Saturday, July 21, 2012

China Boy, by Kay Haugaard

For a change of pace, this is a review of the above book. 

It is a pleasant, quiet read; a fictional account of a young man who arrives in the California Gold Rush from Guangdong.  The story is somewhat idealized so we are spared real nastiness although the author writes about the rise of anti-Chinese feelings that ultimately produced the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1880.  To keep the score even, there are nasty moments among the Chinese themselves--greed, jealousy, tongs.

With hard work and the help of some friendly Chinese and non-Chinese, the main character thrives and finds his sister--presumed lost in some floods in Guangdong, she has actually made her own way to the Beautiful Country.  The author, writing in 1971, found the sister's bound feet worthy of remark.  Perhaps it is but most traditional Chinese prefer not to speak about it. The author presents a truer picture of the success of the Chinese in that period in showing how many prospered in the restaurants and laundry establishments as opposed to striking it rich in the mines.  In general, it has been remarked, more money was made off the miners than in the mines; logically, this presents a puzzle for economists.  The book does not go into the railroad building and other later activities and troubles of the immigrants.  The plot and character development in the book do not invite comment.

Many books have been written about the coming of the Chinese to America, from Gunther Barth's pioneering (1964) Bitter Strength and T. Y. Char's edition of recollections (1975) of those who made it to The Sandalwood Mountains (Hawaii).  The most detailed recent work of H. M Lai (2004) Becoming Chinese American focused on the Chinese in California arriving before the Exclusion Act and the social and other organizations they created.  It is safe to say that the descendants of those who arrived in the 19th century are not conscious of being foreign in America.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Spy novel: work in progress

(A suburb of Shanghai)

By sheer and meaningless coincidence, the North Korean arms dealer Kim arrived in Shanghai the same day as the Spymaster and his party returned to Beijing from their journey to the West.  Kim arrived in a small jet as the traffic from Pyongyang was tiny relative to that from London or almost any other part of the world to China.  His flight had been brief and uneventful, from one tightly controlled part of the world to another.
Kim looked forward to a week of relatively greater freedom in Shanghai; he had a couple of friends to visit with, old school and army chums now on various missions for their country.  He intended to do a little shopping, to pick up gifts for his mother and sisters.  Of course, he would indulge in a taste he had developed in his earlier career in the North Korean foreign ministry serving in Eastern Europe—that for blondes of well nourished proportions.
Passport control posed no issue for Kim as he was scrupulous with his documents although he could also count on the alliance between his country and the People’s Republic.  This was true also of his passage through customs control.  Kim was not so foolish as to try to smuggle anything through China; not only did he have nothing to declare, he had nothing he had brought with him except for his briefcase.  His bodyguards Ban and Kang would have all their hardware cleared in a diplomatic pouch as pre-arranged by their Embassy.
Kim’s life in North Korea offered every comfort and protection that the state could provide.  In China, he would enjoy the protection of the local police in addition to that of his personal body-guards and the security detail from his Embassy.  His two body guards were from the elite corps that protected the leadership of the state; they would each take a twelve hour shift and the security detail consisted of three two-man teams that would each take an eight hour shift.  Perhaps the East European flesh peddlers would have made additional arrangements as well, for he was one of their most important—profitable--customer.  Kim had heard that there were negotiations between them and a local underworld gang and it amused him to consider the irony of such a situation.
He walked through the busy airport oblivious to discreet video and personal tracking of his movement through to the curb and paid no heed to anyone who followed his car as it sped off to his safe-house.  He was only mildly irritated to find that they were stuck in a traffic jam that seemed to stretch in every direction as far as the eye could see.  It could mean an extra hour for him to brush up on Ukrainian so he put on the earplugs of his mp3 player.  Then he paused and changed his mind and speed-dialed a number.
“Hello,” said an accented voice, neutral in tone.
“Viktor, Kim here.  I wondered if Nadia might be available in an hour or so—we are stuck in traffic from the Airport. … Also, I wondered if she might be available for a week.”
There was a slight pause before Viktor responded:  “Of course, Mr. Kim.  I shall call you back if there is any problem.  If not, you can expect Nadia at your place in an hour and a half.”
Kim heaved a sigh; this was a new departure.  He had known Nadia, her working name, since he met her in Kiev more than ten years ago.  They had met from time to time until Kim returned to North Korea.  A couple of years later, she showed up in Shanghai and they had resumed their occasional dalliance.  But he had usually seen her for a night or two and there had always been others.  Now … life might be getting complicated.
Nadia had the radiant look of Renoir’s women; she might have just stepped out of one of his paintings minus forty pounds or so but with her bust-line intact.  She was always ready and enthusiastic without any off-putting, metallic hint of professionalism.  If she bore any scars physical or emotional from her life, Kim had not detected them.  She was comfortable with silence; she was happy to chat, and she was not embarrassed to admit ignorance of this or that. 
She never inquired about Kim’s work even when he spoke of his frustrations and stress and, whether he was able to spend an hour with her or a day, she accepted the situation with equanimity and good cheer.  When they first met, he was nearly thirty and she was in her early twenties.  The years had been kind to her; she might have gained some gravitas but not an ounce of avoirdupois.
In a following car, Agent Li, formerly the Sergeant Major, compared his notes with those of his Shanghai police liaison, Old Gong.  This police liaison had been arranged with Commissioner Wen, the Spymaster’s friend on the Committee on Public Safety.  Old Gong belonged to a national command for counter-terrorism that did not report to regional authority, that is, the Shanghai metropolitan police command. 
Li was aware that he had much to learn about following a suspect from his seasoned police companion and was relieved to hear that he had committed no serious errors.  The policeman on the other hand was impressed that the intelligence agency had actually asked for his assistance.  Inter-agency relations, even inter-departmental ones within the police force, tended to be on the short side of courteous.
As Kim arrived at his safe house, another car drove up and Nadia stepped out with a small valise.  She smiled and slipped an arm through Kim’s and the couple entered, followed discreetly by the bodyguards.  Kim showered as Nadia made herself comfortable, and then they embraced and slipped into bed hungrily. 
“I have missed you, Nadia.”
“It is good to see you, Kim.  I am glad you are safe.”
At about the same time as Kim started going to school, his father began service in the elite corps serving as bodyguards to the Great Leader (Kim Il-Sung, no relation).  By the time the Eternal President passed away, Kim’s father was well established in the hierarchy of the Party.  His standing helped pave the way for Kim’s progress through the Army and then in the foreign affairs ministry.  Kim was not exempt from the political indoctrination and military training required of all, but his father’s influence put him into the most favorable positions possible and under the most sympathetic mentors he could have had.  It also made life comfortable for his mother and his sisters.
The posting to various embassies in East Europe were far from luxurious.  Like many other North Koreans abroad, Kim was expected to generate revenue for the State.  From generic smuggling to drug running, Kim quickly moved to arms dealing.  He had a flair for negotiations.  His very first customer was desperately in need of ammunition of certain kinds.  Kim checked with North Korean Army Logistics and learned who were the most likely suppliers and then tracked down who were their recent and not so recent purchasers. 
He was dogged in his pursuit of details and actually enjoyed the give and take of the bargaining process.  For this customer and many others to follow, he learned who had inventory to spare and his instincts led him surely to the limits of each exchange.  When these transactions were successfully concluded, Kim’s earnings for the State accumulated to a substantial amount; even more valuable was the enhancement to his reputation for this would provide him with customer referrals and repeat business.  
The confusion in the armed forces of the states newly independent from the Soviet Union undoubtedly furnished him with many of his solutions.  But by far the greatest advantage Kim had was his willingness to work incredibly long hours and, perhaps even more important, to consider the possibility that three or four trades might be required to provide the solution for a particular customer. 
On one occasion he created a daisy chain of deals involving six parties—a beleaguered drug cartel in South American with cash to burn but running out of hardware, a cash-strapped African warlord, two rogue elements in different Middle Eastern armies, a cynical sub-contractor working for the West, and an Afghan warlord.  Each party required two weeks work each--compressed into two days for Kim.  In the end, each party got what it wanted, at a slightly higher price than it had originally been willing to pay.  Kim’s legend grew wildly, but he was thoroughly exhausted.
In the fifteenth year of his career as arms dealer, he learned about the Pashtuns and the opportunity to earn 30 million Euros for a product his country manufactured.  This was for him the equivalent to what had famously, fatuously, been described at a world-historical moment as a “slam-dunk.”    
“Nadia, would you tell me your real name?”
“Why?  Nobody uses it anymore!”
“What is it?  Surely, you don’t use Nadia for your passport.”
Nadia looked at Kim with unrehearsed questions in her eyes.  In Kim’s she saw unresolved hope, wishful thinking, and weariness.  Kim himself was wondering what he had started.
“I tell you anyway; it is Oksana Brodsky.  But you know my life--I must live one day at a time-- it is easier to stick to Nadia.”
“Thank you Nadia--Oksana Brodsky.  Perhaps you are right.”  He smiled then asked:  “Would you like to go shopping tomorrow?”
As Nadia beamed, he added, “I need to visit with a couple of friends so I’ll drop you off at a nearby shopping mall and pick you up in three or four hours.  Get yourself three or four dresses.”
“Will we eat out or …?”
“What would you prefer?”
“If you don’t mind, I’d like to get all dressed up but eat in.”
“That’s fine with me.  I’ll have Ban order for us.”
“And not Chinese food, if you can manage, please.”
“We can manage that.”
They embraced again and Kim resumed his exploration of Nadia’s voluptuous curves, luxuriating in pneumatic bliss.

Friday, July 6, 2012

REVIEW: Lee Fullbright, The Angry Woman Suite

This novel is very well-written with a strong voice.  The voice overwhelms the three points of view from which the story is told:  Elysse, the step-daughter; Francis, the step-father, and Aidan, Francis’ school teacher and mentor who is friend to both.  Each has a small group of significant companions—the wise and good grandfather, the damaged aunt, the lovers, and above all Magdalene, David’s mother and the model for the Angry Woman Suite, a set of ten paintings.  These paintings were intended, we are told, to represent a marriage, but we are also told, there is nothing loving about them.  The novel, like the paintings, is suffused with anger, hate and pain—“the hurting is always caused by someone who loves you and you love back.”

Of Magdelene herself, it is said that she is “suspended between avoidance and obsession.”  Like one of the characters in an episode, the reader moves through the story as if striding through “corridors redolent of old urine and spent dreams.”  What love shows through in brief moments here and there in the novel appears when there is comfort that comes from “recognition of the beloved.”  Withall, this is a bleak and unsettling story; yet, it is nonetheless a compelling read.

Now we know--that the corollary of a Romantic piety is not true--that our saddest thoughts do not yield our sweetest songs.  But they do yield novels that deserve to be read. 

Book Reading - Six Stories

These six stories show some characters from the Shu and Wu kingdoms. Liu Bei, the warlord who dedicated himself to the defense of the Han Dy...