Juan in China by Eric Linklater (1937)

This Linklater novel is a sequel to his first big success, Juan in America (1931).

Review by Helen C:

Our young hero, Juan, has been persuaded to accompany his beloved Kuo Kuo to China, as she is determined to rescue China from destruction by ‘bandits, Communists, opium and the Japanese…’

There, he becomes involved in a series of highly unlikely adventures, and meets various larger-than-life characters (and drinking partners) – Hikohoki (an ordinary Japanese businessman – or a spy?), Colonel Rocco (soldier, and military adviser to a Chinese general – and a gangster?), Harris (a journalist) and Flanders, an obese and flamboyant Englishman, out to make his fortune. These foreigners all appear to be ready for the war which is threatened between Chinese and Japanese, and Juan enthusiastically joins in the fun, apparently unconcerned about who may be cheating whom, and untroubled when the fighting starts and he has to dodge bullets.

His various escapes include helping Kuo Kuo hunt through unsavoury areas of the town for the bamboo pipe which she insists contains a Holy Man’s scroll detailing ‘the plan’ for the saving of China; rescuing, in the heat of the fight, two beautiful but argumentative Russian Siamese-twin lady entertainers (the reason for their appearance in this story is unclear); having a fling with a delightful Englishwoman, while Kuo Kuo is away practising soldiery; and eventually, becoming embroiled in a vicious argument about who has cheated whom with counterfeit money – and even counterfeit tanks!

He finds himself being arrested by the Chinese general along with Flanders and Colonel Rocco. The action reaches a climax when the prisoners are forced to drive the ‘tin tanks’ against the enemy, to prove that, though useless against bullets, they may still have the power to frighten! Just when disaster and death are looming, Juan has an inspiration ( involving counterfeit cash) – but will this ‘send them victorious’?

The book jacket describes the author’s work as

‘characterised by a superlative gusto’ and that he is ‘not content to tell a plain tale about Sino-Japanese skirmishing in Shanghai; he must elaborately garnish it … with a most admirable disorder of similes, metaphors, epigrams, often pithily apt, often so outrageously forced that their very incongruity is amusing.’

I felt that his extravagant language and descriptions were often ‘over the top’, trying to dazzle the reader, almost self-aggrandizing, but there were some very funny passages, e.g. when we first meet Flanders:

‘one of the tallest and fattest men he had ever seen come in … He stood proudly behind his enormous paunch. It was not mere pudding-basin of a paunch, no petty tumescence or adventitious hummock of fat; it was a rolling down, a Border hill that marched from his broad chest to a broader top, and from there declined steeply, but not without dignity, to the spacious anchorage of an heroic pelvis. It was a truly noble paunch … It was a paunch that made one think not of greed but of grandeur, not of gluttony but the profusion of the earth and the magnanimity of humankind.’ P. 47.

There are plenty of amusing asides too, e.g. when Juan says he’s

‘really fond of China … it’s very like the Church of England. It has all the proper ideas, and it doesn’t go worrying people to put them into practice’ (p. 114)

And when an ex-pat socialite describes a young many who

‘takes photographs of Shanghai by night, but wants to do naked girls. Not art, just repression, but he doesn’t know it. Scotch, of course, Lots of them are inhibited, that why they work so hard’. (p. 181)

I found the book a bit of a struggle to read, as the plot seemed far-fetched and the characters one-dimensional, almost caricatures, in whom I couldn’t maintain much interest. I can see that the author was setting out to give a light-hearted, mildly satirical picture of his subjects, not to be taken too seriously, but it was mainly my amazement at the extravagance of the language ( and some laugh-out-loud moments) that kept me reading.

Maybe Linklater’s readers in the 1930s, still safely rooted in the British Empire, enjoyed reading of their compatriots’ cavorting in the Far East, but to me it felt too contrived to impress the modern reader.

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