By Anton Graham
The holy grail of China reportage books is The One which sums up the moment, and which everyone buys.
Fox Butterfield did it in the 1980s with Alive in the Bitter Sea and Nick Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn came close with China Awakes in the 1990s.
Veteran Far Eastern Economic Review Correspondent Lincoln Kaye has recently published his own China book, with the enticing title Cousin Felix Meets the Buddha, presumably in an effort to become The One for this decade (Joe Studwell’s famously negative China Dream has surely been overwhelmed by China’s consistently robust economic growth rates.).
But it is not to be. The Big China Books of the decade are almost certainly going to be those currently being separately written in Beijing by Jim McGregor and John Pomfret, two experienced and no-nonsense observers who are burning advances and presumably the midnight oil in an effort to repeat Butterfield’s trick of 20 years ago. But Cousin Felix is worth reading. It is a quirky and personal book which reveals much about China and Chineseness. At its most basic, it is nothing more than a recounting of a few anecdotes. The first story tells of a weekend trip to Xian to see the teracotta warriors, the second story is about a private hospital in Beijing caring for the almost-dead while the third is an account of a trip to Qinghai province with a living Buddha and the titled Cousin Felix.
Kaye’s style is to recount with ultra-360- degree total awareness all elements of the environment and the characters and what is said, and how he feels and the significance of each element and … the richness of the narrative is sometimes overwhelming, sort of like a James Clavell novel in its impact.
But the China and the people that Kaye depicts in this style feel real and believable. It’s as accurate a picture of The Real China as is available today, so he can be forgiven what must be some pretty dramatic extrapolations, unless he is constantly on consciousness expanding drugs and has the memory of several elephants.
Kaye lived in Beijing in the early-mid 1990s, so the China he describes has already morphed into something else. But his insights are still almost all relevant because he is writing mostly about individuals and social issues. The political and economic detail is rightly ignored, and the longest story – the one about Felix and the Buddha – is mostly about the relationship between Tibetans and Hans, and that ain’t going to change much any time soon.
His use of descriptive language is in places unique and utterly creative. A little example chosen at random, a description of a Beijing evening: “High clouds feathered the purple dusk.” Good word choice, Lincoln.
It would be nice if Cousin Felix COULD become a must read China book. It deserves to be in many ways. But it seems unlikely, partly, I suspect, because of the unusual title. McGregor and Pomfret please note.