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John Sinclair's The Phoenix Song reminds me of the memoirs, mostly written by Chinese women, about life in communist China (Wild Swans etc) that appeared after Mao Zedong's death signalled a change in China's policy on contact with the West.
Indeed, reading Sinclair's novel, with its narrative in the hands of a Chinese female, I had to keep reminding myself it was a 50ish Kiwi bloke pulling the strings.
The novel's first 70 or so pages also require some quantum mind shifts, as the narrator's perspective leaps about between time zones: after she was born, before she was born, and the present, which is New Zealand sometime in the future. It's a somewhat confusing discourse anchored by events in Harbin, Manchuria, where the narrator's parents met and married, finding their feet as communist leader and doctor respectively, while war with the Japanese and the civil war between nationalists and communists raged around them.
Just to complicate matters, Harbin is a melting pot of nationalities, with 50,000 White Russians finding refuge from communism and a significant number of Jewish people finding refuge from Christians. So our narrator, nurtured and taught violin by a Russian couple who share digs with her mother, has a more rounded perspective as far as loyalties are concerned.
Once past the twists and turns of family relationships, including that with a father she barely knows, the narrative becomes a straightforward story of a gifted child removed from the care of loving parents and placed in an institution to develop a talent that will lead to worldwide acclaim for both herself and her country. In Xiao Magou's case (she gets a Chinese name on page 86) it's to the Shanghai Conservatory of Music, where most of the tutors are Russian.
Xiao's knowledge of their language makes her useful for spying, so she's housed in the Russian compound and ordered to listen to her teachers' private conversations. Since the author records these in some detail it stretches credibility to some extent.
Between snitching, Xiao's talent and reputation develop and she's allowed to travel to Russia and beyond (chaperoned of course) to give concerts and reap plaudits for herself and her country's political system. On her travels she meets her Kiwi husband to be.
Minor narrative flaws aside, The Phoenix Song is a major work, meticulously researched, mostly credible, and with a special historical fun moment reprised - a performance of a new Chinese violin concerto in the presence of the Russian leader, Premier Khrushchev, that is a rip-off of a Shostakovich composition. Music lovers will also appreciate the author's talent for describing how performers live with and for their music.
All set for a cosy domestic scenario with Sam finding his feet and a new love interest? Yes and no. For 9/11 has profoundly changed the political scene, and divided the country over whether an invasion of Iraq with its weapons of mass destruction is justified.
With bank failures lurking on the horizon, Sam's boss dies mysteriously, while a harassed money-trader colleague can't wait to quit so he can followed his true love - writing poetry. This gives Stead the excuse to insert some really beautiful pieces of his own poetry into the narrative.
But it's the relationships that swirl around Sam that hold the interest. A handsome, well-off, mid-40s Kiwi of Croatian descent naturally finds plenty of opportunities to meet and sleep with desirable women and mingle with the cafe-society crowd.
He also has the necessary aplomb to handle relationships with his new daughter's family, including the daughter's mother, Sam's young love, and a Croatian cousin he meets on a business trip to Zagreb.
I couldn't put Risk down, so absorbing were the interwoven themes of filial and personal relationships, dirty politics and money, and a believable, sympathetic hero. Move over Ian Fleming and McEwan, here comes James, I mean, C. K. Stead. I hope it's made into a movie.
- Ian Williams is a Dunedin writer and composer.