THE NEXT BEST THING by John Ralston Saul


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From the author of The Birds of Prey (1978): rich Far Eastern suspense, among the most thoughtful of the year, and fueled by the illusions that lift The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. James Spenser, an Assistant Keeper at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, is a buyer of artifacts for the India and Burma collection. Privately, he keeps his eye peeled for his own collection, drawn from Thai. land, Cambodia, China and Japan. Somehow, James' sex impulse has been sublimated into art works, and so now when he sees a truly spiritual work--a magnificent Chinese scroll or a Buddha that sings beyond clichÉ--the work takes on an ecstatic animism, as if the Great God Pan were present. Slowly, he finds himself entering into shady deals to support his raptures with new pieces for his apartment. When he runs across photos of a series of 20 statues depicting the life of Buddha, which are clearly a collector's dream and immensely valuable, and which are waiting to be plucked from a centuries-abandoned temple in the most remote mountains of a political no-man's-land between Burma and Thailand, he must have them. Once into Thailand, he begins setting up the ruses by which he can mount an expedition, successfully cut through jungles, traverse some six mountain ranges, locate the temple and make off with his booty. Every step of the way is deadly. Jade and opium smugglers demand payment for safe passage through their individual plots of turf. The corrupt police, who have their own arrangements with the smugglers, must also be paid off in a cat's cradle of graft that seems to include every Thai, Chinese or Burmese in the area. Through it all, Spenser is led by a lapsed Christian missionary, Matthew Blake, who wants enough money to return to civilization, and by an alcoholic Spanish Buddhist, Santana, who is also an opium addict and eventually has himself burned alive on a funeral pyre by his son. All of the way, while plans collapse and the horror of the jungle works its grip on Spenser, as do the tiny leeches infecting his legs and the fungus rotting the soles off his feet, he holds before himself the steady image of the dancing Buddhas. It is the power of art, even more than the power of gold in B. Traven's classic, that inspires Saul's best pages and compels the reader to await the ecstasy at the end of the horror. Saul will find this a hard act to follow, even as Traven did with Treasure.

Pub Date: July 4th, 1986
Publisher: Doubleday