D. J. Enright (review date 9 May 1986)
SOURCE: “Capturing the China Trade,” in The Times Literary Supplement, No. 4336, May 9, 1986, p. 498.
[In the following review of An Insular Possession, Enright provides an outline of the historical facts in Mo's narrative and assesses Mo's fictional rendition.]
An Insular Possession is a historical novel of so traditional a kind as to seem startlingly original. The history concerns British trade with China and the so-called Opium War of 1839–42, embracing the seizure of Hong Kong by Britain in 1841. China was convinced that Westerners needed her rhubarb to cure the constipation characteristic of all barbarian bowels, but she didn't particularly want cotton in exchange. The West was after China's silver, as well as her tea, and the solution was to turn her into a society of consumers, or addicts, situated at a safe distance from home. Still a sore point with the Chinese, that bizarre war is virtually forgotten by us, partly because in retrospect it is both shameful and absurd, not to say indefensible, although at the time the sale of Indian opium, by force and by guile, was commonly considered absolutely essential to the Empire. When the trade ceased, Britain and its Empire continued to exist: essentials are rarely what they profess to be.
The first pages of the novel sketch the setting: the Pearl River, with its cargo of dead female babies, of barges and bandits, and Canton itself, already “an ancient place with a dubious and blood-stained past”, and a cosmopolitan city, blessed with a mosque and the tomb of one of the Prophet’s uncles, and also the Factories or trading posts of the East India Company, the “Honourable Company”. Thereafter we meet three of the main characters, Harry O’Rourke, the local painter, a Dickensian creation with a red bulbous nose and “plenilunar buttocks”, and the two young Americans, Walter Eastman and Gideon Chase, at present employees of the American house of Meridian and Co, which trades furs, sandalwood and birds’ nests in exchange for silk, porcelain, lacquer and tea, eschewing the “fabulously profitable traffic” in what is quaintly called “drug”.
Eastman is excitable, choleric and witty; Chase is gentle and serious-minded, even to the point of learning the Chinese language surreptitiously from one Master Ow, a disaffected mandarin with a taste for cherry brandy. Chase will later achieve great things as an interpreter to high figures of state and as a professor of Chinese in numerous universities. Or so—it is practically impossible to distinguish between fact and fabrication—an appendix informs us.
Timothy Mo’s primary allegiance is to history, to the past experienced as though it were the present, and hence he needs to make his characters lifelike and engaging. And so they are. To some extent they come from stock, not very deeply plumbed but representative: the boisterous Company clerk, younger son of a good but impecunious family; the cynical yet soft-hearted old hand; the stern pragmatic merchant; the bluff naval officer; the harassed envoy from London; the proper young lady from Boston, more bored than fascinated; the comical native servant. This suits the author’s aims, and one wouldn’t expect to find a Lucky Jim at the court of His Celestial Majesty or a Leopold Bloom on the Select Committee of Supercargoes.
The social life of expatriate Westerners is entertainingly documented. For instance, duck-shoots and boating parties; the smuggling into bachelor quarters of native prostitutes (an activity mentioned but not enacted); outdoor sketching; a visit to The Barber of Seville performed by a touring Italian company; a ball with fireworks to celebrate the American Fourth of July; and amateur dramatics, that perennial pastime of exiles: here a production of The Rivals, with O’Rourke in the part of Mrs Malaprop and with the customary prima donnas and injured feelings.
The novel is rather low on romantic interest, apart from Eastman’s unsuitable love for his boss’s niece, promptly quashed by her heavily Victorian uncle; yet we shall hardly reproach Mo for passing light-heartedly over the goings-on in a “flower-boat” managed by a fat eunuch under the protection of the Brotherhood of Rovers of Rivers and Lakes. Humorous touches abound. Two Americans, captured by a “Tartar general,” are hard pressed to convince him of their nationality: he contends that if they are not English then they should speak a different language and wear different clothes. The mandarins translate the name of Lord Napier, briefly Superintendent of British Trade on the dissolution of the Honourable Company’s monopoly in China, in such a way as to suggest “Laboriously Vile”. Commissioner Lin, dispatched by the Emperor to put down the trade in opium, has need of the services of the American missionary hospital in Canton but protocol forbids him to visit it in person. He sends a discreet intermediary who describes the symptoms: Dr Parker diagnoses a hernia and furnishes a truss of the approximate dimensions. This story, taken from the contemporary Chinese Repository, is related in Arthur Waley’s The Opium War Through Chinese Eyes.
Eastman is revolted by the “noxious traffic” in opium, paradoxically carried on by the nation that led the way in suppressing the traffic in slaves, and whose commercial representatives piously argue that free trade is “hallowed work” which will bring backward China into intercourse not only with the rest of mankind but also with “our Maker”. When Meridian and Co decide to join in this secure and lucrative trade on the grounds that moral misgivings must yield to the claims of their investors, Eastman and Chase resign, the former to found an anti-opium newspaper, the latter to help him and to act as interpreter to the British Plenipotentiary, Captain Elliott, in his dealings with the Chinese...
(The entire section is 2450 words.)