Friday, 3 July 2015

Review: Paul Scott's The Chinese Love Pavilion, by Y S Lee

Hello, friends. This month, I’d like to talk about a novel by Paul Scott called The Chinese Love Pavilion. I know, I know: SKETCHY TITLE ALERT! Don't worry: I understand that this is a PG-rated blog.

I picked up the novel as part of the research for my work-in-progress (which is set in Malaya during the Second World War). Since The Chinese Love Pavilion takes place largely in Malaya just after the war, I was eager to experience another writer's vision of the place. Also, while I’ve never read Scott's best-known work, the Raj Quartet, his reputation goes before him. However, I’m going to warn you now: if you’re a rabid fan of The Jewel in the Crown, brace yourself. This will get ugly.

Cover of the 2013 edition, published by the University of Chicago Press. The building pictured looks slightly like the pavilion described in the novel.

The Chinese Love Pavilion, published in 1960, is about a friendship between two Englishmen in the colonies. The narrator, Tom Brent, is young and in search of a shape for his life. He meets the unconventional, charismatic Brian Saxby in 1930s Bombay and, over the course of a whiskey-soaked evening, falls under his spell. This sets up the men for long conversations about the soul, fate, and the meaning of life. I have a limited tolerance for cod philosophy at the best of times, and that limit plummets when the "exotic" East is used as a picturesque backdrop for these kinds of musings. However, I stuck with it.

The story then skips over the Second World War and picks up in 1946 or so, when a war-injured Brent is brought to Malaya and instructed to find Saxby. Apparently, Saxby is hiding out the Malayan jungle and might be responsible for the revenge-slayings of some Chinese civilians. The metaphysical novel morphs into a kind of homage to Heart of Darkness, with Brent travelling deeper into jungle-dark territory to find his legendary but tortured friend. Promising, right?

An early edition

Actually, I can't remember the last time I was this appalled by a well-reviewed novel. The self-indulgent metaphysical musings drove me berserk, but I understand that this is a question of taste and personal bias. I am happy to report that the pacing of the novel's second half is excellent. Also, Scott is gifted with an extraordinary sense of place. His descriptions of the Malayan landscape are vivid and entirely convincing, and his eye for natural detail is impeccable.

However, there's one massive problem with the novel that taints everything else it attempts: the way it uses prostitution. Women - specifically, the sexual services of young Indian and Chinese girls - are the common currency of this novel. I'm not exaggerating in the least. Here are three conversations from the novel, in the order they occur:

At a restaurant in Bombay, where Brent and Saxby have just dined:

"[The girls are] clean. Clean now, you understand, not later. Later the bloom goes. Disease enters."

"Does he sell them too?"

"To us first. Honoured guests. Then to others.

When Brent visits Saxby after a three-year gap:

"The little one holding the curtain so patiently, is for you. She is an untouchable, and, I am told, a virgin."

I looked from Saxby to the girl and back to Saxby. "That was very thoughtful of you."

He smiled. He said, "I have always been accommodating to my friends."

In small-town Malaya, where the officer-in-charge offers Brent the use of "his" designated prostitute:

"Did you like her?"

"Yes, I liked her."

..."Well while you're here she's yours. It all comes under the contract but you'll probably like to give her the occasional present."

"It's very hospitable of you. What about you?"

"I'll manage, I expect."

Do you see the progression here? Prostitution is first an economic fact, and then a gesture of welcome between friends, and finally a common courtesy, like a cigarette or a cup of tea. I wondered, at first, if Scott’s obsessive attention to prostitution could be read as a kind of critique of colonialism, or a comment on the moral effects of the British imperial project. I also considered the possibility that Scott’s irony was so subtle as to be undetected by this reader. Sadly, no.

In a still-later scene, Brent describes a British soldier cuddling a prostitute named Suki "who by European standards was no more than a child and looked absurdly fragile in his beefy arms". This is an isolated moment of light-hearted physical contrast in a novel that otherwise takes itself extremely seriously. Significantly, it features a young woman who, if she was "European" - that is, worthy of civilized treatment - would be "no more than a child". I don't think the word "beefy" is an accident, here. It's an evocation of what's familiarly, essentially English. And the "beefy" Englishman who holds Suki - a loud-mouthed but fundamentally loyal and reliable soldier - has the approval of all characters. Could the subtext be any clearer? Child prostitution is a harmless joke, so long as the women are brown and the men are white.

Could it get any worse? Why, yes, it can!

The second, thriller-esque half of the novel turns on the fate of Teena, an enigmatic prostitute of Eurasian descent with whom Brent falls in love. Of course, a “woman of the world” (Scott’s euphemism) cannot be rewarded with a fairy-tale ending. She was always going to be punished for her sins. Teena’s clumsily foreshadowed death is never fully resolved: she might have been murdered, or she might have committed suicide. Brent can’t decide, and nobody else cares. And ultimately, in the schema of The Chinese Love Pavilion, the question matters not. Brent concludes, “Sometimes, I think she was doomed in that few seconds it took me to unbolt and open the door of the hostel in Bombay to which Saxby had come to find shelter…” That is, Teena’s fate was decided by the initial meeting between Brent and Saxby some ten years earlier, in a different country, when Teena herself was a small child. This is perhaps more illogical to a person who’s read the novel even than to somebody who’s never heard of Paul Scott.

The primary relationship of the novel isn’t that between Brent and Teena, or Brent and the Far East, or spirituality and war; it’s the bond holding together Brent and Saxby, and their fumbling attempts to understand their own importance in the world. India and Malaya are only picturesque backdrops, Teena merely a useful symbol, the Second World War but a minor interruption.

When I mentioned these criticisms to a friend (who is a huge fan of the Raj Quartet), she half-heartedly defended the novel as “an accurate representation of how white men viewed native women at that time, as much as it repulsive to us now”. I believe that it’s certainly an accurate representation of how Paul Scott viewed women of colour, both in 1946 when the story takes place, and in 1960 when it was published. But is that sufficient to excuse the novel? I think not.

A metaphysical novel about homosocial friendship and spiritual destiny could happen at any time, in any setting. Using the “exotic” East to lend sexual intrigue and distract credulous readers is a lazy narrative trick. Those who love Scott’s other work deserve better. We all do.

Y S Lee is the author of the award-winning Mary Quinn mysteries (Walker Books). She blogs every Wednesday at


Marie-Louise Jensen said...

Fascinating, Ying. I know the Raj Quartet, but hadn't heard of this one. I will definitely avoid it! Ugh.

Y S Lee said...

Sorry to be the bearer of such bad news, Marie-Louise! I'd still give the Raj Quartet a shot, though.