Review Fragrant Harbour By John Lanchester Essay

Review: Fragrant Harbour By John Lanchester Essay, Research Paper

Know-how, kow-tow and air-conditionersFragrant Harbourby John Lanchester299pp, FaberJohn Lanchester’s first novel, The Debt to Pleasure, delighted gourmets and others – the former because its principal character is a disciple of Brillat Savarin, devoted to gustatory ecstasy as a good man might be devoted to virtue, the latter just for the jokes. All enjoyed his ruthless life

the more keenly because the author was the blameless food correspondent of a national newspaper.It is a charming book, but its successor, the less challengingly entitled Mr Phillips, is more than that – equally original, yet in its quieter way more adventurous, gentler but more shocking. It seems Lanchester understands just as much about his middle-aged hero’s failed pursuit of pleasure, sexual for the most part but mingled with statistical daydreams (how often do he and his wife do it, compared with the rest of humanity? At what speed would you hit the water if you jumped off the Chelsea bridge, or off the Clifton suspension bridge?) as he does about cheese and wine.An accountant all his working life, Mr Phillips has lost his job and says he is “not anything now”, but he is in fact really something. The detail of the day we spend with him is accurate and sometimes painful. Since he has not yet informed his wife of his redundancy, Mr Phillips sets out from home as usual, as if he was on his way to the City. He passes the day wandering about London from one scrape or surprise to the next, at one moment a sucker in a porn show, at another a credible hero in a bank during a robbery. The voice that tells the story is sympathetic, ironic and funny.Mr Phillips established Lanchester as among the best youngish novelists around, so it seems likely that anybody who has read it will open Fragrant Harbour with high expectations. The title is a translation of “Hong Kong”, and most of the story takes place in that territory, while it was still a colony.It’s a carefully planned affair, crammed, as one would expect, with local knowledge, but it differs from its predecessors in being a bit of a blockbuster, spanning three generations and including not only the Japanese invasion but much apparently expert information on corrupt local politics, on how to make your first million, on that sort of thing.The arrival of the principal characters in Hong Kong is done in a travelogue style surely substandard for Lanchester, a writer formerly so careful in the control of the narrative voice. The Red Sea has to be described because in the old days one went through it on the boat, and the airport (the old one) is dutifully dealt with when somebody arrives by plane.Part of the trouble is the choice of internal narrators. A go-getting businesswoman does her bit, then Tom Stewart takes over. These two, who start the book off, will meet a long time later in a rather improbable denouement. Since the woman is not very interesting, she cannot plausibly be allowed to write interestingly. The man fares better but offers few opportunities for the sort of writing we know this author is good at.Tom Stewart, son of a Kentish publican, decides to try his luck in Hong Kong, and on the long voyage meets a beautiful nun who teaches him Cantonese. He goes into hotel management, a subject on which Lanchester seems, as usual, to be an expert. When the Japanese invade, he crosses their lines to be with his nun, but leaves her and returns to the occupied city, achieving this unlikely feat by a not very probable stroke of luck.In Hong Kong, the Japanese established a concentration camp, the Stanley, in which civilians of both sexes were interned – a severe place, naturally, though despite the privations, something like 50 children were born there. Lanchester has to imagine what Hong Kong and the Stanley camp were like in those years.Here I have an advantage over him, having been there in August 1945, trying to attend to released internees, and I can pit my memory against his imagination. This is a fortuitous advantage that a reviewer ought not to take. Still, Hong Kong was a more awful place in 1945 than this account of it makes clear.The postwar story is of Hong Kong’s enormous growth, the means by which businessmen converted millions into billions, and the activities of the Triads, the local mafia, among whom a young protégé of Stewart and the nun grows very prominent. A lot of history is duly recorded – Mao’s victory, Tiananmen Square, the riots. The scene shifts about: business takes one to Ho Chi Minh City, pleasure to Sydney, family ties to the Kentish pub.All this could be called extravagant, but not exactly irrelevant. The apparently important bit- part of a poet named Wilfred Austen, who is quite like his near-namesake Wystan Auden, does seem a bit gratuitous, but the author enjoyed it and pays his debt to pleasure.Fragrant Harbour being, unexpectedly, the sort of novel that contains plot surprises, the sort in which things neatly work out over generations, it would be wrong to reveal how the tricks work, how Stewart gets news about his nun, finds he has a family, and so on. The process notoriously involves condoned implausibilities.Perhaps the grossest of these occurs when a man – whose identity, for reasons already hinted, at, I can’t reveal – manages, through the good offices of the very Dawn Stone who kicked off the story and is now an important figure in a shady Hong Kong media empire, to achieve an interview with the big boss. By earnest eloquence, know-how and kow-tow, he persuades the great man, who is famous for saying no, that since China is about to have millions of computers, it must also need millions of air conditioners. It is an argument that must surely have occurred to the crafty billionaire himself, but he is persuaded to buy, and the export business is saved, though by selling out to a family enemy.Fragrant Harbour is, again unexpectedly, a rather laborious book. Lanchester seems somehow to have decided it was time for him to produce a work of what is sometimes regarded as “epic” scope – it covers many years, contains a nasty war, and despite the mass of detail is never quite plausible. The narrative, loosely bound together by this plot, contains a good deal that is not obviously relevant to its unfolding. One can put up with a lot of this because it demonstrates one of the author’s endearing knacks: of knowing so much about so many relevant and irrelevant things. But charming ostentation somehow ceases to be enough.It does seem ungrateful not to care much for so confident and studied a performance. The novel has many good things: well-turned dialogue, for instance. But it is as if, in his quest for size and scope, the author has momentarily lost his voice. One had come to recognise it – gently snide, naughtily knowing, at times extremely funny.It loses those qualities when the author is speaking in the tones of Dawn Stone, who occupies those 50 pages at the start of the book describing her first steps up the ladder of media success; she is pert and modern and rather dull. Other characters are much better realised, though the important nuns, I felt, were not. Lanchester has been and will be a distinguished novelist. Admirers of Mr Phillips, if they think Fragrant Harbour something of a false step, may look forward even more impatiently to his next book.· Frank Kermode’s most recent book is Pleasing Myself


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