Nostalgia is a great place to visit in your head but, so often, when you actually revisit the treasured memory by rereading, the results are disappointing. Somehow, the mind gilds the lilly. Should you return to physical locations, you can find tired old buildings or, worse, that developers have knocked down the places you remember with affection and produced something culturally appalling. Either way, travelling back in time is a tricky business and should only be attempted by sanguine and seasoned veterans who are emotionally prepared to be disappointed.
I’ve always been a fan of Robert Silverberg. Even when he got more serious in the late sixties and early seventies, there was an appealing style linked into an increasingly intelligent exploration of “issues”. Today he may be better known for the Majipoor series, but I still have fond memories of The Man in the Maze, Up the Line, Dying Inside, and so on. Subterranean Press are running a project to collect all his short stories and Multiples (1983-87): The Collected Stories of Robert Silverberg, Volume Six is, not surprisingly, the sixth in the series. It contains fourteen stories, covering 1983-87, a time when I was reading fewer short stories, so this has been an interesting collection to read. It fills in a gap. It’s also good to see more real introductory notes explaining some of the background to the stories. Too often we get a few sentences explaining how an author had a flash of inspiration while drinking root beer and eating a yakburger in a McDonald’s in Outer Mongolia or something equally brainless. These introductions delve more actively into the writing process and offer some fascinating if, at times, tantalising details.
“Tourist Trade” is an elegant story about a man of sensibility but with a tendency to obsessiveness, who finds himself tempted off the true path of his commercial interests. Instead of remaining the exploiter, you can watch him taking the first steps into what’s likely to become an addictive pursuit of more tangible pleasures. “Multiples” asks what we find interesting in ourselves and others. For some, stability and predictability are everything. For others, there’s something exciting about different moods, even different personalities — who says these have to be symptoms of a mental disorder, anyway? “Against Babylon” gets us back into the first contact groove. Strange how it’s always the folk from LA who are the most sympatico when it comes to greeting beings from outer space. That said, it turns out people from the Californian valleys are just as closed-minded and scared as everyone else. “Symbiont” shows how an enemy can make life a living Hell for infected human soldiers, keeping them alive for years and punishing them. It’s a clever take on the idea, but less than immediately practical because the effect is on the morale of our troops. Should the victims be quarantined out of sight, the remaining guys would just keep on fighting. Except what would you do with these infected ones after the war was over?
It’s always good to meet old friends again and “Sailing to Byzantium” reads as well to day as the first time — in fact, it’s the only story I can remember reading before. Like the characters who walk the future streets of the five cities, this is an unchanging story. Once you’ve grown into an adult and fall in love, bodies lose their significance. Love transcends the mere physicality of ageing. All you have to do is accept the loss of outer beauty and move forward with the person you love. “Sunrise on Pluto” is a rather slight piece on the nature of life. If human are little more than intelligent carbon-based machines, what other sentient machines might there be on other planets? Pursuing the same idea, “Hardware” suggests long-lasting computers might represent a threat — it’s the domino theory applied to computer technology. “Hannibal’s Elephants demonstrates that optimism in the face of an alien invasion is often the best defence. If you just get on with your life, most of the troubling things around you can be packed up and taken away. “Blindsight” is a very ingenious inversion of expectation. Rather as some of the worst experiments conducted by Hitler’s Germany have informed modern surgical techniques, there’s always a potential need for skills, no matter what their original motivation. “Gilgamesh in the Outback” is a variation on the amor vincit omnia trope and great fun, albeit much at the expense of Robert Howard which, of course, is not wholly undeserved. “The Pardoner’s Tale” poses an interesting question. What if you had the ultimate ability to hack any computer. What would you use it for? You could make yourself the King of the World, or you could use the same power to become completely anonymous. Your choice!
“The Iron Star” offers me a challenge because I literally don’t know enough to judge it. My reaction is that the inability of the alien ship to detect the intense gravitational forces surrounding the black hole is unrealistic — a somewhat ironic criticism as applied to science fiction. So, turning a blind eye to this issue, it makes a good biter-bit story. “The Secret Sharer” takes us back to the question of identity and socialisation. Why do some people take jobs which involve them in constant interaction with others, while a small group prefer to join the ranks of the lighthouse keepers or other posts involving minimal contact with humanity? I suppose it’s all to do with loneliness. Surrounded by the hubbub of human existence, there’s little time to worry about a lack of friends. But when you prefer your own company. . . that means loneliness itself becomes your friend or you befriend someone equally lonely. Finally, “House of Bones” shows us how loneliness might be permanent unless you can be accepted by a new tribe.
On balance, this is a great collection. Inevitably there are a couple of duds. No writer has ever managed to make every story a complete success. Since Multiples (1983-87): The Collected Stories of Robert Silverberg, Volume Six is not pretending to be a “best of” but rather a reprinting of all the stories from a given time frame, you get good, indifferent and bad. This lets me make a few final points. My sensibilities are not necessarily the same as yours. You may find all these stories out of time to be all good or all bad. There’s no guarantee our tastes will overlap. That said, even when I think he’s bad, he’s still one of the most professional writers around. More importantly, he’s usually focussed on people rather than the science fiction or fantasy elements. This honesty and credibility in the male characterisation (the females usually got short shrift) makes his stories more timeless. Although there are still symptoms betraying the age of these stories, they are more forgivable in Robert Silverberg than in other writers. If nothing else, he usually tells a good story. So I think this collection is good enough to recommend to everyone and not merely to those interested in the history of the genres. More power to Subterranean Press for yet another good book.
For a review of another collection, see The Best of Robert Silverberg: Stories of Six Decades.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.
Years ago, before the current vogue for labelling genres really took off, we were able to use the word “weird” in the more general sense of something that was rather strange or bizarre. Yes, there were overtones that the source of the weirdness might be supernatural. But the word was equally applied to people and the way they dressed and behaved as much as to the uncanny. However, thanks to the development of the ghost story into a more mythic supernatural form, e.g. as written by Lord Dunsany, H. P. Lovecraft and others, it’s come to describe a mixture of other-worldly fantasy and horror fiction, with New Weird flowing from the likes of China Miéville. Well, in the rather more old-fashioned sense of the word, Jim and the Flims (Night Shade Books, 2011) by Rudy Rucker is weird. Or, perhaps it’s an example of absurdism. . . or surrealism. . .
Starting from basics, this book retells the classic myth of Orpheus, where our hero enters a rather curious version of the Underworld in the hope of rescuing his lost wife. Although music does play a part in this venture later on, we begin with the more usual symptom of absurdism: a hero who, because of the collapse of his life as a low-level research scientist, followed by the death of his wife, loses any real sense of purpose in his life. In existential terms, the accumulated tragedies destroy the meaning in his life. He drifts, creating a parable of modern life in Santa Cruz, California where strung-out surfers are paralleled by equally strange folk on the “other side”. Except this would suggest a relatively benign allegory with drug-induced fantasies proving all too “real” when our hero has a seizure and, thanks to copious amounts of different substances, is then able to cross between worlds that are separated only by a shy snail — yes, it’s that kind of weird. All he has to do is open the snail’s mouth and walk through. Fortunately, this is a mirror-image gastropod, so he does not have to emerge anally. There’s another mouth in the other dimension — a Janus snail, you might say. Except this is also a war story and, in war, we have propaganda so the first thing sacrificed is truth (whatever that is).
I suppose the good thing about the way the book begins is that it has quite a jaunty feel to it. There’s whimsy and elements quite fantastical. It bowls along with a kind of free-wheeling, free-association quality as we’re bombarded by different images without any real sense of logic or reality as a constraint. Except, after a while, this quite entertaining quality loses it appeal and, by the time we finish, it’s grown rather annoying. When something is novel, it seduces the reader by its difference and originality. Yet, through repetition, what was pleasingly absurd becomes normal and devolves into a cliché of itself. The mark of good absurdism is knowing when to cut your losses and stop. This just grinds on until, frankly, I kept reading only out of a sense of duty to see how it was resolved. It’s rather the way I was brought up. Sometimes during a visit, your host offers you food. Naturally, you eat it and, even if it’s the worst thing you ever tasted, you manage to find a smile and nod happily, finding an elegant excuse for refusing seconds. Well, Rudy Rucker has invested oodles of his time in writing this so, out of the same sense of courtesy, I finished it.
Now it’s entirely possible you may like this non-stop quirkiness. After all, death is rather depressing so the idea you can pop through a convenient snail into another dimension, find the spirit or ghost of your wife, and bring her back, is likely to improve your mood. The fact you might have to become the host for an invasion force when you return to Earth is a small price to pay if you’re recovering the one you love. So, discarding my dislike for the prose style, is the story any good? If it had been written as a straight weird fantasy, would I have liked it? I think, with a different structure, it could have been rather more entertaining. At the heart of this book is a malign plot to destroy the Earth as we know it. Although, truth be told, there’s actually a further plot in motion, but we don’t have to go into spoiler territory for this review. The chain of cause and effect is quite a work of art and, if instead of this faint jokiness, we’d had the atmosphere of a threatening Egyptian mummy, real parasitism and the incidental deaths at the outset described with a sense of impending doom, I would have been hooked. As it is, we get to the other side and find farmers, a more testing skate park, and a shopping mall with a difference. You just can’t maintain the credibility of a threat when nothing is taken very seriously. So Jim and the Flims is only for the die-hard Rudy Rucker fans.
The jacket art by Bill Carman is actually quite pleasingly surreal and, for those who like this style, his portfolio is worth a look.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.
It’s always interesting when you start off a film with images of rats finding a living for themselves amidst the rubbish thrown out by unthinking humans. Even in the lowest levels of society, there’s still a possibility of a life with rich pickings. Having fixed the image in our minds, we switch to three officers planting surveillance equipment in the offices of Feng Hua International. Perhaps they too will act like bottom feeders should rich scraps come their way. Such are the metaphors that flash our way in the first minutes of Overheard or Sit yan fung wan (2009) a police procedural out of Hong Kong dealing with a Commercial Crime Bureau investigation into suspected insider trading. This is Alan Mak and Felix Chong continuing their team effort to write and direct after their success with the Infernal Affairs Trilogy and before The Lost Bladesman or Guan Yun Chang.
The identity of the “mastermind” is unknown to the Bureau at the outset, but later proves to be Will Ma (Michael Wong) who has “integrity” as his firm’s slogan. He’s a high-profile figurehead for a major charity and very respectable. He’s also laundering money for drug lords. No-one has ever been able to pin anything criminal on him. Because Kelvin Lee Kwong (Alex Fong) believes the best chance of collecting evidence against the lower-level conspirators is at night, the best three surveillance operatives are scheduled for the night shift. Yet each of the three has “issues”.
Inspector Johnny Leung (Lau Cheng Wan) leads the team of three and is best friends with Kelvin, his immediate boss. Unfortunately, he’s sleeping with Kelvin’s wife, Mandy Yam (Zhang Jingchu). They are unofficially separated. Kelvin had an affair, but hopes to patch up the marriage. This gets complicated when Kelvin asks Johnny to install surveillance equipment in the ex-matrimonial home to identify the suspected new lover. The other two members of the team are Gene Yeung (Louis Koo) and Max Lam (Daniel Wu). Gene’s son has cancer and he needs money to pay for life-saving treatment. Max is marrying into a rich family and his future father-in-law has the Police Commissioner as a golf buddy. Max doesn’t feel he fits in, particularly since his future father-in-law wants him to quit work as a police officer and work for him at a higher salary. Having his own money would make him feel more brave.
When Gene picks up an inside tip on an expected rise in share price, he talks Max into deleting the record so they can cash in. Johnny works out what they plan but, when they plead with him, he steps back. Unfortunately, many in the office overhear the buy-order and they join in. This looks suspicious to the stock exchange regulator who suspends dealing in the shares. This leaves the actual insider dealers with a problem. They don’t know what went wrong with their own plan to inflate the price. They believe one of their number is welching on the deal and so decide to kill him. Our police officers are, of course, listening in. They intervene to prevent the murder. They are, after all, police officers. Then the exchange regulators take all the surveillance files, suspecting market manipulation by the Commercial Crime Bureau itself.
However, you look at it, this has boiled up into a nicely balanced situation. As a result of their purchases, Gene and Max have enough money to leave the country. Should they run, or should they stay and try to survive? The “bad guys” are also deeply suspicious. They need to clean house.
At its heart, this is a story about personal and professional loyalty tested by greed. The three selected for the night watch have been through thick and thin together. Even though Johnny knows he should stop them from breaking their trust as police officers, he recognises their need for money. He thinks the situation is containable and looks the other way. Johnny is also conflicted in his relationship with Kelvin. Betrayal of his friend is eating away at him and he’s apprehensive at what Kelvin will do when he discovers the relationship with Mandy. When it all comes unglued, everyone’s relationships are under strain. Louis Koo and Daniel Wu do enough in their roles to engage our sympathies. Even though they are corrupt, their weakness in the face of such temptation is understandable. Who among us is so confident we would not also try to profit? However, the central role proves to be Johnny. Lau Cheng Wan does well in his role to keep everything in balance. He’s more honest and a better police officer than many of those around him. This does not mean he’s above breaking the law. In a good cause, he upholds his values as an officer no matter what it takes.
I’m less than convinced by the ending. It seems a feeble attempt to abandon the more honest approach in depicting the human failings of individuals and substitute a broader-based institutional corruption. I can understand that film-makers may be uncomfortable with the idea of allowing villains to escape punishment, but this ending does no favours to the Hong Kong police. There are far better ways of seeing justice done. That said, this is one of the better police procedurals to come out of Hong King in recent years and it’s worth your while to track down and watch Overheard or Sit yan fung wan.
For a review of the sequel, see Overheard 2 or Sit yan fung wan 2.
In Dark Tangos (Subterranean Press, 2011), Lewis Shiner has written a political thriller about guilt. As everyone with a conscience knows, guilt can have a powerful effect because we generate it internally. It’s our own sense we have done something wrong. We acquire this ability to judge ourselves as we grow up in our culture. We learn how we are expected to behave within the limitations of legal, moral and purely social rules backed up by various types of punishment should we transgress. It should go without saying that long-term absolutes in behaviour are very rare, if not impossible. I suppose someone of a saintly disposition could go through life in a state of moral purity, never doing anything blameworthy. Equally, a sociopath could avoid ever feeling guilt by rejecting all external rules as a limit on his or her behaviour. Most of us live somewhere in the middle ground.
Expanding our definition, guilt is not the same as shame. Guilt is the personal acceptance of responsibility. No-one else need be aware of what we have done until we go on to the next stage of remorse, the sense we should do something practical to relieve the emotional distress caused by the guilt. This links guilt with notions of honour and integrity. Shame only comes when those in our community share in the judgement that our behaviour fell below the standards expected. We lose public esteem and can only recover our reputation by showing contrition and accepting punishment in good spirit. This demonstrates the broader principle that the process we call rehabilitation does not work properly unless the wrongdoers accept society’s judgement and want to reform. This is true both for individuals and also for nations. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa is regarded by many as a successful attempt by a nation to come to terms with its past. Without openness and transparency, a group of people cannot understand what was done and then set the terms for forgiveness — which includes forgiving themselves, of course. The problem with the South African approach is that it gave amnesty to alleged wrongdoers and thereby denied victims the chance for justice in the criminal or civil courts.
The problem addressed in Dark Tangos is that holding trials does not work any better. During the so-called Dirty War in Argentina, a predominantly right-wing Catholic elite kidnapped, tortured and killed communists and other “dissidents”. This is well-documented as is the practice of taking the babies when they were born during detention. Equally well-documented, but not so well acknowledged inside the US, is the involvement of the CIA in the more general Operation Condor to prevent socialism from taking hold in the southern states of South America. There’s no doubt the US was complicit in the use of death as a form of political repression. Later, in Argentina under a different regime, there were some show trials but the government granted a general amnesty to all military officers who might have participated in the disappearances, and formally pardoned the leaders of the Junta during the relevant time. Although the amnesty laws were repealed in 2005, the people of Argentina have never been allowed a clear view of what happened and there’s little willingness in the successive governments to accept the need to establish guilt or shame those responsible. Consequently, the thousands who “disappeared” are wounds that will not heal in the Argentinian soul.
Dark Tangos assumes the CIA not only provided intelligence to the death squads, but also channelled finance through legitimate US companies trading in South America. This support for right-wing governments benefitted the US politically at a time when the domino theory was still considered relevant. The US corporations who laundered the money also benefitted because they were awarded profitable contracts by the governments for hiding payment to their operatives. In spirit, this book is not unlike The Quiet American by Graham Greene except it deals with the aftermath, rather than the early years, of US support for right-wing repressive regimes.
Rob Cavenaugh is an emotionally vulnerable older man whose marriage has just collapsed. His employer, a multinational US software company, relocates him to their Buenos Aires office which suits him because it gets him away from his wife, and he’s in love with the tango — he’s visited before to learn the dance with his wife. On arrival, he immediately throws himself into the local dance scene and starts taking lessons with a top dancer. Speaking Spanish with reasonable fluency, he’s soon making new friends. We can think of him as being one of those openly friendly guys, naturally gregarious but politically naïve. This essential innocence is soon under threat as he finds himself in love on the rebound with a young Argentinian woman. However, it soon becomes clear she has an agenda and, remarkably, she drops him. Guilt comes in many forms and seducing a man to recruit him into a dangerous activity is high on the list of things not to do. However, he finds himself all too willing to become a human pawn. If nothing else, it shows the power of sex to overwhelm basic rules about self-defence. Once he’s crossed the Rubicon, he’s immediately at risk and, as the number of people involved slowly expands, he finds himself one of the Disappeared. Yes, it still happens when one of the old operatives feels at risk. So before you decide to read this book, decide whether you can stand reading an extended description of torture and its consequences. Some of the passages are quite strong meat.
Lewis Shiner has a slightly dense prose style, including a lot of background information. Perhaps I’m unusual in being familiar with much of it. I suppose the intended American readership might be less well-informed and will benefit from the explanations. If you are going to do it justice, it’s not a quick read. However, I feel that, while being reasonably accurate in attributing guilt to the Argentinians, it underplays the guilt that should be accepted by the US. That said, this is a brave book by an American author in dealing with the uncomfortable truth about the Dirty War and Operation Condor. As a story, it exposes the shades of moral grey that all humans of ordinary courage experience. In this instance, I only found one person’s actions surprising although, in retrospect, it’s consistent with what we have seen and heard. Everyone else nicely lived up, or down, to our reasonable expectations given the set-up. This is a testament to the credibility of the characterisation. Lewis Shiner has also done justice to life in Buenos Aires. Overall, this is an intellectually powerful and socially interesting commentary on what happened in Argentina. I opened by describing it as a political thriller, i.e. it deals with an innocent man who opens Pandora’s Box on an international mess of repression and corruption. What makes this a good example of the genre is that it does include the detail of the politics. Unlike many other authors who prefer more superficial plots with guns blazing and bombs exploding to keep us interested, this is a thinking person’s thriller with attitude. It’s well worth reading.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.
This is a spoiler-rich discussion of what happens in these episodes so do not read this post if you want the experience of watching the serial unfold onscreen. Further, these episode numbers are based on the terrestrial broadcasts I have seen and not on downloaded or DVD episodes. It’s possible that these numbers do not match your experience.
When you are seen to have done something “wrong”, the best strategy is always to admit the error and accept the punishment. Choi Dong Yi (Han Hyo Joo) obviously has the best PR consultants working for her. The “arrest” while helping Ge Dwo Ra (Yeo Hyeon-Soo) is a political disaster of the first magnitude but, on her own insistence, she makes a full and frank disclosure to Jang Moo-Yul (Choi Jong-Hwan). This protects the King (Ji Jin Hee) who would otherwise try to use his power to sweep everything under the carpet. The Jangs, of course, see this as a wonderful opportunity to characterise Dong Yi as a traitor for aiding the Geom-Gye in general and Ge Dwo Ra in particular. Execution could not come quickly enough, but she’s saved by the secondary disaster of the death of the “heir”. Measles was a common disease and frequently fatal. This shifts the sympathy back to the King and Dong Yi. He’s therefore able to defend merely banning her from the palace. This has the effect of protecting the position of the Crown Price so, muttering darkly in their beards, the Jangs take what they can get. In a single night’s drunken visit to Dong Yi’s humble place of exile, the King proves himself a one-shot wonder and, nine months later, there’s a new potential heir. Six years pass in an instant.
Well, the casting is good enough. The young Prince, Lee Geum (Lee Hyung-Suk), is going to be pivotal. The history books tell us this boy becomes a benevolent King. So he has to be precocious yet endearing. As shown on the screen, he manages not to be a pain. For all he has a lawyer’s ability to redefine promises to suit his needs and a photographic memory, there’s an essential humility about him that keeps him likeable. The role of Ae-Jong (Kang Yu-Mi) is now reduced to running after the “heir”. Even Court Lady Bong (Kim So-Yi) is increasingly frazzled as the young Prince runs rings around her.
Although the Prince’s attempt to enter the palace is overdone and the first actual meeting with the King contrived, it’s all saved from sentimentality by the naturalness of the King’s acceptance of the boy. The later day at the fair and the pool stays just on the right side, but even “incognito” has its limitations. No matter how much the King may try to deceive himself, the presence of the armed guards lurking in his wake is a bit of a give-away. As he stands looking down at Dong Yi’s home, he’s observed by Oh Ho-Yang (Yeo Ho-Min) whose obsession for Dong Yi grows ever more destructive. When Lady Yoon (Choi Ran) is informed, she sees the immediate threat to her daughter’s interests. If the King is planning to bring back the young Prince, the Crown Prince may be threatened. She sends her minions to kill Dong Yi and Lee Geum. Fortunately, troops arrive in time to put out the fire. This is the final straw for the King. Enough time has passed and the law permits the King to bring his son back into the palace for a royal education. The attempted murder quells potential resistance from the Jangs.
When the King brings Dong Yi back into the palace, he also summons Cha Jeon-Soo (Bae Su-Bin) from exile to form an axis of benign power with Chief Seo Yong-Gi (Jeong Jin-Yeon). On his way back into the capital, Cha interrupts another plot from Lady Yoon. She’s increasingly alarmed that the blame for attempting to murder Dong Yi and the young Prince may fall back on her, so she instructs her minions to fake a suicide by Oh Ho-Yang. A note has been prepared in which he admits setting the fire after seeing the King’s visit. Fortunately, Cha arrives just as the minions hoist Oh Ho-Yang into the air for a hanging. He drives the minions away and cuts Oh Ho-Yang down, passing on as if nothing has happened. However, Oh Ho-Yang still has the “suicide” note.
Meanwhile, back at the palace, the royal succession issue is really hotting up. After an illness, Crown Prince Kyung-Jong (Yoon Chan) may not be able to produce an heir. He’s been treated in secret but, as the natural age for a marriage approaches, Queen Inhyeon (Park Ha Sun) is the force pushing for Lady Jang to explain her refusal to follow the usual court procedures. With her own health in danger, the Queen gets real evidence of the Crown Price’s condition from a nurse who’s then hidden away. Now battle is joined as Lee Geum comes into the palace. When his status as a prodigy is revealed by a plot from Lady Jang unexpectedly miscarrying, there’s a perfect storm in the offing. What makes this all the more interesting is Jang Moo-Yul’s reaction. He’s forced to the conclusion the Crown Prince has a health problem, so the race is on to find the nurse. At the final moment when the Queen has trapped the Jangs and captured their hired killers, she has a heart attack. Now Jang Hee Jae (Kim Yoo Suk) and his mother make the mistake of asking a shaman for guidance. The advice does not guarantee results, but the suggested course of action may give the Jangs a better chance of ensuring the Queen does not survive.
When Lee Geum exploits the literal wording of the promise he gave to his mother and shows the world he’s a top scholar, this creates a further threat to the status of the Crown Prince as the King proposes to make the two boys study partners. When the outcry shows strength, the need is to persuade Kim Goo-Sun (Maeng Sang-Hun) to take on Lee Geum. In due course, he’ll become the tutor to the prodigy. He’s not only one of the best read people in the country, but he also has a better grasp of the reality of the kingdom. One of the first lessons is make Lee Geum share acorns with the poor. When the prince reacts to the bitterness of the acorn, Kim Goo-Sun bids him never forget the taste of the tears of the people when starvation threatens. This counterbalances bookish learning with essential insights into practical politics. It’s not what you know that matters. It’s what you do with what you know that matters and, when the person you’re tutoring is a future king, he will have the power to do something about the poverty.
For more general discussions of the social and political context for the serial, see:
Dong Yi — the politics
Click here for the reviews of the narrative itself:
Camouflage by Bill Pronzini is the thirty-eighth in the Nameless Detective series. My excuse for not realising there were quite so many is that I don’t read as much detective and mystery as I should. Sadly, I’ve only read a couple in this series and that was some decades ago. Strange how fast time passes when you’re having fun. Anyway, back in those distant years, Pronzini was turning out finely crafted first-person PI novels with our hero something of a lone wolf. Now as the nameless investigator approaches the age when, perhaps, he ought to retire (again), he’s gathered a team. Tamara Corbin is more or less running the office with ex-cop Jake Runyon and Alex Chavez around to help out when needed. As a result of this expansion in the cast list, we have separate POV chapters for each character and two major plots to follow. Frankly, I’m slightly uncomfortable in switching between first- and third-person chapters, but it does at least play fair in allowing the other members of the investigative team their moments in the spotlight. I express no opinion on the merits of this change from the more linear earlier novels to this most recent format. All I will say is that it came as a little surprise.
There were moments in Camouflage that struck me as strange. Bill Pronzini seems to insert political and social commentaries, as in talking about the right-wing shock-jocks. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this, but it does come over as being slightly preachy. Then there’s the PI’s surprise when the client’s reason for wanting to track down his ex-wives is to get their co-operation to annul their marriages. In fact, this is so standard for enabling remarriage in the Catholic church, I can’t imagine anyone failing to be aware of it, particularly if they are in the PI business. There’s also a real difference in procedure as against the rest of the world where the quasi-judicial proceedings to determine whether the original marriages can be annulled only take place when the evidence has been collected from the wives and any other relevant witnesses. This case seems to be proceeding on the basis that an annulment has been granted conditionally on the ex-wife signing some kind of declaration. As I say, it’s all most strange to a foreigner but, assuming this is procedurally accurate for the US, completely irrelevant to thinking about the quality of this novel.
We’ve got two basic plots running in parallel. The first looks to be a simple case of tracking down an ex-wife yet, when the husband calls round to the address Tamara has found, he’s on his cell moments after leaving, denying this woman’s identity. As is required in stories like this, he disappears almost immediately afterwards, and our hero is instructed by the worried fiancée to help find him. Not unnaturally, this increasingly looks like a murder and, by the time we get to the end of this story arc, it’s all suitably bloodthirsty as our hero and Alex Chavez are forced to defend themselves. In the other thread, Jake Runyon is getting increasingly close to Bryn Darby and her young son, Bobby. Checking back through the summaries of the intervening novels, this relationship has been a slow burner for several novels and only now comes to the forefront. The trigger is what appears almost certain to be abuse. Bobby spends the week with his father, a family law attorney, and the weekends with his mother. I thought this difficult subject area was handled with considerable sensitivity and, although it’s all rather predictable, everyone emerges from these tragic events wiser than before.
There’s nothing particularly original about the crimes to be solved in Camouflage, but Bill Pronzini puts the package together with commendable skill. Whatever minor cavils one might have about some of the opinions expressed, the plot moves along at a good pace and resolves everything without any loose ends. Although I can understand the underlying character arcs are advancing from book to book in the series, I prefer slightly more characterisation in each book. This has a slightly perfunctory, if not mechanical, feel about it. Nevertheless, for those who like straight PI novels without strong-arm tactics and bullets flying everywhere, this is good of its kind.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.
Dragon or Wu Xia is a fascinating film, underpinning the martial arts action with two major social themes: which is the stronger influence, nature or nurture? and whether at a society level through rehabilitation, or an individual level through redemption, can a wrongdoer reform?
Let’s take a central image. I plant an acorn and carefully watch the first green shoots grow into a strong tree. No matter what I might do to the tree during its formative period, it will always grow into an oak. It’s true that some radical surgery might produce a miniaturised bonsai version, but the seed determines the outcome. Translating this into a human context, we might take a view that all babies are born innocent of sin so, if they become wrongdoers, it’s because of their upbringing. Parents are the ones most often blamed for their children’s failures. Or we might stay with the idea of a bad seed and exonerate the parents. No matter what they tried, the child was born a wrongdoer and would always end up in jail.
In the opening frames we meet Li Jin-xi (Donnie Yen). Set in 1917, he’s living a peaceful life in rural Yunnan province. A clan member for some ten years, he married Ayu (Wei Tang), an abandoned wife with a son. They now have a son of their own. He works to make paper and is increasingly respected in the community. One day, two villains pass through the village and, because it amuses them, they try to extort money from the owner of the general store. There’s an extended fight and Jin-xi not only survives, but also leaves the two dead. Xu Bail-jiu (Takeshi Kaneshiro), a police inspector with forensic skills, takes over the investigation. He’s fascinated by the notion that an “ordinary” man could best two veteran kung fu exponents. Although I could have done without the CSI-style slow-motion recreations of what happens inside the body, the deconstruction and reconstruction of this initial fight is remarkable. I cannot recall seeing anything similar and, without anything more, this is a strong reason to see the film on a big screen so that you don’t miss any of the detail. Seeing where the feet were placed, how a tooth happened to end up inside the jar, how the ear was lost, and so on, is a tour de force. This initial evaluation triggers an investigative battle between the detective and the man with something to hide. It’s surprising they don’t kill each other.
As the detective, Xu Bail-jiu is fighting his essential nature. He was a young, idealistic and empathetic man and, taking pity on a young boy, allowed him to return home. Unfortunately, the boy then killed his parents and permanently damaged Xu Bail-jiu with poison. The detective is left treating himself with acupuncture to prevent the poison from spreading and, sadly, to suppress his empathy. No-one can now be forgiven. When he married, he even handed over his father-in-law to the police for selling fake medicines. He’s chosen to believe the law is infallible and that his role is dispassionately to seek out wrongdoers. He can then wash his hands and leave it to the law to process the criminals. He’s not clear what the outcome of this process should be. The failure of his own decision to give a second chance convinces him rehabilitation is a waste of time. To him, the only good criminal is a criminal behind bars. So when he establishes a good prima facie case that Jin-xi was the second-in-command of the 72 Devils, a notoriously bloodthirsty Tangut tribe, he sets off to the local city to get a warrant for Jin-xi’s arrest. Having borrowed the money, he bribes a judge to get the warrant. In turn, the judge seeks to sell the information of Jin-xi’s whereabouts to the 72 Devils. The detective, with a few police officers in tow, and the 72 Devils therefore converge of the village where our hero has been hiding.
We hear Jin-xi talk about his father (Jimmy Wang Yu) and this prepares us for the family reunion when the main group of the 72 Devils arrives. Now we come to the heart of the film. As a child, Jin-xi missed his father when the gang went out on its raids, so he went along and saw exactly what was being done. After a time, he could no longer stand the excessiveness of the violence. Disgusted with himself and what he had become, he ran away and hid in this village. Both Jin-xi and Xu Bail-jiu therefore find themselves in the same position. As individuals, they have become the sum of their life’s experiences. So which side of their personality will win out? Is Jin-xi inevitably the brutal son of his brutal father? Can Xu Bail-jiu reform and become the empathetic man he once was?
Donnie Yen has the more difficult role if he’s to engage our attention. From the outset we know he cannot be an innocent villager. He’s therefore more of an enigma until we start to hear him talk about his past. Then we can more clearly identify with his struggle to stay true to his wife and family. Takeshi Kaneshiro does a wonderful job as Xu Bail-jiu. He’s a good man deceiving himself. Self-righteousness has blinded him to the harm he does. Even his police boss offers good advice in vain. Yet slowly we can watch the seeds of doubt take root. It’s a carefully measured performance and it carries the opening third of the film with Wei Tang’s Ayu. She sees the good in both men and has the courage to trust they will both eventually do the right thing. Finally, it’s a joy to see Jimmy Wang Yu back in Hong Kong. He’s marvellously malevolent as the father. Put simply, if the Master can no longer have his son, his grandson will do.
Let me finish this review with a mention of a line in this film’s marketing that suggests Dragon or Wu Xia is an adaptation of the One-Armed Swordsman or Dubei dao, a film made in Hong Kong in 1967. Giving credence to this story is the fact this early “classic” starred Jimmy Wang Yu. Well, it’s been my misfortune to sit through this epic drama. Essentially shot in a studio with cheesy sets, it tells the story of a put-upon orphan who’s adopted by a kung fu master. When he proves more skilled than the great man’s daughter and some jealous students, he’s maimed and barely escapes with his life. In due course, he returns to rescue this undeserving shower from a plot to exterminate the entire clan using a quite clever device to neutralise the famous sword fighting style. Our one-armed hero wins because he has learned to fight using his left arm and a shortened sword. Even allowing for the more naive times during which this film was made, it always was embarrassing, being yet another example of Hong Kong’s determination to churn out content regardless of quality. So be reassured. Dragon or Wu Xia is so completely different that I wonder at the decision to even mention One-Armed Swordsman. The problem is casting Jimmy Wang Yu as the father in Dragon or Wu Xia. This creates a link. The director, Peter Chan, should have said he cast Jimmy Wang Yu because he was the best man for the new film. If challenged, he could admit watching One-Armed Swordsman and, having resisted the temptation to commit suicide, learned all that was to be avoided in making kung fu films.
If you have the chance to see Dragon or Wu Xia on a big screen, don’t hesitate. Donnie Yen’s fight choreography is wonderful and the story mesmerising.