The page numbers used in the text to identify quotations are taken from the most recent edition of the novel published by Gollancz, as part of their Collectors’ Edition, London 2001.
In the original publication I included quite a lot of illustrative and anecdotal material in foot notes which were intended to be an integral part of the page. In the version you are about to read I have included these notes in the text and coloured them dark green.
The Impact of China on the Creation of the Science Fiction Novel,
The Eye of the Queen
by Phillip Mann
Between 1978 and 1980, I had the good fortune to work in Beijing at Xin Hua Shi (The New China News Agency) where I was employed in the international news section as a sub-editor or, as the Chinese preferred to call it, a ‘polisher of English’.
This good fortune came in many guises. First, and perhaps most important, the country was still settling down after the massive dislocation of the Cultural Revolution. It was a time of turmoil and relief, a time for coming to terms with the immediate past and settling new grievances, of celebrating new-found liberties, of rehabilitating people who had been in prison (such as Deng Xiaoping or, posthumously Liu Shaoqi who died in prison) and of turning back the cultural clock so that traditional art forms such as Peking Opera, banned by Mme Mao, could be performed again. With the ‘Gang of Four’1 (scroll down to bottom of this page for footnotes) safely in prison, the people vented their anger against them, burning them in effigy in the streets.
Democracy Wall, that most potent symbol of hope and faith in the future, was established on Xi Dan in the heart of Peking. It was a plain stretch of wall where anyone could paste up a da zi bao (large character poster) offering ideas about how the current domestic situation could be improved or proffering poems of celebration or simply asking for information on a lost relative or friend. New da zi bao were appearing all the time. Crowds gathered to discuss them while soldiers in their loose green uniforms and red starred caps strolled by and looked on benignly. This was ‘the Peking Spring’ and like the Prague Spring which preceded it, and indeed all seasons, it was comparatively short.
Times of transition have this virtue: that between the tearing down of a despised regime and the imposition of a new one, the people may rediscover their voice, and freedom flourishes. Brecht at the end of the Caucasian Chalk Circle talks of such times as being almost a golden age, almost a time of justice. But let no one imagine that the change in China was simple. The philosophies that had animated the Cultural Revolution were not overthrown in a night and the reverberations of that social earthquake remained as long as I was in China and may still be continuing; for an entire generation who gave away their education so that they could become political activists, whether with the peasants in the fields or smashing the effigies and tombstones of old China, are still alive though they may feel they have been consigned to the famous ‘rubbish bin of history.’
I was fortunate too in my employer, Xin Hua Shi. We used to say to new arrivals in China—‘Your place of work is your mother and father,’ and so it was. Your institution organised your holidays, helped you buy winter clothes, would help if you were sick, would assist with tickets for the opera or cinema or made employment arrangements with an aye (auntie) for child care. They welcomed you, gave you a banquet to make you feel at home and waved goodbye after your two years of duty was up. It was Xin Hua Shi who arranged for me to visit the Da Qing (Great Victory) oil fields which had been closed to foreigners for many years. It was Xin Hua Shi that arranged for us to go on what were called ‘work and study tours’ to places as varied as Sichuan—this while the bullet marks of the Cultural Revolution were still on the walls and long before it became open to ordinary tourists—and to climb in the magnificent Huang Shan mountains and travel through the gorges on the Yangtze river—now alas submerged.
Ours was an almost an entirely Chinese office. My only non-Chinese colleague was Rose Smith, an octogenarian communist from England who had been a friend of Zhou Enlai and who sat beside me, her copy of Karl Marx open in front of her, her finger following the lines. Rose told me stories of how she used to get herself deliberately thrown into prison in the 1920s so that she could work with the female inmates teaching them about contraception and mobilising them to fight for their rights. Rose died on 1985 and I shall always remember her as a woman of prodigious courage, commitment and presence, but gentle too, and a joy to work beside.
Apart from Rose, the rest of the comrades in the offer were Chinese and this meant that I had access to the Chinese language in the raw. My office, after a formal and serious meeting, arranged for me to learn Chinese and two hours a week were set aside for this. I also had access to foreign newspapers which sometimes explained what was actually happening in the People’s Republic. The Chinese I knew were very conscious and respectful of the opinions of the hundreds of China watchers who were camped in Hong Kong or Singapore or the Kremlin.
I also worked ‘the graveyard shift’ as one of my Chinese colleagues liked to call it, beginning at 8pm and finishing whenever there were no more news items left to correct. I was told that I was the only Foreign Expert (the title by which we all were known) to be working a night-shift in Peking. This meant that winter and summer I traveled through Peking during the night and saw the different faces and activities of the city. It was a charmed time, though one night I was shocked to see a detachment of the PLA (People’s Liberation Army) hosing down Democracy Wall and brushing off the da zi bao. As far as I was concerned, that marked, if not the end, then the beginning of the end of the Peking Spring.
But night-shift was a time of companionship too, especially in winter when the doors banged and snow swept into the small Xin Hua dining room where we ate our supper of hot noodles and bao-zi and I was given a bottle of Wu Xing (Five Star) beer. This was the time when one got to see photos of children and relatives, or when shyly raised questions about life in New Zealand might be asked or when I could ask about operas, plays, painting and archaeology—but we never talked directly about politics, in as much as one can separate art and politics in China.2
It is also worth remembering in this context that a young man who wrote a poem critical of the Gang of Four at the height of the Cultural Revolution and who posted this poem in Tien An Men (The Gate of Heavenly Peace) on the anniversary of Zhou en Lai’s death, became the most wanted ‘criminal’ and was hunted throughout the People’s Republic. Understand this and you begin to understand the importance of Da Zi Bao and Democracy Wall.
I was as aware as my hosts that the boundary which separates the personal opinion from the official position is invisible but very real for all that. Thus I never invited confidences and rather disapproved of those western ‘scholars’ who came hurrying into China in 1979 and who went ‘digging for dirt’ as one put it, from which to construct their PhDs.3
Luckily, most Chinese that I knew were worldly wise, and kept guardedly quiet or simply murmured ‘Ma Ma, Hu, Hu,’ which being translated means ‘Horse, Horse. Tiger Tiger’.4
“We worked hard at Xin Hua, six days a week, but for me the job had one outstanding and unexpected virtue—and this is my last piece of good fortune – for the first time in my life I could not bring my work home. When one left the office at 5.30pm, that was it. Working the night shift meant that I had whole days free and thus I was able to fulfil a private ambition; to see what it would be like to write a novel. At this time in my life I had written plays for the theatre and radio as well as some academic articles and I had had broadcast close to fifty short stories on radio. Some of these had been short stories on fantastical themes such as ‘The West that Never Was;’ or the pseudo-autobiographical ‘Coming of Age in t’North,’ or simply explosions of satirical fun such as ‘The Gospel According to Micky Mouse’—and I am eternally grateful to men such as Bill Austen, Tony Groser and Arthur Jones of Radio New Zealand who encouraged me and who, in the case of the latter, taught me like an apprentice what it means to craft a story.
I had calculated, the way that writers do, that I had already written about a novel’s worth of words and so now I wanted to see what it would be like to give myself say 100,000 words to tell a single story. Like most beginning writers I was worried that I would not have the necessary stamina to complete a novel—my literary heroes being long-distance swimmers such as Herman Melville, Charles Dickens and John Fowles, wonderful storytellers whose English I relished the more as I became immersed in Chinese—and so indeed it proved. My first attempted novel—a comic/ satirical story set in New Zealand and called ‘The Horis,’ died during the second chapter. It was a story I loved (still do) and which I desperately wanted to write, but which, despite various attempts to resuscitate it, remained obstinately dead. I should perhaps explain this. It is energy in the imagination which carries a story along. One sees (and sometimes hears) the events unfold and often the words come at one unbidden like a gift, or a flying brick – at least so it is with me. Every story has a certain—and in some cases a considerable—unpredictability because it is a living thing with its own dynamic, and like any living thing, it can take its own path, and it can die.
One is, of course, astonished when this happens. Sometimes one can come back to such a story in later life and begin it again; and lo, it comes alive, proving I suppose that there was something wrong in the original timing which has now come right.
Not to be defeated I began a second novel, this one based on a story I had had batting about in my head for years. But it too died before it really got started. This was serious. I began to feel desperate and decided I would go back to my proven metier and write a short story just to show that I still had what it takes as a word-smith. But my first attempt at this too failed, as did a second, and so I closed my type writer down and began to study Chinese science as revealed in the pages of Joseph Needham’s Science and Civilization of China and tried to learn ten new Chinese characters a day. But I was worried.
Then one day when on holiday in Beidahe, while the children and my wife were at the beach with our aye whose job it was to look after our son, I pulled the type writer towards me. A strong and mysterious idea had come to me in the night. It was very simple. In my mind’s eye I had seen an old man standing bewildered in a clearing in the midst of a dense jungle. He was looking round in surprise as though he had just been dropped there, and was saying to himself ‘How do I come to be here?’ The story I was proposing to write would attempt to answer this question which for some reason seemed important.5
It would, I supposed, end with an ironic twist that would pique the hearer’s attention, for I was intending to write for radio, and to enjoy some fun adventure-writing along the way, jungles being wonderful places for strange beasts to hide. So I let the story take me where it would, and when later in the afternoon the family returned home, I felt I had earned a bottle of cold Qing Dao beer—two pages typed and a promise of more to come.
The holiday passed. We returned to Peking and I was interested to see how the story still seemed to be unfolding, spawning little side yarns and the character of the old man became strong and vital and had his own voice and new characters began to appear as the story required. I knew it was already too long for radio but I was interested to see where it would lead and thought that I might ultimately be able to chop it up into a series of 15 minute episodes. Then one day I stopped and read everything I had written,6 and realised with astonishment that I was more than 10,000 words out to sea and had hardly got into my stroke.
As the reader may have gathered, the short story I had begun eventually became a science fiction novel which I called ‘Thorndyke,’ and which at the suggestion of the first editor, became The Eye of the Queen. It was not written at one session, or even ten sessions, but over the course of a year and a half and sometimes with interruptions of up to three months between chapters. This never seemed to matter and the story remained fresh each time I came back to it. Nor did it matter that my son or my daughter (or both) attempted to help me in my absence by tapping their own additions until the key board jammed with the all the letters locked in a bunch.
However, early in the writing there occurred one major creative peripeteia and this has a direct bearing on the book’s revelation of China. In its original form it was written in the familiar third-person, the ‘he said/ she said’ style which gives the writer a god-like omniscience and a certain invisibility. Gradually it dawned upon me that this was not as interesting as it might be. The story was coming to me largely in the first person, Thorndyke speaking directly to me, or more strangely, some of the alien characters were evolving their own patois as they tried to communicate with me. Or at least that was how it felt. The story was about the revelation of an alien culture, it was filled with the texture, the juices, the smell even, of an alien world—why tell it at one remove? I remember sitting at my glass-topped desk in the bedroom—it was a bright, cold spring day outside—when the thought came to me that I should write the book as though it was an actual recording of events. I would let the aliens speak as though in a documentary, I would let Thorndyke and the other characters have their anger as though writing in the privacy of their diaries. I would quote their letters verbatim. Better still, I could let the characters comment on their own story as they lived it and treat it all as completely real and not think of it as a novel at all. . . . and thus was born a character called Tòmas Mnaba, a careful and honest scribe, who would as it were take over my role and coordinate the evidence, leaving me free to concentrate on the more outlandish aspects of the story. I decided that I would write documents in the aliens’ own hands. We would feel their pain and their frustration as they tried to deal with an unruly mind such as Thorndyke. The ideas, so obvious now and child-like in their glee, came at me pell-mell. The excitement was so great that I could not sit still but went outside and jumped on my old sit-up-and-beg bicycle and peddled at full speed round the paths and gardens of the famous Friendship Hotel7 singing my heart out and waving to the white-coated Chinese attendants8 who always seemed to be sweeping up leaves, and the tough-looking guards from the PLA who, when they were not involved in bayonet practice, played endless games with an old basketball outside my window.
It being still morning, all the foreign workers were away at work, whether at Xin Hua Shi or China Pictorial or on the new Pinyin Dictionary or at one of the Language institutes9 and so it was the astonished fu wu yuan and the PLA soldiers who had to witness my happiness. And when I got back to our flat, I was able to sit down and write the opening words of the book, written in the persona of Tòmas Mnaba (and cribbed I admit from Albert Camus’ L’Etranger.) ‘Marius Thorndyke is dead.’
The writing became easy. Each day was an adventure as I rarely knew what was going to happen next, and slowly the pages mounted. I was aware when the book was coming to an end, but did not know how it would end until I actually typed the final words.
The novel which became The Eye of the Queen describes the experiences of Marius Thorndyke, founder and one time Head of the Contact Linguistics Institute (the CLI), and the man selected by alien ambassadors to accompany them back to their world of Pe-Ellia. With Thorndyke on the journey is his close friend and long time collaborator Tòmas Mnaba.
This journey has crucial significance since, although Earth has managed to find a way round the Einsteinian limits and hence begun to explore inter-stellar space and although it has now made contact with many alien civilisations, it has not to date encountered one that even begins to approach Earth’s level of technological expertise. Even worse, it has been calculated that Earth’s exploration is being corralled, and pockets of space are being revealed into which Earth cannot penetrate. Why and how this is being done no one knows. But more important is the question ‘By whom?’ A super-powerful species, called for convenience Species X, is postulated. It is obvious that Species X knows of the activities of Earth, but equally the powers of Earth cannot contact Species X, and so Earth must wait for Species X to contact it.
Earth has been waiting for many years when the novel begins. During this time, the CLI under the leadership of Marius Thorndyke has developed formidable tools of linguistic and cultural analysis. Every planet upon which life has been discovered has been visited by members of the CLI, and those worlds which have linguistically developed cultures have been the subject of intense and careful study. Equally formidable are the military defenses that the Earth has amassed, for it is acknowledged that any ‘species’ that can so manipulate space/time in the way that Species X is clearly able to do, must have awesome technology at its disposal, and this may constitute a threat.10
One day, completely unannounced, a vast green sphere glides silently through all Earth’s defenses without being detected until it is physically seen by an engineer working on a space station above the moon.
Panic on Earth. Wisely the tanks and guns which surround the giant green sphere remain silent. Marius Thorndyke, now in retirement and living in Paris but still acknowledged as the world’s foremost contact linguist, is summoned by the Space Council to take charge of what everyone realises is the most momentous alien contact to date. Species X has finally come knocking.
And so the contact with the Pre-Ellians begins.
In appearance the Pe-Ellians are a cross between lizards and humans and stand some 8 to 12 feet tall. They do not have tails, and what might have been lizard masks have evolved into faces in many ways similar to our own though their gums are black and they have a palatal ridge rather than teeth. Most remarkable is their skin which is shiny and brightly coloured and divided into regular plates, each of which contains a symmetrical design. They have a stark beauty and gracefulness, and everyone who meets them is aware of a great sense of presence, of mana. They do not wear clothes except for some ceremonial wear. Thus their anatomy can be studied and it is observed that unlike humans or lizards, the Pe-Ellians do not seem to have an anus where one might expect it. Their emotional and mental intelligence, however, is comparable to that of humans, permitting communication and exchange. Professor Winterwind, for example, is a giant somewhat patrician figure whose easy urbanity grates on Thorndyke for Thorndyke is a very earthy and vulgar man. Winterwind wants a meeting of minds, a dialogue of high and altruistic intelligence. He is finally no match for the anarchic and dangerous emotionalism of Thorndyke who describes himself as ‘more the savage than the scientist’. (51) The title Professor is one which Winterwind has chosen for himself hoping to make Thorndyke feel more at home—though it may indicate his deeper aspiration. After Winterwind there is Jet—a contraction of his full name which being translated literally comes out as Blackness of Midnight Carbon.11 Jet is a diplomat who, when he sees dangerous controversy arising, escapes by jumping into the nearest stream.
While their intelligence can not be doubted, they are yet reserved and seem above all anxious to get the visit to Earth over as quickly as possible and depart for Pe-Ellia with Thorndyke aboard.
And this, as they used to say in the Goon show, is where the story really begins.12 From this point on the book is composed mainly from the diaries and workbooks of Marius Thorndyke recounting his experiences on Pe-Ellia. They are supported by the commentaries prepared by Mnaba as well as documentary and transcribed recorded material.
The first thing I wish to make clear, is that when writing the novel sitting in China I was unaware of the extent to which China had influenced the work. Certainly I had made references to China in the text by likening the marking inside the Pe-Ellian skin plates to beautiful Chinese calligraphy—but that kind of reference I would have made in any case even if I had been writing in New Zealand since I had for many years had an interest in Chinese art. Also, when discussing the way the CLI handled gender in its reports on aliens, I used the Chinese word for he or she (ta) since in that written form (pinyin) it does not connote gender. I have also mentioned fun with names. But such things are minor. It was only when a colleague who had been working in the People’s Republic at the same time as us, upon reading the text commented how strongly the novel evoked our life in China that I became aware of the extent of the influence. Even so, it was not until I re-read the book (the first time for over twenty years) in preparation for this essay that I appreciated just how deeply China had permeated my imagination at that time. It is there on every page. The book is not a satire, but China has informed it with its flavour and the Culture of China has helped shaped the Pe-Ellian ethos. It would, however, be a grave error to make simple parallels for everything in the book has undergone an imaginative transformation. It is not written in code nor is it allegorical and I like to think that the novel can be enjoyed by anyone, regardless of whether they know anything about China.
The fact is that I, like Thorndyke, was living in a profoundly alien environment and try as I might to learn the language or to study the literature or comprehend the timescale of Chinese thinking, I was ultimately, the outsider, the wai guo ren. This did not bother me at the time. In fact, I quickly got used to the Chinese stare which was not hostile, just frank, and once I had gained some facility with the language, I enjoyed going into restaurants and finding out what was on the menu and indulging in a kind of Chinese culinary roulette. But as far as I was concerned, such experiences belonged to my private life, not my writing life—and as regards writing, I was conscious only of being in the tradition of Wells, Wyndham and Lewis. For the sake of simplicity, I have grouped the ways in which I can detect the influence of China on the novel under certain headings: Food, Language, The Mantissae and the Ethos of Lao Tsu.
I begin with food as it is probably through its cuisine that China is most known in the West. As trained Contact Linguists, both Mnaba and Thorndyke are used to approaching alien food and seeking to understand the all-important ceremonies that attend it. Likewise, for us, some of the most educative moments of our life in China are associated with its food. On Pe-Ellia, Thorndyke and Mnaba are given a banquet, not only as a way of welcoming them, but in order to allay misunderstandings, for on
Pe-Ellia, when Pe-Ellians dine together, (which they do rarely) they can be more relaxed and less concerned about their development. This Banquet (pages 136–154) allows Thorndyke to get a closer experience of Pe-Ellia.
However, before their banquet (which takes place on their fifth day on Pe-Ellia) Thorndyke and Mnaba have a deep fore-taste of a different kind of nourishment; they sample the psychic energy of the planet. They had been out walking and were caughtout in the rain. Rain is important to the Pe-Ellians. As Jet explains:
But when the rains come . . . then we relax. The rain on our skin is as wonderful as eating ripe fruit, or having an idea or being held by a Mantissa. We don’t have what you would call sex, but I think that to us, the rain pouring down, trickling over our veins, evaporating from our domed heads, making the soil into mud, is like making love for you. When the rains come we dance. We can’t help it. We throw ourselves open . . . We slide in and out of the mud like karitsas new hatched. We slide over one another like soapy hands. Ah so free. Perhaps at the next rain you will join us.’
When the sun comes out, Mnaba has a mystical experience.
Mnaba. Something wonderful. When the rain stopped and the sun came out, it was as if Nature breathed out and then in again. What was it? Jet Ah you felt that did you? See, you are not as insensitive as you would believe. I think you know the answer. No? Ah well, you felt life. You felt the breathing of our planet. It is life all over. The air the water the insects, oh more than I can say. Let me tell you, when the rain stops we all clear our minds, vacancy. Then when the sun comes, we draw back in Pe-Ellia through our jaws and skin. Our world renews us. I am glad you felt that, It is very precious to us. And now I must leave and prepare myself, for this evening. Prepare yourself. Today you breathed in Pe-Ellia. This evening you will taste it.
Ceremonies abound in China. I can recall two occasions—both associated with water -when I felt I was in contact with old China and by that I mean the China that existed some two thousand years ago. In Peking I watched old people performing ritual movements similar to tai chi, and though the rain came down, the slow stately dance movements did not stop. Arms unfolded from turning bodies and hands cupped to catch the rain. On another occasion, we were in the south of China and it being summer, the weather was muggy and hot. One night I could not sleep and finally, at about dawn, I got up and went out onto the balcony and looked down the river hoping for a breath of a breeze. Mist was rising slowly from the river and was catching the early light. Standing in the middle of this I could see a figure with arms raised. He was standing on what I knew was a promontory, but which now looked like and island emerging from the mist. He was motionless and then, as the first rays of the sun came he began movements which were obviously deep breathing. Then he began a slow dance: and he danced while the mist cleared. I too breathed deeply, and in the way of such things, was aware that I was breathing in China. There the parallel with the book ends for this river when seen in the full light of day was a miserable polluted stream which meandered past a factory which belched black smoke.
At one point in my story, Thorndyke and Mnaba hear music being played and when they investigate they find Cook, whose name reflects her function, playing the float harp to a fish: this is part of the cooking. Well I can not pretend that it is based on any particular moment in China, but I can recall the Chinese chef in the old Peking Duck restaurant on Wang Fu Jing Street explaining how the bird had to be prepared with special plugs in its body so that the water inside it could boil but not be lost, and how the bird had to be suspended above the glowing wood fire at a certain height and moved at a certain speed and that the wood had to be pear wood. I recall as well the instructions on how to prepare a Fire Pot: which foods went in first and which last. Even a humble cup of green tea had its ceremonies and significance. Using the same ea leaves but with different pourings of hot water, the first cup was for thirst, the econd for the stomach (ie for digestion) and the third for longevity. Thus ceremony
was very much on my mind at all times.
Apart from Winter Wind and Jet, two new guests arrive who introduce themselves as Unbroached Ancient Treasure Tomb and Laughing Gas, names which they are very happy to have shortened to Tom and Gus. They describe themselves as Mantissa Handmaidens upon which Thorndyke asks what a Mantissa is.
Everyone laughed and I received four different answers.
Winter Wind: ‘Teacher.’
All spoke at once. Clearly this needs to be sorted out and Winter Wind has agreed to answer questions tomorrow.
‘Tonight,’ he said, ‘should be more tangential. Touching the peach rather than seizing the whole of the fruit in one’s hand.’
Now where did he learn language like that?
But more about language later. The first course offered at the banquet is innocently enough, called soup. Thorndyke explains:
Floating in the tureen was what at first I assumed to be a large and rather lumpy dill pickle. However, when Cook ladled out the soup I observed that before each scoop he always pressed the ‘vegetable’ and when he did this, small feathery webbed hands lifted from its side. Just before we served me, I saw the creature’s screwed up little face, like a vole.
I was prepared for savoury or even a game flavour. I was not prepared for the sweetness that hit me with all the force of condensed milk.
Mentally I prayed that the Pe-Ellians would not turn out to be one of those races for whom sugar is salt and savoury means bitter as bile. . . .
We finished the soup leaving the little dead animal in the bottom of the basin. I had prepared myself in case this was one of those meals in which protocol demands that the guests eat the ‘choice’ delicacy.
There is a soup like this in China and we had it often. The ‘creature’ in it was, I believe, a sea cucumber or several of them, and the tapping of the sea cucumbers with the spoon, presumably to extract some flavour, was something I observed on several occasions. It was I recall almost impossible to pick the things up with chop sticks and when one did succeed, after much merriment, and manage to convey the slippery thing to one’s mouth, one tended to swallow rather than chew. As regards flavours, it was in Setzuan on a fine warm day I saw the waiter approach with a tray covered with beautiful, big, sliced tomatoes. In the centre of this was a small pyramid of what I thought at first was crushed ice and then later saw was rock salt. Or so I thought. I experienced one of those taste shocks when, having covered one of the chunks of tomato with salt, I ate it and discovered it was white sugar. A favourite way of eating tomatoes I was told.
Peking duck which I have already mentioned in connection with ceremony, has many conventions. I was told that the prime delicacy of this was not the lovely lacquered flesh, but the bird’s brain. Thus, I was given the head which had been neatly split with one sweep of the cleaver. The brain had to be pointed out to me. Being cooked it must have shrunk as it was no larger than a grain of cooked rice and of a similar grey colour. I ate it with no sense of taste at all, which in retrospect is rather sad.
Menopause—the word the Pe-Ellians have chosen to identify one of their own species who is between names—arrives at the banquet and his skin is gradually becoming detached from his inner body. Since he is between names, he is in a special state of grace and is welcomed to join the banquet. His manner is between threatening and intense. (Note that in the fullness of the tale Menopause becomes Harlequin.) Meanwhile a discussion takes place as to why Cook played the float harp to the fish and Cook explains how she came to lose her golden mandate. Her crime was that she had once played the ‘life-scales’ to some Pe-Ellians and so powerful was this music that those who heard it died in a state of ecstasy, just as the fish had died.
Then beer is drunk. It came as a surprise to me to discover that beer is commonly drunk at banquets in China. Indeed the variety of drinks available to go with a meal was extraordinarily wide, ranging from chi shui (a gassy fruit flavoured drink) to beer, water, maotai, red wine and, especially if one was eating Sichuan food, a warm, nutty flavoured rice wine.
However, the strangest meal we ever ate involved a very bony creature with dark meat and a thick sauce. When we asked what it was, because it was not like anything I had ever seen, we received a very Chinese answer and something which is close to pure Pe-Ellian. The comrades who were with us talked among themselves in some agitation, for none of them knew the English name for the creature. Finally one of them said, ‘Well it has scales like a fish, climbs trees and cries like a baby.’ Silence. I confess that I had no idea what it could be. Then another of our hosts offered. ‘Ah yes, it eats ants too.’ Then we understood—a pangolin, a favourite food in some
parts. As for the flavour . . .
At the banquet on Pe-Ellia the next dish served was Karitsas,
So Karitsas it was. Cook entered bearing a large brown bowl containing, as far as I could see, fried eggs. It was only when he had placed the bowl on the table that I could see that the ‘Fried eggs’ were alive, and gently flapping their way round the bowl like so many overgrown amoebas.
‘More health food?’ I asked.
‘And the best,’ replied Winter Wind.
Menopause sat down and leaned back in his chair with his mouth open. ‘He wants feeding,’ said Winter Wind and motioned to Cook. Cook touched one of the creatures and it immediately rolled up into a ball. He scooped it up and dropped into Menopause’s gaping mouth. Menopause gargled for a few moments and then relaxed. His body just seemed to collapse, cave in. He lolled there, indecent as a drunkard, and snored. At least that is the word that Jet used to describe the rasping, gulping sounds that came from him.
Don’t worry, it won’t have the same effect on you,’ said Tom who must have seen my reaction.
Each of the Pe-Ellians leaned forward and selected a Karitsa. They ate them with the same joy that some people feel when crushing a sweet grape against the roof of the mouth.
‘I’ll try one,’ said Mnaba.
As though in response, one of the karitsas worked its way up the side of the bowl. It rested on the edge, its wafer thin body rippling as it tried to get purchase on the air, and then it toppled off and landed on the table.
‘It likes you,’ murmured Cook as the karitsa righted its self with a flip and began to work its way across the table. Tòmas’s eyes bulged. . . .
Tòmas eats the karitsa and
His cheeks writhed. He closed his eyes and I could see the contact linguist training as he took charge of his throat and swallowed. His eyes burst open. His body tensed and then arched. He clamped his elbows to h is sides and threw his head back. His mouth opened and I expected a scream, but all he said was, ‘Ga. Ga.’ After this a silly smile spread over his face. He drew his knees up to his chest and curled up in his chair. If he had been a cat, I would have expected him to purr.’ All he said was, ‘Gooooooo.’
All eyes were on me. Winter Wind was smiling. I pointed at one of the karitsas that had climbed up the side of the bowl and said that I’d have that one. ‘Catch it then’ said Jet, ‘That’s part of the pleasure.’ The karitsa waved at me vaguely as I reached out. I dabbed at its dome and it immediately balled up and fell back into the bowl. ‘Quick,’ warned Cook, ‘Scoop it out before the rest go for it.’ I plunged my hand into the warm liquid and two of the other karitsas closed about my fingers. I lifted out my balled up karitsa and before I could think, dropped it into my mouth.
It flapped—and then it relaxed, exploding into the most beautiful taste I have ever known, though I can not describe it. I swallowed by reflex and the taste filled the whole of my mind. I felt the karitsa flow through me veins and my skin. It touched my toes and flowed up again towards my heart. I thought I would die and the thought was beautiful.
I relaxed. Or rather I should say that the relaxing was done to me for I had no more control than does a puppet when someone cuts all its strings.
My eyes opened. The world was bright end everything golwes with
an inner light. The bowl in the centre glowed brightest of all. I could still see the karitsas, but now they looked as though they were made of quicksilver.
Mnaba glowed too. And all the Pe-Ellians. Only round my hand was there darkness where the karitsas that had clung to my fingers had died. Cook was there, peeling off the dead karitsas which had congealed. Everyone was looking at me. Mnaba too.
‘What was that?’ I murmured
‘Karitsa’ they all answered.
I cannot pretend that I ever attended a banquet quite like this, but it is, in many ways the concluding stages of a Chinese banquet writ large—for there was always an eagerness in the Chinese to make sure that we tried every dish, and to educate us in everything from how to use the kwai zi (chopsticks) correctly, to how to experience the greatest delicacy of a particular dish. They would scrutinise us to see what we liked and quiz us on what we felt.
While in the book I liken the karitsa to a fried egg, its origin is the dzao-zi which was a quickly boiled dumpling that I usually had for the late night supper at Xin Hua. The dumplings would rise when they were cooked and ride the boiling water in the cauldron, hundreds of them bobbing about. Also, flavours were unpredictable and the impact of maotai on the unsuspecting palate of a westerner and its subsequent effects on his ability to walk, talk or even stand were a cause of great humour. It was maotai I had in mind when I was describing the effects of the karitsa, for I saw amazing personality changes occur among those who drank it for the first time. The terse and reserved become chatty and fun while those who were often the life and soul of the party became quiet and thoughtful, their minds miles away, perhaps thinking about home. The seasoned expert tended to sip.
The interesting thing about the flavour of something is that beyond a certain elementary point flavour is indescribable and for this reason comes close to being an occult experience. Flavours challenge us in the most extreme ways, for they are so bound up with our cultural values not to mention our metabolism. When aliens come knocking at Earth’s door, food will, I predict, be a major point of contact. When we returned from China I was several times asked to describe maotai. I can’t. All I can offer is that it has something of the barnyard and something of the elixir of life but I know many who found it undrinkable.13 To me, maotai is one of the quintessential flavours of China. Not to be missed.
As already noted, the fact that I was working in a Chinese office, as well as the nature of my work and the fact that I was consciously making an effort to learn Chinese, all meant that language was always to the front of my mind. But here let me make it quite clear that although I was fascinated by the Chinese language, not least for its calligraphy, and that acquiring some knowledge of Chinese was a necessity for anyone who wanted to venture into the communes and hu-tong (small urban lanes) of the city beyond the gates of Youyi Bing Guan14, my actual command of the language was never very good. It was adequate. I could cope in a restaurant or on the buses or buying tickets, but beyond those concrete needs it vanished into the mist.14 I was also exposed by choice to as much Peking opera as I could find and came to love the fluting nasal accents of a heroine shyly confessing her love while making her silk sleeves ripple, or the strong barking martial language of a multi-flagged god or general—not to mention the acrobatics and the mime. The Chinese film Farewell My Concubine provides the best introduction I know for anyone who wants to see something of Peking Opera or gain a knowledge of aspects of contemporary Chinese history or simply witness different levels of Chinese being spoken, from the cultured Chinese of an aristocrat to the language of the gutter.
Youyi Bing Guan was also a linguistic melting pot with most European languages represented as well as languages from Africa and the Indian sub continent. It was not uncommon to travel to work in a car in which three or four languages were being spoken and sometime, Chinese was the only language we had in common.
Of great interest to me was the interface between the two languages, English and Chinese, and my Chinese colleagues in the office took delight in finding parallels and divergences of idiom, structure and ambiguity15. In retrospect it was inevitable that the book I was writing would reflect this delight though I was not consciously imitating Chinese.
One can not separate language from philosophy, and during the first encounter between Earth and Pe-Ellia, the Pe-Ellians are speaking a highly formal language which is replete with quotations and which, through its intense and rich cultural content, provides them with a kind of protection like an incantation or prayer. Of course, the members of the CLI do not know this and so any assumptions they make about the nature of the Pe-Ellian language are bound to be wrong. This leads to a complex misunderstanding when Thorndyke and Mnaba find themselves finally on Pe-Ellia.
Thorndyke has a unique gift for being able to reproduce the tones and accents of languages: ‘My parrot gift’ he calls it. Shortly after he and Professor Winter Wind have met, Thorndyke tries speaking a short line in the Pe-Ellian language, a greeting which he and the members of the CLI had often heard when the Pe-Ellians were on Earth. The result is a cultural faux pas.
Now Winter Wind is before us. I will let him speak first.
‘Happy landings. I am Professor Winter Wind.”
A pleasing animated voice in which the studied accent suggests, breeding and culture. One thing I note, and this is of the utmost importance: Winter Wind is here, He is present. He is actual, and oh the relief that affords me. I am aware of a vital, complex personality. Responsible to its self. I say this to draw contrast between this Pe-Ellian and the ones we have met to date, Calm After the Storm and his ilk, who seem to me as real as the dummies used by ventriloquists.
Tòmas Mnaba and I bow courteously in response to this friendly greeting.
‘Thank you,’ I reply, ‘And may your next change bring symmetry.’ I put a life time’s experience and training into catching the nuances and whistles of Pe-Ellian speech. This as far as I know is their most common and respectful greeting.
He stares at me, and slowly it dawns on me that I have somehow
gone wrong and put my foot in it. His eyes turn upwards to slits.
His massive head rolls. The smaller Pe-Ellians turn their backs n us. . . .
Either my greeting is incomplete, which I don’t think it is, or
inappropriate which is quite possible. . . .
In English I say ‘My name is Marius Thorndyke, and this is my
friend and close associate Tòmas Mnaba. If in my greeting I have said anything that gives offence, then I am truly sorry for no offence was intended.’ Spoken like a diplomat.
Winter Wind has stopped rolling his head. His eyes are closed and
he brings his hands together in a short sharp clap. ‘It is passed,’ I hear him murmur. . . . He replies, ‘And no offence taken. I appreciate your attempt to handle our tongue, and your accent is commendable, but you must know that such a greeting is impossible between us. Those who run before they can walk will surely tumble. An observation that applies to both of us. I am new to this work, and you remind me that I must be cautious lest I impute Pe-Ellian motives to Earthly actions. Let us go.’. . . .
His little speech and homily was rather strange if not a trifle priggish. How often a people who learn a foreign language scover a level of vocabulary and style of address that suits their personality.
It was interesting to observe how the level of English changed as one got to know one’s work mates. The first level I might call formal and polite or friendly but reserved. I noticed, among other characteristics that people were careful with their grammar even to the point of using the subjunctive, correcting ‘If I was . . . ’ to ‘If I were . . . ’, and while I am one who tends to protect the fast disappearing subjunctive, I let them know that it was not necessary to be too precise when speaking as I would not be judging them on their English and that I, too, often made mistakes.
The second level was marked by detailed linguistic questions which led to genuine discussion. Points of grammar were raised and I was often asked to differentiate between English synonyms. This was difficult and frequently impossible for English is such a flexible language and the nuances are finally intuitive and even personal. I realised, somewhat to my surprise, how deeply my knowledge of English derived from my voracious reading when I was a boy in a house in which books were always present.
Never having taught English, I discovered that it is sometimes impossible to explain why words which are classed as synonyms do not always work as alternatives. I can remember once suggesting that they should burn Roget’s thesaurus. When I was asked how people could improve their English, my answer was simple, ‘read and talk’ And there of course was the problem. During the cultural revolution it had been more or less impossible to get foreign literature—and was indeed dangerous for xenophobia was high, gangs of Red Guards roamed the streets and even Professors of high standing were not immune from taunting, torture or worse.
Of course the highly educated and well-read Chinese I was working with could well understand, for the Chinese language (and perhaps any advanced language) has the same subtlety once one moves away from simple translation. Prepositions were also a problem, and their omission led to comic confusion.
The third level was marked by an interest in idioms and slang. I knew that I had been accepted into the office when I was asked about slang and people began trying out idiomatic expressions on me. I hasten to add that these were never of a salacious nature. Rhyming slang was a favourite topic, I recall.
I noticed something interesting, namely that the flavour of a person’s language occasionally reflected their reading. Thus if I encountered a word such as ‘persiflage’ slipped casually into the conversation, I could be reasonably certain that the person I was speaking to was reading to widen their vocabulary. ‘Tocsin’ was another and I was able to trace this back to an essay by George Orwell. I used this effect of an expanded vocabulary to create some comic effects in the Eye of the Queen. One morning Cook enters the small house and begins speaking as follows.
‘Okay boys,’ said Cook, beginning to gather up the breakfast dishes.‘Here’s how we do things round here. Us Pe-Ellians normally only tuck in once a day. That’s half an hour before the sun closes and then the meal can go on as long as there are things to talk about. During the day we hardly ever speak to one another, unless we’re busting. For you, of course an exception we make. You eat whenever you like. Just come to the cookhouse and holler ‘Food’. . . .
But I better warn you boys, here on Pe-Ellia the granting of conversation is an honour. Okay? Course, with me you can talk anytime. I don’t count for much. I don’t know much and I’m on my way down anyway, so it doesn’t matter much to me anyhow.’
He said this quite matter of factly.‘The real hombres you’ve gotta get into is Jet and Winter Wind.’‘What are you reading at present?’ asked Thorndyke suddenly.
It is, of course, a cowboy book and its title is Incident at Stone Water Creek, written by a man called Tex Abalone. Thorndyke pretends that Mnaba is a fan of such books at which Cook rounds on him with obvious delight and says ‘Hey buddy, drop you faster than you can draw breath.’ Two of his slim fingers pointing straight at Mnaba’s throat. Later Cook makes the interesting observation about the content of the book. ‘One thing is strange though. Them cowboys, they talk kinder to their horses than they do to one another.’ And with that he departs. It is salutary to discover how revealing any scrap of literature can become when read for its social implication.
Sometimes my work involved me in contradiction. I might be correcting an article and thinking that I had the drift of it when suddenly I would encounter a word or phrase which pointed in quite a different direction. Sometimes this could be resolved easily, but at other times I asked to be taken through the Chinese original so that I could see for myself where the problem had occurred and what the true meaning should be. Sometimes it was a simple matter of mistranslation, or the loss of a crucial preposition, but at other times, and these were the most interesting, I could see how the English was being bent to accommodate a difficult idea in the Chinese original, an idea which might reside latent in the text, never clearly expressed, rather like a stain on the sea which shows where a ship has gone down.
Such problems must have been very much in my mind as in The Eye of the Queen, dilemmas abound on the right word to explain something. The Pe-Ellian who calls himself Laughing Gas for example, when asked to explain what he does replies that he is a ‘sand painter and a mud stirrer’ which Thorndyke interprets to mean that he is some kind of artist but Laughing Gas says no and insists that his function is to ‘be wherever he is needed at the right time.’
‘This,’ as he (Laughing Gas) pointed out, ‘requires no small skill. I have to keep in contact with all aspects of our society. I spend long hours alone, testing the ether, wetting my finger to see which way the wind lies, trying to sense problems before they arise. I am called Laughing Gas because I am always in a good humour. Were it contrariwise I would be my own worst enemy and a cause of great discord.’
Dissatisfied with this, Thorndyke later asks Jet to give an alternative translation of Laughing Gas’s occupation. Jet thinks for a minute or so and then says, ‘Policeman’.
As cities go, Datong in Shanxi province, is not greatly interesting being given over to industries such coal mining and cement making. However, not far from Datong there are the Yungang caves which house massive figures of the Buddha. I am sure that by now this is a tourist Mecca, but in the late 1970s when we travelled there, we shared the caves only with the wild goats which climbed amid the statues and used the heads of the Buddhas to leap up onto the hill side. When you approach these caves—mostly man made—you are aware of great open mouths in the sheer hillside. Some of the caves are located high on the cliff, and if you look closely you can see a face within staring out at you. However, it is only when you get close that you truly begin to appreciate the enormous size of the statues and feel the impact of their presence. Let us say you enter through one of the small caves, suddenly there you are, dwarfed by these Buddhas, cave after cave of them, some in a good state of preservation, others—those more open to the air – weathered and pockmarked with chisel or bullet holes. There are tiny Buddhas too, some about the size of your thumb, and medium sized Buddhas who float on lotus leaves and stare at you with that strange half-smile more teasing than that of La Gioconda. But it is the big ones that impress as they tower over you so that you have to lean back to see up to where they stare out of their portholes. The caves are gloomy, and that adds to the mystery and the sense of great antiquity, and one feels the moments of one’s own mortality ticking past. One thinks then of the ceremonies that took place in these caves centuries ago, of the singing and the chanting and the incense burning, of minds contemplating eternity.
However, at that stage in my life I was more interested in the art than in what the art might be trying to tell me. It was not until I came to re-read The Eye of the Queen that I realised that those giant figures of the Buddhas were the progenitors of the Mantissae, so important to the Pe-Ellians. ‘What is a Mantissa?’ asks Thorndyke and Winter Wind responds.
‘A Mantissa is a guardian. A storehouse of all our knowledge. A Pe-Ellian who has gone beyond his seventh, and who has then chosen, having achieved symmetry, to continue in the half-land of Death/Life to help us, to organise, to plan and to record. Mantissae can do practically anything. After many, many thousands of years of Mantissahood, they depart for greater space. . . .
But before they leave, they make sure that all that they know is communicated to their handmaidens. Later their handmaidens settle down and become Mantissae in their own right. . . .
Let me tell you this. Mantissae manipulate thought energy and that is the source of their strength. A Mantissa is a link between the thought of Pe-Ellia and thought waves of greater space. It is both a receiver and a transmitter. You will understand when you see one.’
And so later, Thorndyke and Mnaba along with Cook, Jet, Winter Wind and Menopause, who has now become Harlequin since his change of skin, visit a singing Mantissa. Thorndyke describes this.
Jet led the way. We walked down a short corridor and stopped in front of a red door. The air was still and cold, like the air in a tomb. Our feet made no sound. We did not speak.
Jet touched a small panel set in the wall and it immediately flared. Above us a section of the roof glowed and opened. I found myself looking up into a tangled web of ropes and lines. Intertwined among the strands of the web were many Pe-Ellians. They all stared down at us. One of them wormed himself loose, sliding his body nimbly between the lines and then dropped through the hole and stood before us. He was taller than Winter Wind.
The roof closed with a pop.
The Pe-Ellian spoke to us softly. Winter Wind translated. ‘Welcome. I am called Chord. You are expected. The singer has just begun the first canticle of the Mantissiad, the Journey of Life. You will go in now.’
He touched the door and it swung silently open.
We stared into a vast chamber. It was dark in the way that cathedrals are dark after the sunshine. One shaft of light fell from the roof and illuminated the Mantissa.
What did I see? So much anticipation . . . so much waiting.
There was a body, couched it seemed. Round it gossamer and gauze. A statue dressed in mosquito netting perhaps. The light was not bright enough for us to get an impression of his size. He was a giant mantis. He was a monster peering out of the tatters of his cocoon.
The air was filled with whispers and with humming and with the rustle of wings as though birds were flying there. Menopause-Harlequin placed his hand on my shoulder. ‘Behold your first Mantissa,’ he said. ‘You are fortunate he has just begun the odyssey. Were he advanced in the song, it would be too dangerous for you to come here. The power of some singers is beyond reckoning and he is one of the greatest. The further they move into the song, the more the power builds up. At the climax no living thing can exist in this space.’ We began to walk towards the Mantissa.
‘How long does the song last?’
Winter Wind joined me on the other side and it was he who replied. ‘The Mantissiad will last about two of your years. Perhaps a bit more. It is the song of our life you see, and at each repeat it grows a bit longer. No doubt you will be melted into the song at some point. Your coming will be sung about.’
‘Who listens to the songs?’
‘A hard question,’ said Winter Wind. ‘No one listens to them, but everyone absorbs them. They are born like thought in Pe-Ellian minds. Every Pe-Ellian grows up with these songs. They are with us when we dream and when we are awake. They tell us how to know that we are Pe-Ellian and how we came to be. There are words of course, and the Mantissa knows them and that is enough. They are broadcast into the psychosphere and fill up every nook and cranny with life and rhythm.’
While speaking we were walking towards the Mantissa. We had covered perhaps about half the distance and I was becoming aware of just how big this creature was.
Tómas caught up with me. ‘How does a creature that size manage to support its own weight?’ he asked.
No one answered that question for at that moment the Mantissa stirred slightly and I saw a heavy, hooded eye close slowly and then open again. I could see him much more clearly now. He was indisputably Pe-Ellian, but of an earlier generation. The hands and feet were definite claws. He was sitting back on his haunches with his two hands clasped round his knees. His head was ridged as though a spine curved up higher and was revealed outside his skin. All this I noticed as we walked towards him. But the size! Nothing I have seen since on Pe-Ellia has quite matched it. . . . .
He was completely swathed in a filmy, gauze like material that had enveloped him. I was surprised to discover that it was brittle, like chicken skin that has been fried.
‘What is this?’ I asked Menopause-Harlequin.
‘You should know. It is Mantissa skin. For centuries he has not moved. He has sat there, continually growing, out growing skins and then the skins crack and tumble and dry. . . .
His lips were moving, whispering a form of Pe-Ellian that was perhaps a common tongue at the time the Earth’s oceans were forming. I looked up at the giant face, mottled and lined, at the eyes focussed on another time and yet alive in the present, at the hands with the great ribbed claws, and I felt humbled. I felt ephemeral. I could feel his karit, the word the Pe-Ellians use for thought and for which we have no equivalent. It was a great tide sweeping through the green/blue depths of space.
I knew (do no ask me how, but I knew) that if I touched him I would share the song. It is part of my vanity that I am impulsive. I edged forward, pushing through the sloughed off skin. Some of it fell to powder at my touch.
‘Where are you going? Be careful,’ called Winter Wind and that was my cue. I scampered as quickly as I could, breasting the skin and tearing through. Before the others realised what I was doing I was there. I reached out and pressed myself as tightly as I could against the Mantissa’s talon.
ETHOS: LAO TZU AND TAO TE CHING
Even before going to China and wrestling with the language, I had been interested in Chinese poetry. Since the poetry I was most interested in pre-dated the communist era, it was largely closed to me since the only characters I learned were ‘modernised,’ for which read simplified. These characters were good for picking one’s way through the People’s Daily but totally misleading if one wanted to look at classical literature.
I am not sure how, but a copy of the poems of Lao Tzu in English came into my possession and reading it was like a window opening on China. Those poems made sense to me of what I had seen while climbing the steps up Tai Shan—the holy mountain not far from where Confucius lived—or walking the paths in Huang Shan, the magnificent Yellow Mountains. Let me say that the poems are almost impossible to understand in a narrative sense. They are epigrammatic, delight in paradox (‘The Way that can be named is not the unchanging way.’) and translators have had to make difficult decisions in order to render them intelligible. But still, in their symbolism and sudden moments of clarity, they can be quite arresting. Thus standing on the top of Tai Shan at dawn and watching the sunlight glance across the tops of the clouds making them look like solid boulders, or noticing the way that a distant hill might suddenly appear from the mist or a waterfall seem suspended in the air—such things seemed to me to be a visible equivalent of some of the poems. One is aware of mystery and unstated significance in the landscape and of course, these being Chinese poems they have a political dimension for all things can be pressed to teach a moral.
Poem 8 may be read as follows, which is my own recension.
The greatest good is like water . . .
Water which benefits all creatures
And flows down, without dispute, to gather
Where none other would care to be.
Thus it comes close to the Way.
You would build a good home? first find a good site,
To discover good thoughts look deep in your heart,
In seeking good friendship be kind and considerate,
To find good government, let order reign,
Good business grows from good skill,
And if you want to act, choose the right moment.
But finally, it is by not disputing
That one becomes and remains without fault.16
The link between all this and The Eye of the Queen is not direct and I am certainly not claiming that the book can be read as a Taoist text. But certainly the illusory was in my mind as was the fragility of culture and the need for good and stable government. Pe-Ellia is a world in which mystery underlies everything. Appearance is always deceptive. Thorndyke has a moment of illumination when he says:
I have also noted that everything on Pe-Ellia seems to be transitional, a state between states. There are no definitive forms. Even death seems transitional. On Earth we say Death is the only certainty. Here it appears as a stage in the merry-go-round of thought. Are we such things as dreams are made of? (170)
Even at the end of the book, when the story might seem to be nicely tied up with Thorndyke being recycled through the Queen thereby helping Pe-Ellia achieve a new psychic state, and with all Thorndyke’s documents safe in Mnaba’s scholarly hands, Jet adds a new idea which changes the significance of the narrative.
Seconds before he departed, Jet leaned out of his pale green ship and gripped my arm. ‘Remember us Tómas Mnaba,’ he said. ‘Think of us. Get everyone to think of us. Those thoughts will get through. In its own way, Earth also controls Pe-Ellia. You may have the key to our future. Perhaps we are your handmaidens. In our linked destiny perhaps we were born to further you. Think of that.’
Boxes, you see. Boxes within boxes and so on to infinity, all contained within that ‘dynamic emptiness’ of which the Buddhists speak.
Farewell My Concubine.
Camus, Albert. L’Étranger
Lao Tzu. Tao Te Ching.
Mann, Phillip. ‘Coming of Age in t’North.’
——. The Eye of the Queen. London: Gollancz, 2001.
——.‘The Gospel According to Micky Mouse.’
——. ‘The West that Never Was.’
Needham, Joseph. Science and Civilization of China.
Wells, H. G. War of the Worlds.
1 These were the four radicals who managed China’s Cultural Revolution in the early 70s. They were Jiang Quing, a former actress and the wife of Mao Zedong. She was largely responsible for the ‘modern’ operas celebrating communist themes. The other three members of the ‘gang’ were Zhang Chunqiao, an official in the Shanghai propaganda office; Yao Wenyuan, a literary critic; and Wang Hongwen, a security guard in Shanghai.
2 In a way that is hard for Westerners to appreciate, it is part of the Chinese literary tradition that poems, songs and plays are expected to have a political meaning. Thus it was that the Book of Songs, containing popular ballads from the Chou dynasty—a work allegedly compiled by Kongfuzi (Confucius) himself though this is a hotly contested tradition – were frequently interpreted as having hidden political meanings. During the time I was in China, one of the first foreign plays to be produced was Brecht’s The Life of Galileo. The director, Huang zuo Lin, had studied theatre with Michel St Denis, spoke English with an Oxford accent, was a fervent Brechtian (like myself) as well as a renowned theatre scholar and apologist for western theatre; had spent the entire cultural revolution writing self-criticisms while locked in his bare office from morning till night. ‘Galileo’ was the subject of ongoing debate in the papers as different writers contended to explain Brecht’s message and to speculate on the benefits and dangers of scientific exploitation. Thus the debate on the play paralleled and informed the debate taking place in the society at large.
It is also worth remembering in this context that a young man who wrote a poem critical of the Gang of Four at the height of the Cultural Revolution and who posted this poem in Tien An Men (The Gate of Heavenly Peace) on the anniversary of Zhou en Lai’s death, became the most wanted ‘criminal’ and was hunted throughout the People’s Republic. Understand this and you begin to understand the importance of Da Zi Bao and Democracy Wall.
3 I am perhaps being a bit hard here, for undoubtedly there were some very good scholars among the pushy ones I encountered. But we had a phrase which went as follows: ‘If you come to China for a week you’ll write a book. If you come for a month, you’ll write an article. If you stay any longer, you probably won’t write anything at all.’ In my own case this has certainly been true, and even in the present article the subject is more myself beyond a few anecdotes about China of the kind that one might tell without harm round the fire.
4 Which being interpreted means something like ‘Comme ci, comme ça’ or ‘approximately’ or ‘so, so’. While being perfectly polite and good Chinese, it is a certain sign that subsequent questions will not receive a more precise answer. To push under such a circumstance is to be impolite, and the net result is similar to studying the distant mountains in a Chinese painting: the harder you look, the more they seem to disappear.
5 I have talked to other writers about this, and most concur that the images that move them, that stir up or liberate the imagination, are rarely, if ever, a matter of conscious or rational choice. They come from ‘our there’ or ‘inside’ and the novel or poem is really an exploration of why such ideas matter.
6 Actually reading this embryonic novel was rather a comical process. I had already used up all the typing paper I had brought into China with me on my ‘dead’ novels. When I went to the calligraphy shop which had lots of different papers, I found that I could not buy typing paper per se for the Chinese, as a result of their language, did not use the alphabetic Qwerty keyboard with which I was familiar. At a loss I eventually bought a roll of green wrapping paper which I felt had the right weight. I cut this by hand into strips which were about a foolscap wide and a few metres long. There seemed to be no point in cutting these into pages so I simply put the start of a roll into the
typewriter and tapped away. The roll would then grow across the desk and eventually end up coiled on the floor under the desk. As you may imagine, reading it was like handling an unruly scroll. Making corrections on the typewriter was a nightmare and it tore easily. But I knew no better, and word processors were a thing of the future. Some time later I did secure a supply of typing paper from a colleague who went to Hong Kong.
7 This was the Youyi Bing Guan. It consisted of a large and ornate central building which had been built by the Russians for their own use before the two communist neighbours fell out, and around which were gathered blocks of apartment buildings, five stories high, which had, so we were told, housed the workers from Eastern Europe. The entire compound which had shops, gardens, a dining room, a clinic, a bathing pool, tennis courts and a bar where we gathered to swap news was surrounded by a high fence and was guarded by members of the People’s Liberation Army. This may sound a bit grim, but there was never any trouble coming and going as far as I was concerned and the children of the Foreign Experts, often having learned Chinese before their parents, often greeted the soldiers by name and treated them like elder brothers, stealing their hats and giving them cheek. I understand this building is now one of the main tourist hotels.
8 These were the fuwuyuan who kept the buildings and the grounds clean.
9 The foreign population of the Youyi Bing Guan was truly international with people drawn from Africa, India, South America, Europe, the Middle East, Australasia etc. Some could not go home for political reasons, others had no home to go to outside the Youyi Bing Guan. Living there was a rich experience in which the air might be filled with the feathers of a chicken being plucked or the rich aroma of curry cooking or the crackle of fireworks as a foreign worker made ready to leave—but when the South Americans had a barbeque and got the guitars out, that was a carnival and not to be missed.
10 A sub theme of the book is the contest between the military and economic powers of Earth who regard space as a place to conquer and exploit, and those who believe that exploration of space is essentially an opportunity to expand and strengthen out understanding of Life and hence our own humanity and even spirituality. In writing the book I was consciously opposing the bias I had found in many books in which the alien was more or less automatically assumed to be an enemy bent on our destruction. H. G. Wells in his brilliant War of the Worlds gave this tendency immense impetus, which was then carried forwards in many (but by no means all) films, novels and stories of the 40s, 50s and 60s which abound in BEMs—Bug Eyed Monsters. These works were themselves, I think, reflecting the threat and danger of the Cold War. Viewed from this standpoint, The Eye of the Queen can be seen as an attack on the militarist mentality in general.
11 Every foreign expert was given a Chinese name which was usually no more than the sound of his or her name conveyed in sounds used in Chinese. Thus Mann became in some instances Meng. On one occasion I was called Fei Lipu which, when I asked what it meant, was translated as The Strength of Africa is Spreading Widely. I was never quite sure whether or not my leg was being pulled. It must be understood that the Chinese would not think of such meanings when they heard my name any more than we think of horses when we hear the name Phillip or of horse shoes when we hear the name Smith. But within the Chinese culture, the names given to children do have significance thus I knew someone called Da Qing, the name echoing the famous oil-field. On Pe-Ellia, new names are given after each change of skin when a new identity is formed.
12 The mention of the Goon Show is not entirely gratuitous. Among the things which I took with me to China were some cassette recordings of the Goon Show. Once when travelling by train down to Shanghai, I was playing them for my children. Gradually our carriage filled up with English nationals working at Xin Hua who, hearing the unmistakable voice of Neddy Seegoon or Minnie Bannister drifting down the corridor, came to listen. Eventually, drawn by our laughter, some of the English speaking Chinese comrades also joined us. They were completely baffled by what they heard. Try as I would, I could not explain, why Eccles first words to Bluebottle left us prostrate with merriment or why grown men and women should find as childish an idea as making a cardboard replica of the Houses of Parliament and towing it across the channel was unbelievably funny. Normally it was me that was baffled by China, but the Goon Show was a cultural riposte. Thinking about this later led me to the idea of ‘rich’ English—a combination of slang, nonsense and formal complex constructions – which I develop in the book and which is a CLI technique for determining how well a language and hence a culture is understood. Also, latent here, was the whole question of humour and the comic. It is an interesting mind experiment to try to invent alien jokes such that they reveal an original, or we might say a lateral, view of life. When you can laugh at another culture’s jokes, you really are beginning to understand that culture. Here is a Chinese joke told to me at the height of the Peking Spring. See if you find it funny.
Comrade Wong: What is the definition of a Political Deviationist?
Comrade Zhang: I don’t know, Comrade, what is the definition of a Political Deviationist?
Comrade Wong: A Political Deviationist is one who follows the same straight path while the Party veers to the left or right.
This joke is I think widely dispersed in the Communist world.
13 In an earlier footnote I discussed Chinese jokes. On one occasion, at a banquet, I was told the following story which the Chinese found highly amusing. Evidently when President Nixon departed from China after his historic meeting with Mao Zedong, he was given several bottles of maotai to take home with him. Most people in his party did not like the spirit evidently and so it languished at the White House until Christmas when, as part of the festivities, someone suggested that, they experiment with it to see if it would burn like brandy round the plum pudding. So the white maotai bottle was duly brought out, dusted off and the contents poured round the pudding. Someone lit it and it exploded with such force that the pudding had to be scraped from the walls. This story was told with much relish. The idea of setting fire to maotai struck the Chinese that I knew as comic. I cannot vouch for the truth of this story or even whether maotai would ignite and I mention it now, not only as an instance of slap-stick humour in which I suggest we all can share, but to show the dangerous consequence of making untried cultural assumptions.
14 My son, at that time less than three years old and whose first language, thanks to his Aye, was Chinese, would explode with mirth as I mangled tones, on one occasion managing to convert the word for ‘kindergarten’ to a word similar to ‘toilet.’ Quite often it was the children who served as interpreters.
15 To give an example, the English expression two-ply or three-ply (etc) once gave rise to passionate discussion. Although the meaning of the phrase was understood, logic suggested that in order to have two-fold it was necessary tohave a first-fold and hence one would have a total of three folds. If confusion can arise on something as simple as this, imagine what will happen when we meet an alien race.
16 This is my own recension.