Gay Lynch reviews Bapo by Nicholas Jose
by Nicholas Jose
Reviewed by GAY LYNCH
Nicholas Jose explains his take on the term ‘Bapo’ in the introduction of his collection of short stories of that title:
an unusual kind of Chinese painting that tricks the eye into thinking it sees a collage of fragments. The word literally means ‘eight broken’, where eight is a Chinese lucky number and broken (damaged, worn) suggests that luck has run out, and if it has, that there’s another kind of luck in simply surviving… (1)
Bapo offers Jose an effective metaphor – ‘a kind of writer’s reprisal’ – for his eclectic selection of stories published over two decades. His introduction suggests that the Bapo technique enabled him a more writerly flexibility of ‘sketchiness, (and) sentiment’. The Bapo metaphor is slippery enough to incorporate others: performance, weaving, and the opening of a painted fan to reveal a book – a breath of air. While not arranged chronologically, the stories bow to various generic conventions. Apart from a few in the second half, all of them channel China. but it would be foolish of me to enforce too much thematic linkage. Going by the journals listed in acknowledgements the stories have been gathered together as a retrospective of Jose’s short fiction.
Having studied Chinese modern history in my late teens, I valued the concept of intellectuals slaving like peasants, despite such human industry breaking creative spirit or inviting accidents. I thought myself a Maoist but had no idea about the great man’s excesses. Years later I visited my daughter in Shanghai. She had been working on engineering projects, shoring up buildings as they sank into the River Pearl/ Zhujiang/Yangtze delta. I fell in love with the city’s historic precincts and the quiet dignity of Chinese people; but I saw old men in back streets of the French concession, bent double, trudging, step by agonising step, towing heartbreakingly heavy pallets of bricks. In fact, I saw many elderly people with abnormal gait, untreated osteoporosis, congenital dysplasia in China. How does one feed, house and educate the largest population in the world? For years, we shrugged off this question because we didn’t know the full Mao story. Burdened like the West with retiring Boomers, China will soon need babies, to work in factories within fifteen years time. In Bapo, Jose captures the fallout from China’s turbulent twentieth-century history and its impact on twenty-first century artistic expression.
Jose is a kind of bapo in persona, a collage built from experiential layers, reminding us of his rich life as a scholar, visiting professor, chair of creative writing, editor of Macquarie PEN Anthology of Australian Literature, public intellectual, translator, Cultural Counsellor at the Australian Embassy in Beijing from 1987-1990, and in situ activist in Tiananmen Square. His diverse interests cluster around some common ones: China, outback Australia, art and academia. Many of his themes interpolate narratives that evolve in disparate settings (Adelaide, Beijing, Borrolaloola, Hong Kong, Lake Mungo, Melbourne, Sydney, Taipei). I don’t know if he’s laboured in the fields.
Bapo is divided into two sections but, interestingly, not into eighths representing the eight artists he writes about who formed a collective, The preface refers to ‘eight broken’ people: ‘people on the road, remembered, imagined, forgotten almost’; shards indeed. Some narrations showcase ficto-critical playfulness and others are almost totally omniscient. Most of the stories are narrated in third-person limited or selective, but some from first person (singular and plural), or second person perspective; most are set during the 1990’s, a dramatic period of Sino-Australian history, particularly for Jose who experienced the Tiananmen Square mow-down first hand, offering shelter to artists, musicians and political activists at the Beijing Australian Embassy.
Part One begins with ‘Donkey Feast’, a meditation on a black and white photo taken five months after the massacre. It tells of eight survivor artists distinguished in the story by the initials of their names, who form a collective. The story is narrated twenty-four years hence by ‘Plus one’, an expat Australian – I’m the one who took the photo’ – whose education takes place ‘in Adelaide in the 1960’s’ (11, 17). The authorial voice and some shared biographical details suggest some slippage between memoir and fiction (41-42).
Jose sets the Beijing scene in seemingly authentic detail and offers ironic accounts of the artists’ personal travails after Tiananmen; the impact this has on their health and their loved ones. Their hardworking women are out of the shot, a practice that has historical veracity. It is well attested that communist comrades carried the patriarchy with them on their shoulders. This story touches on many of China’s problems: lost and stifled art, rebuilding, endemic cigarette smoking, pollution, food scares, an ageing population and rejuvenating traditional practices, and its post 1990’s relationship with Australia. The closing image of the artists ignoring an injured man feebly waving a hand from an overturned donkey cart speaks volumes (21). Invisibility enables survival. Many Chinese writers and artists have been silenced by imprisonment, a fact confirmed for me when writing letters supporting the release of Chinese dissidents for PEN.
‘Ha-ha-ha!’ begins with the protagonist’s ninety-five year old grandmother’s observation that ‘in a crisis governments always make the wrong decision.’ It ends when the artist-teacher turns the tables over a game of Go on government officials’ artistic interference (21). It plays with Eastern ideas about loss of face and truthful utterances. The twist also relieves the plot’s building tension. Several of Jose’s stories show this satisfying symmetry: ‘Kong: Fossil’, for instance, begins and ends with the placing of a fossil in a child’s hand.
I am especially taken by the middle section stories. Most of the stories contain intertextual links signifying that the author is a man of refinement, interested in the fields of music, art and literature but the references are not gratuitous, and commonly anchor the Chinese settings in the book. This is particularly so in ‘One Fine Day’, its title a quote from a Noel Coward play, circa-1930s, Shanghai. Madame Butterfly and The Mikado are mentioned (42); Marjorie Flack Kurt Wiese’s The Story About Ping (43). In fact, Jose takes Ping’s name for his girl protagonist. He moves naturally from one story to another, embedding some within frame stories: for example, Ping standing at a bus stop reluctantly listens to another girl’s life story that resembles Madame Butterfly’s (44). The main story ends with a melodramatic teaser that fits his opera theme (50): ‘jumping from the balcony was not the right answer’. Jose quotes Simon Leys (Pierre Ryckmans), Australian Sino-scholar, and he references Lu Xan, Macbeth, Dorothy Sayers, William Blake, and Tosca. Some stories are more densely intertextual than others. References come easily to the author, often providing structure for his plots in an allegorical way.
A moody evocation of places suggests that he likes layers of meaning. He offers no simple answers to complex questions even in domestic dramas. ‘Marriage Bonds’ features a household of three, a ménage à trois with all the excitement, longings, and destructive jealousy that accompanies such groupings. As a counter-sexist ploy, in ‘Empress and Shaman’ he dramatises the story of two ruthless competing women who double-cross each other after a lifetime of friendship (81-104).
For Jose, aesthetics plays an important human function in the face of national trauma. He writes eloquently and figuratively, using deft and culturally appropriate similes: ‘long black whiskers and a mane like Genghis Khan’ (11); ‘New artistic influences came in, which he digested with an iron stomach, like the strong man who chomps his way through engine parts. Cubism, surrealism, constructivism…’(22). Simple metaphors are effectively applied such as, the rain ‘polishes fat ducks’ (136) or ‘The severed plait sat in her lap like a fish.’ (219). Metaphors are also used in a reflexive way to inform the writing: for example, ‘how to decide which pronoun to shelter under’ an idea he sustains over a long paragraph.(197).
Jose frequently applies complex metaphors as conceits. On seeing desperate beachcombers scraping shells from rocks, an international studies academic muses:
He had chipped away, scraped and deposited his own buckets and bags of shell grit…
In the morning when the tide came in and the rocks were covered again with the lapping waves of the sea, no one would even wonder whether the surface of the rocks below had been changed by anybody’s scraping.’(72).
Black humour enlivens the text, underlining important political issues – ‘He married, not the Vietnamese girl, but a pale-eyed white woman who got pregnant from a drop of rain.’ (39); documents smuggled out of Hong Kong are ‘stuffed inside a gift of silk underwear for the Minister’s secretary,’ in a diplomatic pouch (92); ‘an Aboriginal man played a Chinese folk tune on a didgeridoo and a noted Shanghai bird-imitator whistled Waltzing Matilda.’ (98) The narrator’s voice is adept at double speak – and irony: we learn there was ‘little difference between an appointment and an ambush in Hong Kong,’ (85); about ‘hope that takes its toll.’ (65); a ‘bumper harvest’ is juxtaposed against ‘Clouds of pesticide’ (63-4). In ‘The Old Socialist’s Last Song’, conference delegates become bi-partisan, especially after the announcement of the Chernobyl disaster, united over the world’s absurdity. They joke about the irony of capitalism ‘thriving in China’ (73).
Powerful metaphors illuminate meta-texts: ‘Then democracy bred change, reform, freedom. Like a great whale surfacing, a hidden fellowship of the people declared itself, and in millions repossessed the city.’ (37); [Kong: Fossil] ‘the lines on his face, were as light and ghostly as the fretting of dead leaves.’ (40); ‘China was a kind of glue.’(55)
Sexuality is evoked with sensuality and cleverness – ‘A pair of bicycles couple against the wall. Under the bridge two men shelter from the rain, the penis of one thickening between the thighs of the other, who flutters like a moth.’(105) At other times it is explicit: ‘Working his thighs, he was able to milk the White-Haired Pig lovingly, to squeeze the flesh as if every ounce was gold. He longed for gold rings to put through those tough old nipples.’ (107)
For the most part, the prose is sure-footed and bold, as one would expect from a Professor of Creative Writing and well-published writer. A range of plot devices, including the encapsulating of character in group-photos is used (67). On several occasions Jose gestures towards ficto-criticism: ‘let’s call him Robert’ (146). He sometimes uses allegorical conventions for convenience: ‘the son’ as protagonist…. (36). An occasional bounce in point-of-view distracted me and undermined my identification with the protagonist (39, 156).
Narratives are focalised through men and women, old and young, Chinese and Australian. In ‘Marriage Bonds’ the first-person narrator addresses an author’s freedom to write in any setting and from any perspective, thereby offering a fleeting glimpse of himself.
Jose depicts character in a variety of ways. Insightful sketches in ‘The Old Socialist’s Last Song’ enliven the text, while deeper studies frame complex psychological interplay, for instance in ‘Angled Wheel of Fortune’ (135-142). The playful start to Martha, Arthur and Robert’s ménage à trois in ‘Marriage Bonds’ is soon underscored by deeper and darker themes: ‘He was given at twelve as a toy to his father’s boyfriend,’(148).
Each chosen register fits its protagonist in attitude and idiom, suggesting restraint on the part of the author: for example the pragmatic free indirect style through which we see ‘the son’ in ‘Kong: Fossil’:
‘Little sisters, sometimes two to a room. He had to clean up the sheets and towels after the clients had gone. Sometimes he had to heavy the men, to handle their passion. Occasionally he had to slap the girls, or bash them, or dry their eyes. He also cooked them rice.’(38).
Jose’s mastery and cultural understanding of China is profound and he curates a mass of local knowledge and historical material with great humour and an engaging authorial voice. I noted his distinction between northern and southern Chinese people, China being a large country comprising many regions and ethnicities.
The collection develops a kind of elastic cohesion with the exception of five short pieces in the second section: ‘George’, a story about a cigarette smoking orang-utan, telegraphs an Adelaide childhood with trips to the Zoological Gardens; ‘After the Show’ about a young man and his partner in Rome and his memory of time spent there as a boy as companion to his grandmother; ‘The Aunt’s Garden Story’; ‘The Disappearing Book’ the poignant story of a literary agent with dementia; and ‘What Love Tells You’ seem off-subject and strangely out of place. ‘Diamond Dog’ a story about a Chinese Sydney girl saving a dog from a python completes the suite suggesting that people need to inhabit or create narratives before they belong in a place. Jose belongs in this way to China, having inhabited and created narratives–more than most expats– bringing him a larger stake in the place. If the previous four stories offer only echoes of China or illumes a national ‘way of telling’, the last completes the circuit.
Australia now owns a close relationship with modern China. Not only do we share regional interests but also Chinese people constitute our second largest group of émigrés. The country has become an important trading partner in mineral resources, primary products, tourism, real-estate and popular consumer goods. A Chinese/Australian relationship can increasingly be secured with ren – ‘forbearance of give and take’ – as the story ‘Loving China’ shows. Jose’s truthful but compassionate voice enacts his ren in Bapo because the collection bears expert witness to a particular historical period in China. In addition, these lively, intelligent and engaging stories furnish readers with a colourful retrospective of Jose’s shorter literary works.
GAY LYNCH is an honorary research fellow in creative writing and English at Flinders University. Her main interests lie with Australian settler-history, contemporary literature, and creative writing pedagogy. She has published papers on these subjects, as well as Apocryphal and Literary Influences on Galway Diasporic History (2010), Cleanskin (2006), an adult novel, short stories in contemporary anthologies and educational children’s texts. She is presently taking a break from teaching to complete an historical novel.