Fifty years ago. Szechwan province, capital city Chengtu, where ""every house is really a chamber pot,"" and where ten-year-old Lucien Bonnard (read: Bodard) inhales the real China and coolly dissects his father the consul and his mother the icemaiden. Admitted everywhere (""I was a king"") and guided by his amorous amah and his leprous mafu, the boy roams a matter-of-fact world of dismemberments, opium addiction, and child concubines (""little flowers""), a world where elaborate courtesies and saving ""face"" count far more than sanitation. These subsurface tours are mesmerizing, but the focus soon deserts the streets for the consul's parlor, site of marital stalemates, tortuous political gamesmanship, and opium-induced dreams of diplomatic glory. The slenderest narrative imaginable supports--just barely--cascades of history and half-history, the Europeanization of Shanghai, the Blue Band (ritualistic mafia of the East), Anglo-French rivalry over the guns-for-dope market, war lords who trade mass casualties like bubblegum cards, and a fantasized Hanoi-to-Chengtu railway that might raise a certain self-deluding consul to ambassadordom. Dense, sprawling, mixed genres--and the only tie that binds is Lucien's unrelenting contempt for Bonnard-Bodard pere. Some may sympathize with one diplomat here who's ""had China, up to the eyebrows,"" but 250,000 book-buying Frenchmen can't be, and aren't, all wrong about this unkempt (the translation doesn't help), unciassifiable spellbinder.