Sunday, August 09, 2009

the last book I read

Kowloon Tong by Paul Theroux.

Like Graham Greene, Paul Theroux is someone I used to read a lot many years ago but haven't encountered for a while. After reading The Mosquito Coast when I was about 18 I devoured several other novels, volumes of short stories, travel books - luckily there's plenty to choose from as he's pretty prolific. I think the last Theroux book I read was the frankly bizarre short novel Chicago Loop a few years back. Of course these days he's more famous by association as the father of TV provocateur, faux-naïf and no doubt various other French phrases Louis Theroux. He is also, as it happens, the father of novelist Marcel Theroux, whose novel The Paperchase (which Wikipedia have listed under a different name - the American edition perhaps?) I read a while back and quite enjoyed. Not to damn it with faint praise or anything.

Anyway, the book: Betty Mullard and her son Neville (nicknamed Bunt) live in Hong Kong - Bunt all his life, Betty since moving from Balham with her late husband George. Bunt runs a clothing factory in Kowloon, hangs out at various local strip joints and has occasional half-hearted liaisons with some of the Chinese factory girls. Betty lives in a little bubble of Englishness and harbours dark suspicions of both the natives ("Chinky-Chonks") and the food (the family seem to subsist on a diet of roast beef).

Trouble is on the horizon, though: it's 1996, and the handover of Hong Kong to Chinese sovereignty is fast approaching. The Mullards have been living in a state of blissful denial, but reality intervenes when the mysterious Mr. Hung shows up and makes them an offer for the factory. It soon transpires that this is one of those Godfather-style offers, and that the Mullards' blithe assumption that the handover would be a formality and that things would continue as before was sadly mistaken. These are not quiet subservient Chinese types like the houseboy and the factory girls, these are people with links to the Chinese army and various less savoury organisations, and they want their territory back. When Bunt raises objections to the sale the housemate and friend of his sort-of-girlfriend Mei-ping mysteriously "disappears"; Bunt suspects Mr. Hung's involvement but is persuaded that it would be unwise to investigate further. The novel ends with the Mullards being briskly ushered onto a plane and sent back to Britain, as the Chinese developers move in to demolish the factory.

It's always a bit of a problem when there's really no-one to sympathise with in the entire cast of characters in a novel - Betty is a snob and a racist, Bunt is well-meaning but squishy and ineffectual, the Chinese are drunken and rapacious (and in Mr. Hung's case possibly murderous as well), and the other Europeans and Americans are just out to make as much money as they can out of the handover. So there's lots of blunt satire going on, but it's hard to know who the target's meant to be (or, possibly, it's everyone). The only remotely sympathetic character, Mei-ping, is left to an uncertain fate when the Mullards are sent back to Britain - it's also uncertain whether Betty and Bunt will see any of the money they were offered for the factory.

But it's nice and blackly humourous in places, and I suppose the downbeat ending is in keeping with that. I wouldn't say it's the best Theroux I've read, as that would undoubtedly be The Mosquito Coast, which you should go out and read immediately if you haven't already done so. If you want one of the non-fiction ones I would suggest trying The Old Patagonian Express.

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