Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Chinese Justice

Of course, I have no special information about the workings of the Chinese judiciary or Party disciplinary processes. It is probably nothing if not opaque to those who have looked into it. But with the current President's avowed war on corruption, especially having those in the inner circle in mind, I indulged in some wishful thinking. In The Ninja and the Diplomat, I cast the diplomat in the title as a princeling, the son of a bona fide veteran of the Long March. He is a hard-working diplomat, brilliant and forward-looking, indispensable to his fatherland. But he makes a mistake and is charged with corruption. Here I envision how a sub-committee of party elders discuss with humanity and objectivity his fate.


yi or integrity

 A week after the mission to retrieve the trigger mechanisms of the stolen nuclear devices concluded, Wang accompanied Cai to a very secret meeting. It was that of the party’s disciplinary tribunal and had been convened to decide on the sentencing of MFA Deputy Minister Yu. Wang had attended its preliminary proceedings only as a substitute for Cai. Though still frail from his treatments, Cai felt it important enough to attend in order to lend the weight of his seniority within the party to salvaging Yu’s life and career.
“I see minister Yu has an extra advocate for this hearing,” declared the presiding party cadre, an elder of the party, with a smile.
“I can wait outside,” offered Wang.
Cai interrupted, “Commissar Wang has represented me throughout your deliberations last month and is kind enough to accompany me here to make sure I do not stumble. I would consider it a great favor if this august body would let him stay, without a vote, of course.”
zheng yi(simplified form) = justice, sense of

The other three men, who had known Cai for decades nodded as they turned to focus on the issue before them.
“As I see it,” elaborated the presiding cadre, “the committee on discipline wants to make a point.”
“We created the whole process and institution,” added a second party elder. “It would be illogical for us to obstruct or pervert its processes.”
“Do they want to see Yu executed?” asked Cai. “So far as I can see, he is guilty of a single lapse when he issued the export permit. I understand that the permit was used only once to export a single tactical nuclear device.”
“That is in his favor,” interjected the second elder, “as is the fact that he did not gain from this lapse.”
“So the inquiry has satisfied itself of that fact?” asked Cai, seeking confirmation.
“They did,” confirmed the third elder. “But only after a very thorough investigation including an intrusive search of Yu’s residence that greatly distressed his wife.” Wang knew that this elder was the favorite uncle of Yu’s wife and fervently hoped the older man would give no leverage to the Party disciplinarians hunting for signs of favoritism.
gongdao= justice, practice of

“I believe that the process would be satisfied with his dismissal from the ministry and the party,” concluded the chairman. Cai and Wang exchanged a look as if affirming to each other a previously prepared position.
Cai asked,
“Would the process be suitably appeased with his suspension rather than dismissal from the party and ministry?”
“Possibly,” responded the chairman, “but only if the removal of the suspension is subject to the jurisdiction of the disciplinary committee.”
“Why would we want to urge a lesser punishment by the disciplinary process?” asked the second elder. “I knew his father and I don’t think he would have supported bending the rules for his son.”
Cai looked around to assess the mood of the others as Wang held his breath.
“I don’t think we are bending the rules for former minister Yu,” stated Cai deliberately. “I believe the punishment is excessive. I also consider that the valuable service to his country Yu has given should be taken into account.”
“I’m only playing the devil’s advocate,” offered the second elder. “Why do we think he is personally so valuable? He works with a whole ministry and the support of the Party.”
“Senior Commissar Cai should address the ideological question of the role of an individual in a collective,” observed the chairman, “but I wish to note that I have been impressed over two decades by the dedication of comrade Yu.”
“Perhaps our spymaster has an assessment to share with us,” suggested Cai in a tone deferential to the others at the meeting. “He has sat in for me over the last few weeks in a number of the meetings involving international liaisons.”
Both Cai and the chairman looked around to make sure there were no visual cues of dissatisfaction from the others in the meeting before nodding at Wang.
“With respect,” stated the spymaster, “I have noticed that both the MFA and the committees in which Yu participates benefit from his passion, initiative, and grasp of the various complex issues. He has the rare ability to balance economic, political, military, and other interests, as well as to foresee how our friends and enemies will respond to our initiatives.”
Sensing that his words were not adequately conveying his message, Wang reached into a familiar Chinese classic for an illustration. “He is like Zhuge Liang among the councilors of Wu.”
Smiles lit up among the elders. One responded, “Like lightning among the lightning bugs.”
The chairman of the meeting added, “I believe the English have a saying, like a swan among the ducks.”
The senior commissar observed light-heartedly, “Our elder is very fashionable.” Turning around to Wang, he said, “It is well that the classics illuminate our discourse, but we must not forget that China was brought to her knees by four thousand years of ignorance of the outside world, a world into which Minister Yu would be a brilliant guide.”
After a pause to catch his breath and to collect his thoughts, the ‘devil’s advocate’ declared, “I am happy to have our reasons outlined so clearly and trust this confirms our recommendation to the committee on discipline.”
Thus Yu’s fate for the immediate future was determined. He would leave the ministry immediately and be relieved of all party positions and perquisites.
“Does the Committee on Discipline have any stipulation about what Yu can or cannot do?” asked Cai innocently.
The cadre chairing the meeting, who had known Cai from their days together as lukewarm Red Guards, maintained a straight face as he stated, “I believe it would be displeased if he should be given any access to wealth or power. But otherwise I know of no restrictions.”

Without taking a vote, which was always the preferred outcome, this meeting arrived at a decision that would finalize the disciplinary process. 

All the above appears in a putative spy novel so I have received many comments about it being too discursive, not sufficiently fast-paced. I hereby succumb to the temptation to paraphrase Marie-Antoinette: "Have some cake, darlings."

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Review of Louis B. Jones' Particles and Luck

"Say there is a very fortunate young newly wed, a theoretical physicist who has just purchased a deluxe semidetached unit...." Thus we are introduced to the main character of this witty book. He is "a groggy newcomer to California where even one's dearest old values are immediately refracted in the clean air. It turns out that he loves California, completely, amnesiacally."


A great deal goes on regarding the development of the sub-division and potential real estate scams or woes that haunt the imagination of the MC's neighbor and some might say this is a story of male bonding of an peculiar sort. Perhaps so, but I am more taken in by the fluent, plausible reflections on perception and reality, that test one's understanding of the meaning of meaning and the nature of nature. 

Neither his "improbably beautiful" wife nor the voluptuous "work-study assistant"--dismissed by a colleague as "Euro-trash"--participate in the plot. The one has hung the same two art posters wherever they had lived, "a Frida Kahlo self-portrait in traction and a Georgia O'Keefe anatomy of an iris incapable of fragrance." The other flirts with him and "a sweet remorse enters his life again"; they embrace and he discovers that "her hips adjust on a mysterious fulcrum," and "the air is different in the world of infidelity. It's clear."    

Indeed, there does not appear to be much of a plot, just writing that scintillates. "We are out of oatmeal" says improbably beautiful wife, fully knowing "that setting a nickel of brown syrup at the north, south, east and west quadrants of his oatmeal is the only way he can begin his day (a manipulative way to get him of of bed, by panicking him)."

The author deftly reveals more of the MC - "Before he sits anywhere, he has to lift the chair discreetly and tap each of its legs four times--upper left and right, then lower left and right--sixteen taps altogether."

We are treated to views into the MC's mind, such as - Turning on the faucet, he is entranced by the "perfectly smooth column of water which imprisons a filament of cold daylight. It's beautiful. It is impossible to imagine the whole thing could be time reversible--as if you could run the movie backward, provided you could also reverse particle charge and parity, and, in a mirror-reversed universe composed of anti-matter, watch the water swarm ... up the drain into a column and thrust itself up into the faucet--resulting in the identical apparition: a tube of water."

This is writing of a very high order. Going outdoors into the "cleansing air straightens his shoulders, makes him a few centimeters taller as the vertibrae unclench from the habitual spinal curve that characterized all the physicists [aligned] along the corridors like floating babies decaying." 

Read. Savor. 

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

LeGuin on Lavinia

Recently I read Ursula LeGuin's Lavinia which she says is inspired by the last six books of Virgil's Aeneid. I wanted to get a feel for how a master writer deals with an ancient era (more on that shall be revealed in the coming months).

In the Aeneid, Virgil allows Lavinia not a single word of her own. I imagine that it was with
some sense of vengeance, despite her admiration for his poetry, that LeGuin writes Lavinia entirely in her voice and from her point of view. It is mostly the voice of a late teen, when Lavinia is doted upon by her father, king of the Latins, and treated almost as a stepchild by her mother since the death of her sons, Lavinia's adored brothers. So much of the story is Lavinia's that both the father and the mother are reduced, flattened to noble, sensible king and the scheming, slightly unhinged queen.

Aeneas himself, when he appears does not fare so well either. He too is noble and full of piety, unlike his son by a previous marriage and most certainly unlike the suitor her mother has picked for Lavinia. "He has no piety," is her dismissal. It is not what we think of these days when piety is almost an embarrassment. It meant the reverence for life, for the gods, for the bonds between gods and men, and for those among men. It is different from the ossification that the Chinese made of filial piety.

The sense of place in Lavinia is wonderful. The main character herself is drawn with shrewdness and sympathy as are one or two of the servants. But the places, the cave in which she encounters the vision or ghost of the poet (who would not be born for another eleven or twelve hundred years), the sulphurous springs nearby, and the salt beds at the mouth of the "father river" (the Tiber) are vivid to the reader.

The last portion of the book tells of life after Lavinia marries Aeneas, the modified rapture of nursing her son at her beasts "bursting with milk," and then alas, as already revealed by the poet, the sudden death of Aeneas, life cut short by a careless moment. Lavinia's life thereafter is a pale shadow of her youth and adult struggles. (It is a problem, what does one do with an old queen?)

There are notes of a pedantic nature I must record. Perhaps the anachronisms are from Virgil, but perhaps the modern author must be more careful. It is doubtful that archery was common in the post Trojan War period, and it is certain that the arrows would not have been tipped with steel. Homer himself makes no distinction between the Trojans and the Danaoi, as if the former were members of a distantly related tribe. But, Greeks versus Italians aside, it is now a lively controversy over how Latin or even Italian were the Etruscans.

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

The Ninja speaks of his past

It is of some concern to me when reviewers note that my characters are "distant" or "detached," because I do want the reader to feel a "connection" and because I want to write authentically about Asians in general and Chinese in particular. I wonder what kind of a connection could these same readers feel with Jason Bourne or James Bond or any of the characters from The Matrix?

Here, in any case, is a scene from The Ninja and the Diplomat. There are not many such scenes but if no one feels a connection to this one, then it is back to the drawing boards for me. Prayer and fasting might also be in order. Wikimedia Commons is the source for both the graphs for ninja and for the Scene from the March 1826 Edo Nakamura-za production of Sanmon Gosan-no-Kiri, with Kōshirō Matsumoto V as Ishikawa Goemon (above) and Sanjūrō Seki II as Mashiba Hisakichi, by Toyokuni Utagawa II (1786–1865).


I still remember my seventh birthday. The beautiful lady said she had seen me earlier but it was on that birthday that I noticed her, taller than almost everybody at the orphanage. She had brought treats for us all. Later, I learned from the others that she had been coming once or twice a month to visit the smaller children. She had brought toys and then she got permission to give us treats. Once a month, everyone with a birthday could celebrate and she would bring cakes and sweets. On my birthday, she brought us boxes of different mochi. My favorite were those with red bean filling. I chewed them carefully in small bites and made each last so I could savor the sticky rice and the natural sweetness of the red beans in the paste.
I shared what I received with my roommate. 

Everyone called him Dummy because he could not speak and was never called on in school. He and I had shared the same tiny room, our beds though small almost touched each other, for as long as I could remember. He was bigger than me. I learned from the staff that he was two years older, and we had been brought there in the same week. The orphanage took us just after we learned to go to the bathroom by ourselves. I knew he could understand what everyone said even though he often pretended he was deaf as well. My earliest memories of him were of the nights during which he would cry himself to sleep. It was nearly a year before the crying stopped. The women who looked after us were not unkind but they always had so much to do, cooking and cleaning and all the other things. It was nearly a year later, almost my eighth birthday, before someone learned which month was Dummy’s birthday so he could receive his own mochi from the lady.

The first time I received my present, she pointed out the ones filled with coconut. I did not know what coconuts were, but she did not laugh at me. She explained that they grew all over islands in the South Sea and were a treat in Taiwan where she had grown up.
I thought she smelled nice but I did not tell her this because I was too shy. When I thought about it again later, I decided I would tell her on my next birthday. It would be my present to her and I could think about it for a whole year to get ready.

On my eighth birthday, she smiled as she gave me the box of mochi.
“Do you like the coconut filled ones?” she asked.

I admitted that I had gotten accustomed to the crunchy coconut and begun to like the exotic creamy taste. But I told her that I loved the red bean filling best.

“Me too,” she laughed. “But the coconut will always remind me of my old home. Japan is my home now.”

“I like the way you smell,” I told her.

She laughed a happy and embarrassed Japanese-style laugh and said, “That is a nice compliment. Women often wear special scents and what I wear is something that my husband gave me when we first met. It is called Shalimar and comes from a country far away called France.”

“Why doesn’t your husband come with you?” I asked.

“He is very busy,” she said, “We do not yet have any children.” She looked a little sad when she told me that. I was glad I told her she smelled nice.

Her visits were happy times for all of us. I noticed that she always had a kind word
for all the children and that she also brought gifts for those who worked at the orphanage. This was a word I learned around that time. No one else said it with such kindness.

I soon noticed that the word was corrupted into a bad word, insulting and obscene, at the school where we met other, ‘normal,’ children. By my ninth birthday, I had been suspended from school because of it. I wasn’t the only one suspended but I had caused the trouble at the school and that resulted in many students being punished.

As she gave me the long awaited box of mochi she asked, “Can you tell me about the trouble at school?”

“There are six of us from the orphanage that go to the same class at school,” I told her. “The smartest student in the class had recently been recognized and she was from the orphanage. Some of the others at the school were angry about this. Ten of them, all boys and some older than we were, stopped us from leaving one day and started to pull the girl’s hair and spat on her. I told them to stop. That started the fighting.”

“Didn’t any of the adults do anything?” asked the Lady.

“The language teacher did,” I said. “He actually spoke up for us with the principal, but the parents of the boys later came together and complained.”

“So you were suspended,” she said.

“Yes, I replied. “I also heard that the teacher who defended us would be leaving the school at the end of the school year. Those of us who were suspended, the six of us, would be sent to a different school next year. One in a poorer neighborhood.”

I was afraid that the lady would stop coming to visit, but she continued. In fact, she told me that her husband might come to my tenth birthday. I was surprised to hear that, but on my tenth birthday, there he was. He was slightly taller than her; I wondered if I would grow to be as tall as him. He looked stern. That was the look I caught when I looked directly at him during the party festivities. For some reason, I did not look away but continued to look him in the eye until suddenly he smiled. It did not give me the joy that her smiles did, but it gave me confidence. I felt that if he approved, I could achieve big things. That year, the lady stopped giving me any mochi except those with red-bean filling.

The girl from the orphanage who had been in the fight at school killed herself in the third month at the new school. She had found her way to a bridge over some trains and jumped in front of one. Nobody at school or at the orphanage said anything. I felt that if anyone at school had said anything I would have fought that person to the death. That was what I told the lady, I feel that there would be no honor not to do so.

The lady cried.

“Have I said something bad?” I asked.

She shook her head and said, “I am crying because the girl killed herself. Maybe if I had shown her more love, she would not have done that.”

“I don’t understand,” I said.

The beautiful lady said, “It is very important to show compassion to others so that they do not feel hopeless in this world.”

I found that difficult to understand.