A fictionalized account of a love affair Julian Bell conducted with a Chinese woman during the mid-1930s, by London-based novelist Hong (Summer of Betrayal, 1997; a memoir, Daughter of the River, 1999).
If it’s true (for media types, at least) that there’s no such thing as bad publicity, then Hong has hit pay dirt. Her story, as she admits, is based on a real-life event: namely, that in 1935 the Bloomsbury scion Julian Bell (son of Clive and Vanessa, nephew of Virginia Woolf), then a 28-year-old Cambridge scholar, went to teach at Wuhan University in China and carried on a passionate affair with the novelist Ling Shuhua, wife of a university dean. The story is so explicit—both sexually and historically—that Hong is currently being sued for libel by Shuhua’s daughter on behalf of her now-deceased mother (Chinese libel law applies to the dead as well as the living). Legal questions aside, K, first published in 1999 in Taiwan, is a pretty good story in its own right, reminiscent of Marguerite Duras in its impressionistic style and obsessive narrative pace. The plot is as straightforward as any boy-meets-girl story you’ll find on the shelf, but Hong adds depth and shading to the bare bones of the tale by drawing on the background, offering interesting glimpses of life within the happy confines of the Bloomsbury set, as well as under the darker clouds of the Japanese invasion of Manchuria or the Spanish Civil War. The character of Bell, who comes across as something of a spoiled and callow child, is greatly upstaged by the sensual and contradictory Shuhua. And the translation, while sometimes a bit stiff and prosaic (“There was such harmony in their lovemaking now that they could easily synchronize their orgasm”), is mostly fluid and unobtrusive.
A delicate and exquisite success: Hong infuses real life with the drama and pathos of the best fiction.