The Imperial China Trilogy: Book I
Sometimes a book wears you down. You find yourself plodding away at it, determined to finish but finding that the number of remaining pages never seems to get any less. This, I’m afraid, was one of those books. A sweeping epic following the Jesuit mission in China in the mid 17th century, and told through the eyes of an ambitious young Englishman, it had scope to be very engaging. And it isn’t screamingly bad. It’s well-informed and detailed to a fault. But one is left with the powerful sense that 200 of its 634 pages could have been cut without any great loss to the story – in fact, probably to its advantage.
Francis Arrowsmith has always been a man without a natural home. The son of an exiled English Catholic father and a French Catholic mother, he grows up at the Jesuit College of Saint-Omer, where he proves himself far more interested in gunpowder than grace. When the Italian Father Giulio di Giaccomo comes to rally support for a new mission to the Ming Emperor in China, Francis is tantalised by the prospect of following his military interests within the service of the Faith. And so, some years later, he arrives in Macao, the European foothold on this furthest and strangest edge of the world. The Empire itself remains closed to all Europeans, but there is one way in: giving military aid to the Ming against the Manchu invaders who harry the northern edges of their territories. Already known as a gifted artillery commander, Francis goes forth into the unknown lands along with a detachment of Portuguese cannon, a band of a brave men, and his own courage.
Although Francis has never been ordained a priest – his temperament doesn’t suit that line – he is passionately devout, and his odyssey through the world of the Ming Dynasty is bound up with his commitment to his Jesuit friends. The German priest Adam von Schall has managed to win favour at the Emperor’s court, from which he hopes to nudge the Ming further towards Christian salvation, but both he and Francis will find their paths tangled by the vicious rivalries and plots that bedevil Chinese politics. Hidden in the shadows behind the Emperor is the Black Premier, the chief eunuch, who runs his own network of spies and agents spread across the empire – the Divine Skein. And, as the Ming court turns in on itself in a self-destructive spiral of indulgence and depravity, two potentially dangerous forces wait to take advantage of its weakness. One, as already noted, is the Manchu horde; the other, equally dangerous, is the growing band of rebels within China itself, which seeks to overthrow the effete and ineffectual Emperor.
But which side will Francis choose to support? As his career leads him to each of these rivals in turn, he is forced to question the usual simplicity of a soldier’s life. Where does the moral advantage lie? And where does his own heart lie? As Francis encounters a sequence of beguiling women, that question becomes ever harder to answer. As the young European’s reputation grows – the yellow-haired ocean barbarian with a talent for guns and gunpowder – so does his confusion, until Francis finds himself set on a quest not only to determine the future of China, but also to understand his own self.
In principle, it doesn’t sound too bad, does it? And, let’s be honest, if the book wasn’t so damn long and meandering, I’d have been happy to give it three stars. But Elegant seems determined to shoehorn in an extraordinary amount of detail (he spent much of his career working in Hong Kong and China), which often manifests itself as unnecessary repetition. When characters are speaking Chinese, for example, do we constantly need to be given their first words in Chinese before they are translated and completed in English? Do we need to be reminded, every time we meet someone, who they are? From one angle, I see the wisdom of this: one could easily be confused by the unfamiliar names, and perhaps a reader can’t always keep track of which language is being spoken at any given time. But does it need to be every time? It just began to grow a little wearing. And there are times when the amount of detail weighs down the story, so that it feels more like reading a military manual or a textbook than a novel. That, I think, is the key problem for me: that much of the life is squeezed out.
I also found the female characters rather unedifying for a book published in 1980. They could easily have stepped out of a 1960s novel in which women’s sole function is to be exotic consorts for the adventurous hero. Francis dutifully racks up wives in all three of the cultures present in China of this period, enjoying the ingenious sensual pleasures of the Orient before (spoiler!) realising he can only find true love with a fellow European. While the book as a whole is not guilty of Orientalism, the depiction of the Chinese and Manchu women as rarefied, sphinx-like sirens – or open-hearted, wanton wenches – most definitely is. We are, I think, meant to sympathise with Francis as he struggles with the icy disdain of his first wife, and the clinging adoration of the latter – poor man, to be so set upon by women! – but I was more struck by his complete lack of responsibility and Christian honour towards these poor ladies. And, if the women were somewhat shallow in their characterisation, the court eunuchs were even worse. Elegant clearly can’t conceive of a eunuch who isn’t overweight, greedy, slimy, perverted or scheming.
Essentially, this requires a lot of investment for a relatively light pay-off. It may well be representative of the historical fiction of its time but, almost forty years on, we’re blessed with a much more dynamic, subtle and vivid tradition in the genre. While, yes, I do now feel that I have a better understanding of the Jesuit presence in China, and I certainly know more about the foundation of the Qing Dynasty, I don’t think that I got enough from the book to warrant the 634 pages and the near-month of reading it. It’s a shame, because Elegant has written other books that piqued my interest – but, with so many books vying for my attention, I think I will look in other directions for now.
I received this book from the publisher via Netgalley in return for a fair and honest review