommend to cheer me up, when this thing is over?