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Book Review: Fragrant Harbour by John Lanchester

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John Lanchester’s Fragrant Harbour is a novel that is hard to praise too highly. Set in Hong Kong, it presents the stories of four main characters, each of which is an immigrant to this city. Behind them at all times is a culture that rules their lives and sets the limits of what might be possible, but is always hard for outsiders to penetrate. That the culture affects all aspects of their lives, however, is a given.

Each character pursues self-interest, the different eras they inhabit, defining and characterising the different stages of the city’s development. Thus we see its pre-war emergence from a dirty 19th century right through to its contemporary role as a driving force of free market globalisation.

When Tom Stewart, on his way to Hong Kong in the 1930s, accepts the challenge of a wager, he changes the direction of lives – and not just is own. A random, trivial suggestion suggests he might learn Cantonese in the 30 days of a shared voyage to new lives. His tutor is Sister Maria, a Chinese nun who proves to be an enlightened and motivating teacher. He learns the language, wins the bet, and begins a relationship with things Chinese that will sustain him through war, peace, economic growth, professional life, clandestine activity, and property speculation.

Dawn Stone, previously Doris, hails from Blackpool, but she makes it to Hong Kong. She has a career in the media, having gone through the once well-trodden paths of learning her trade on provincial newspapers and then graduating to London. She makes it good and proper in the public relations business that booms out east. She seems to have few scruples and is ruled by pragmatism. She is not alone.

Michael Ho is a young businessman. He has a vision of an air-conditioned future on a knife-edge between success and failure. He is sub-contracted from Germans who operate north of London to avail themselves of the country’s more flexible approach to labour. He has a rip-off, sub-contracting factory in Ho Chi Minh City. He is Hong Kong-based, but from Fujian, and thus also an immigrant. He has recently relocated his family to Sydney. Interests in Guangzhou will determine his fate. Mountains are high and the emperor is far away, his contacts tell him, so practices are mainly local. He must learn. He must raise capital. It is perhaps true everywhere in this global economy, where Hertfordshire taxi drivers remonstrate in Urdu and curse in English.

Pragmatism rules the place. As globalisation becomes an issue, the place is the world, not just Hong Kong. In this new world, which appears to be built on the professedly liberal economic ideas that have underpinned the colony’s free-for-all, these immigrants to the place make their lives and make their fortunes in their own ways.

Still, there is a constant in that they can only succeed within the protective umbrella shade of bigger interests than their own. In a city state that grew out of an illicit and illegal trade in opium as British merchants and adventurers became international drug dealers to vulnerable China, people with wealth beyond measure push people around the chessboards of their interests, occasionally enthroning a pawn they might even have previously sacrificed.

As in A Debt To Pleasure, John Lanchester has us enter the world of an anti-hero. The character that drives events in Fragrant Harbour is but a name for most of the book. He is cold, calculating, and driven by raw, undiluted self-interest. In this he is perhaps no different from anyone else; it’s just that he is more successful at it, and thus less willing to risk that success.

He prevails. The emperor is far away. The mountains are high. In his case, he is the emperor and he owns the mountains. Power lives in pockets and, in a globalised economy, we are all immigrants, even in our homes.

What a superb book!

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