Sunday, 7 April 2013

Romancing The East / Jerry Hopkins

Romancing The East includes chapters on various western novelists, whose novels have helped shape the west’s perceptions of Asia. It provides potted biographies, plot-summaries, suggestions for retracing the writers’ footsteps, and all sorts of arresting snippets of information along the way.

            Part of the fun of any portmanteau book is taking issue with the author’s selection criteria. I’m sure every reader of Romancing The East will think: if I’d been writing this I’d have included / excluded so-and-so. Is it unfair to quibble with somebody else’s deeply personal selection? Probably.  So I won’t do it.  Instead, I’ll say that though I found some of Hopkins’ choices / omissions a little odd, I found all his chapters interesting; my favourite was the one on Sax Rohmer, the creator of Dr. Fu Manchu.

Hopkins does, clearly, love all things pulp and Hollywood, which is joyous in that his book manages to make room for both E.M. Forster and Eric Van Lustbader, but the movies’ dazzle does lead him to some fairly provocative judgements: “Michael Crichton was a literary colossus.” Really? Hmm…

Eric Van Lustbader, in case the name is new to you, wrote of one of the many books featured in Romancing The East I’ve never read, namely The Ninja. Nor can I say I now have any intention of reading The Ninja, but if the success of Romancing The East rests on how many books it leaves the reader wanting to read, or re-read, then this was, for me, a very successful book. I don’t think I’ll be rushing to catch up on all those James Clavell doorstops I’ve thus far avoided, but I do want to read André Malraux, and - oh no! - I’ve never read Orwell’s Burmese Days, or John Masters’ Bhowani Junction, or Pearl S. Buck’s The Good Earth…

Romancing The East didn’t just remind me quite how badly read I am at the level of individual titles, it also forced me to consider there are entire genres I’ve never bothered with.  The west has chick lit and mummy lit, but Asia has prostitute lit. I’ve never settled down with either Suzy Wong, or with the love entrepreneurs of Thailand, but now I’m going to give the Thai entrepreneurs at least a try.  One author included in the discussion of this genre, Stephen Leather, wrote Private Dancer, in which, apparently, the male-sucker character falls for a Thai Bar girl, and then finds out (surprise, surprise) she’s married.  But this is not just your standard ripped-off-by-a-hooker story. No, “it is told in the voices of everyone involved so you can see that everyone has a different opinion of what is happening, but that no one really understands what is going on.”  I’m all for no one having a clue; I’ve added it to my reading list.

Romancing The East, by Jerry Hopkins, is published by Tuttle, in paperback format.