‘The Wounded Muse’: An old ‘China Hand’ interprets the country

This Old China Hand brings alive the Beijing of the 2008 Games

November 23, 2018 03:31 pm | Updated 03:32 pm IST

Nineteenth-century foreign merchants who set up a flourishing trade practice in the “treaty ports” of China came to acquire the honorific title of “ Zhong-guo-tong” (‘China Hands’). In more contemporary times, that badge of honour — as acknowledged experts of Chinese language and culture — has been conferred on diplomats and even journalists who have built a career out of reading the tea leaves and pounding Beijing’s vanishing hutong alleyways in order to ‘interpret’ a rapidly transforming China for the world.

Robert F. Delaney’s immersive experiences — as a Chinese-speaking financial journalist who had front-row seats to one of the most awe-inspiring economic miracles and who soaked up the local culture for nearly two decades from 1995 — qualify him as a confirmed ‘Old China Hand’. And in The Wounded Muse , a novel based on real-life events, he distills all his experiential learnings to craft a thrilling narrative of international intrigue set in a Beijing in the throes of sweeping change in the run-up to the 2008 Olympic Games.

Coming-out party

Those Games were billed as China’s “coming-out party”, when a 5,000-year-old civilisation would showcase its ‘modernity’. The success of that Olympian project was of vital importance to China’s leaders, who therefore went about rebuilding the country anew: entire neighbourhoods were marked for demolition with the accursed word chai , to allow them to be ‘gentrified’ and for gleaming high-rises to come up in their place. Simultaneously, public security authorities mounted one of the most comprehensive electronic surveillance mechanisms to monitor dissenters and political activists.

It is against this backdrop that the action is set. Journalist Jake Bradley is collaborating peripherally with Silicon Valley-returned

social dissenter Sun Qiang, who is documenting the displacements wrought on communities and ordinary people’s lives by the Olympics-driven redevelopment drive. In the course of his interviews, he secures a sensational on-the-record admission by a former Chinese Communist Party official about the party’s mala fide actions during the students’ protests in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square in 1989, which were brutally put down. Two decades after the massacre, the official’s revelation still has the capacity to stir social turmoil, and Qiang is ‘disappeared’ by panicky security officials.

Trying to track down Qiang, his sister Diane and his same-sex ex-partner Ben join forces with Jake, who himself was looking to hitch up with Qiang. Their lives become cosmically intertwined with those of a bureaucrat in the films division and a drifter, both of whom come on the radar of security officials. Jake initially has inhibitions about Diane’s and Ben’s commitment to securing Qiang’s release, but they earn his trust over time. After an initial failed effort to lobby a visiting U.S. politician to raise with Chinese officials the issue of Qiang’s unacknowledged detention, the three plot to secure some leverage with a high-stakes, high-risk gamble. Such is the power structure in China that even countries — much less individuals — cannot hope to ‘blackmail’ officials into releasing a dissident. But by harnessing elements from Ben’s spooky past, and Jake’s journalistic network, they pull off the impossible feat.

Delaney is a masterful story-teller and his prose sets a pulsating pace; in particular, the denouement is a heart-stopper that could lend itself to gripping cinema. The author’s descriptions of China’s capital bring the city alive; the aroma of steamed pork buns wafts off the pages, and you can almost visualise the city’s men in their ‘Beijing bikinis’. Delaney also throws vivid light on the city’s gay scene, which is in many ways central to the plotline, given that the sexual orientation of the key characters enhances their vulnerabilities.

In addition to being a racy thriller, The Wounded Muse offers endearing insights into the lives of ordinary folks. It also offers a peep behind ‘The Great Firewall of China’, which has emerged as the kind of surveillance society that every authoritarian leadership dreams of. Given the limitations on reportage within China on its security apparatus, that is a formidable challenge. Delaney’s sensitive portrayal of the protagonists breaks free of cultural stereotypes and, for that reason, enhances their authenticity. This ‘Old China Hand’ does a sterling job of ‘interpreting’ the country that has implanted itself on the world’s imagination in recent decades.

As a Foreign Correspondent perched in Hong Kong, the writer did a bit of ‘China-watching’ for nearly a decade straddling the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

The Wounded Muse; Robert F. Delaney, Mosaic Press, $19.95

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