I had a vague idea that Paul Theroux was some form of literatus but I had never read anything by him nor heard much about him and it was through loyalty to his son that I picked up this book. I naively presumed that the younger Theroux raised the profile of the senior and that there wouldn’t be much to it. At this point it would be trite to say: “How wrong I was”, but imagine words to that effect. The book had the same slow-burning but inexorably gripping effect as one of the better Graham Greene novels with intriguing characters buoyed by a flowing plot. This opinion didn’t manifest immediately as initially it was an irritating read. It took a good 30 pages or so however to realise that the reason it was so uncomfortable and frustrating was because Theroux wanted it to be.
The book is set in Kowloon Tong, a district in Hong Kong, shortly before the territory/colony returned to Chinese control in 1997 (“the Chinese Take-away”) and it is based around the lives of Neville ‘Bunt’ Mullard and his mother Betty. The political background is salient to the book. The encroaching fog of the opening scene imitates the approaching Chinese take over and China itself is encapsulated by the insidious figure of Mr. Hung. Mr. Hung is the educated Chinaman who ‘offers’ to buy Bunt’s majority share in his late father’s company after the sudden death of his father’s business partner. We never actually see Hung be violent, but it is certainly hinted at, perhaps much like the western view of China in the late 90s. Within this broader political context is a story about love and relationships.
The plot centres around the 43-year-old Bunt and his mother Betty as they desperately cling to their passé ways and the stunted Bunt stumbles into love. Still living together despite their relative wealth, the cloistered existence and narrow-mindedness of the mother and son makes for an irritating read. They are misogynistic, racist, and avaricious. Bunt, although pretty unlikeable, (he frequents ‘blue hotels’ and is aroused by Mei-ping when she is at her most vulnerable), is somehow still pitiable, perhaps because he is buffeted by both Betty and Mr. Hung. Hopelessly naïve, Bunt’s refusal to recognise what is in front of him is agonising and lends the book a dramatic irony. Unlike in Greek tragedy however, this is never realised and the irritating experience of reading the book continues. There is no satisfaction.
Betty on the other hand is just awful. She tosses around the phrase “Chinky-Chonks” with the easy charm of an ape hurling shit, and when her son is bereft, she helpfully reminds him “You’ll find someone else. It’s true. They all look the same.” The frequent racism is somewhat galling and although it is mostly focalised through the characters to paint them as racist themselves, the characterisation of Mr. Fung as ‘evil Chinaman’ seems slightly Victorian in its easy sinophobia, but perhaps that is more due to Betty and Bunt’s backwardness than Theroux’s.
The inanity of their routine and mindset makes you want to shake the book until they fall out of it and change. It took this much frustration to realise that the redeeming feature and the reason I still held the book was the sense that they did have potential to change and that they didn’t necessarily choose to be such awful people. Tragedy pervades the cloying intimacy of mother and son as we find out quite early on (early enough that I confess I had forgotten this detail until I flicked back through) that Bunt’s older brother, another Bunt, died in his infancy. Bunt is therefore two people to Betty, one of which is the lost eternal infant, which goes some way to explain her suffocating mothering. Similarly sad, Betty’s late husband and his adulterating ways hang over the book like the Hong Kong smog. Bunt himself is a perennial outsider. Never having known England, nor truly assimilating with Hong Kong, he is from and going nowhere he has known. The rhadamanthine relationship with his mother perhaps explains and somewhat mitigates his warped attitude towards women and sex and further contributes to his isolation.
The book then is not a satisfying or comforting read; it is a challenge. Arcane political manoeuvres catalyse a trial of relationships to no obvious end. There is no conclusion or catharsis and the pervading sense is one of nebulous unease, perhaps much like the uncertainty of Hong Kong’s future. It is not what I’d describe as a beach-read, more of an angst-ridden commute-read. Theroux himself describes this as “the story of Hong Kong”, and the Hong Kong of this book is one shrouded in mist, machinations, and money.