Historical Fiction

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Mo, Timothy. 1986. An Insular Possession. London: Chatto and Windus.

An Insular Possession is a historical novel set during the time of the first Opium War which led to the colonization of Hong Kong by the British.

The story, which starts several years before the war itself when the opium trade was flourishing, is mainly seen through its chief protagonists, two Americans: the sharp-minded, witty Walter Eastman and the earnest yet sober and reflective Gideon Chase. They share their time between Canton where they work for Meridian & Co, the American trading company, and Macao which is the background for most of their social encounters. Along with their fellow workers and friends, chief among whom is the boisterous and hedonistic Irish painter Harry O’Rourke, they lead a more or less carefree life, partaking in such activities and pleasures which their restrictive situation in China allows them to.

When Eastman is forced to resign from his job, he and his friend Chase set up the The Lin Tin Bulletin and River Bee, a rival weekly newspaper to the already established pro-British Canton Monitor. In its pages, they do not hesitate to denounce and expose the illegal yet widespread opium trade and the perpetrators of this crime, i.e. the British. The weekly does not only follow the current financial and political events of the time, but also includes miscellaneous anecdotes and articles, the topics of which range from the habits and customs of the Chinese, through art and science to weather and disease.

In 1839 the Opium War breaks out and the life of the expatriates changes to one of danger and horror, where their diverse occupations lead them to experience it differently: Gideon, who for a long while had been taking Chinese classes, is hired as an interpreter and often finds himself in life-threatening situations. He struggles to convey the Chinese views to the British but finds himself in a cultural no-man’s land, his efforts to translate frustrated at every turn by the escalating hostility on both sides. Walter and Harry, on the other hand, are engaged in some sort of contest as to which of these two instruments is best suited to reflect reality: photography (the daguerreotype has recently been invented) or painting. When Hong Kong becomes the British’s “insular possession”, life seems to regain some semblance of normality, but only to make those who have survived the nightmare all the more aware of how much things have changed. Relocated to Hong Kong, Gideon Chase becomes an outspoken critic of colonial rule.

Although the second part of the book, in its content, seems to be dominated by war and warfare, the whole novel itself is written in a language which is not bereft of pugnaciousness.

Whether it be through the description of a landscape, a conversation, the criticism of a culture or some aspect of it, Mo’s eye is more often than not critical of what it sees. This historical novel of epic proportions is suffused with irony and presents a formidable polyphonic (although Chase and Eastman’s perspectives are predominant, they are not the only ones) and panoramic view of this particular historical context. It does so through a meandering of different forms: excerpts of diaries and newspapers, letters, drama-conversation. It is a novel where facts and fiction intermingle in a way that makes the reader wonder about the extent and borders of both. (RK)

 

 
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