by Malcolm Bosse ‧ RELEASE DATE: May 16, 1983
China, 1927--in a long, episodic novel that, while thoughtful and energetically written (with all the expected exotica), never chums up much drama or sweep from its hardworking mixture of history and fictional characterization. The title figure is General Tang Shan-t'eh, Defense Commissioner of Southern Shantung Province, an earnest Confucian and true Chinese patriot who is one of the several leaders vying for power after the death of Sun Yat-sen. (The complex enmities and alliances--including Japanese/ Soviet/western ties--are explored, in not-always-lucid detail.) Tang, in desperate need of arms, travels to Shanghai, where he falls in love with aristocratic refugee/prostitute Vera Rogacheva, mistress of German arms dealer Erich Luckner: a devotee of calligraphy, Vera will become Tang's new mistress-in-residence, despite doubts. (""Do I love this man, this Chinese general, this strange foreigner I can never know?"") Tang's other journeys take him to the monastery hideout of Chiang Kai-shek for a doomed alliance-chat (""this intense and mercurial man who seems possessed of both a crystalline intelligence and the heart of a child""); to a second Kuomintang contact in Canton (where he's briefly kidnapped); into war with General Jen Ching-i of Hopei; and to Peking for another round of negotiations. Meanwhile, with an iffy sense of pace and plotting, Bosse follows two other major characters: moody Soviet agent Kovalik, who rats to win Tang over to communism, becomes addicted to opium, eventually reaching the mountain camp of young peasant-leader Mao (who wants no Russian help); and young US missionary Philip Embree--who, captured by bandits, eagerly goes native, loses his virginity and his faith (""Fuck Christmas""), joins Tang's cavalry after the bandits are massacred (""Should he, an American, be fighting in a Chinese battle whose outcome has nothing to do with him?""), saves Tang's life, and predictably goes ga-ga over Vera. Eventually, then, the storylines will more or less come together--when Embree, in order to steal Vera away, betrays Tang. But, despite extensive flashback/musing material, the characters remain remote, uninvolving--especially the far-from-believable Embree, who lurches from naif to super-hero to villain with YA-ish shallowness. (Bosse's recent work has been YA fiction.) And though there's a strong cote of material in Tang's idealism/pragmatism dilemma, it's a short-novel idea that's been stretched out here to epic-saga proportions. . . with slow, talky results. Little of the excitement or romance of other China fiction, then--but the history is intriguing, the sights and sounds (with sex and grue) are colorfully done, and heavy promotion may draw a large audience to this half-absorbing/half-dullish period mixture.
Pub Date: May 16, 1983
Page Count: -
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Review Posted Online: N/A
Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 1, 1983
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