Fear and Loathing in China
The Call By John Hersey Knopt: 690 pages: $19.95
FORBIDDEN FRUIT temptation, and disaster. If not the oldest theme in literature, this series of action and reaction has certainly racked up one of the largest mileages. From the Book of Genesis and the Odyssey, to Romeo and Juliet and The Scarlet Letter, authors have been rascinated by the troubles people bring upon themselves when they reach for unknown wonders. But relating this theme to more substantial matter particularly history has never been easy, and indeed one must look hard for good examples.
That is, until now. John Hersey has told a story, daunting in scope and substance, that was simply begging to be told--the American missionary experience in China in the first half of this century. What's more, he's done it in a way which masterfully brings together two awkwardly coexistent branches of the historical novel tradition. Combining the solid factual background of authors like Tuchman or even Michener with the torrid, and sometime, sordid, human details of John Jakes and Harold Robbins. Hersey manages both to inform and to entertain throughout almost 700 pages. And he weaves his complex mosaic around one central, compelling theme--the hidden disaster embedded in the "offer" by the West, and "acceptance" by China, of the "forbidden fruits" of modern arts, science, and Christianity.
His vehicle is David Treadup, born in upstate New York of staunch Anglo Saxon stock. Everything about Hersey's protagonist is perfect for the story he wants to tell. We follow Treadup's youth in the late 19th century, his early interest in science, his athleticism, and his growth to study, 6-ft., 4-in., 230-lb. menhood. Hersey clearly intends these introductory chapters to create a dominant image in the reader's mind of the hidden (and sometimes not so hidden) impulses in American ideology which prompted the missionary wave almost a century ago.
Where did the missionary impulse come from? David Treadup's heritage was somewhat ambiguous as it bore on his calling. On his mother's side: a line of New England divines, shrewd petty manufacturers, and farmers... On his father's: the vigor, tough athleticism, self-sufficiency, and forest raptures of the trapper's life ... and an almost mute religiosity, having to do with the suspected presence of the eye of God in the tops of trees and in the mysterious depths of trout pools... On both sides: strong fiber, ample courage, a constant uneasy dialogue with ancient values, and outcroppings, all along the way, of excess.
Hersey constantly labors to depict Treadup's upbringing as devoid of the taboo-laden quasi-superstition rampant in much of early American Christianity. This is clearly an attempt to distance his hero from the outrages committed by many missionaries (and not just in China) in the name of God and civilization, and to say that even the best missionaries were destined to fail:
The bad name missionaries have been given in popular American lore was at least partly earned for all of them by those who were barren-minded the devotees and bigots, who were often immensely shrewd but were seldom immensely intelligent. How could a Protestant God have stone shed such stupid enthusiasts?" David once burst out in his diary, after a brush with a pair of narrow fundamentalists.
Much of Treadup's intelligence manifests itself in a fascination with science, exploration and adventure so characteristic of the "mood at the time. And Hersey shows us another mood of key importance in the for nation of David Tradeup--imperialism.
In February of David's second year of [secondary school] the U.S.S. Maine was blown up by a submarine mine in Havana harber and what followed ... stirred up in this restless and rudderless young man his first urge to take up the white man's burden. The sense of America's inescapable destiny of exporting her blessings to all who might be wanting was in the air David breathed.
The rest of Treadup's early life--his somewhat anti-climactic "salvation" after his first year of college at Syracuse, his pursuit of a B.S. rather than the then popular B.A., and his choice to devote his life to missionary work for the Y.M.C.A. in China--follows naturally from Hersey's early description of David's formative years and is often repetitive. Moreover other characters including Treadup's wife and family pale next to Hersey's concentrated focus on the giant hero and his all important surrounding. Hersey's choice of a life-long story offers the benefit of broad scope but hinders any depth of characterization.
Arriving in China, Treadup's impressions are immediately negative. His hatred of the blatant imperialism practiced by the Great Powers in the wake of the 1900 Bose Rebellion is also at least partly foreshadowed by the earlier groundwork. In these transitional sections the book tends to suffer from over-elaborate retail and reverie.
Hersey's real story lies with the three major subdivision of Treadup, life after several years spent mastering Mandarin. He skillfully weaves the themes of Western knowledge and Christianity by having his young protagonist bring both to the Chinese at different point in his four-decade career. The science comes from a successful series of lectures throughout the vast country, the arts from two decades of literacy work. While ostensibly his mission was to proselytize. Treadup's Christianity shows most clearly after the Japanese invasion of Northern and coastal China at the end of his life. In different ways, however, all these messages were are repudiated by the Chinese.
Perhaps the best part of the book concerns Treadup's lecture tours in the decade before World War I. In these staged, narrated productions he brings the most modern Western scientific knowledge to hundreds of thousands of influential Chinese citizens. The gyroscope, wireless telegraphy, a mode! airplane, and other exquisitely visual experiments are carefully described by Hersey, and their role in showing China the glory--and the horror--of the West stares from every page. Hersey puts into Treadup's mouth words which epitomize the hope, and the ultimate tragedy, of the Western experience in China:
"There is for me in science a marvelous beauty, a great exultation, an inexpressible enthusiasm that makes these experiences seem priceless, and I have a great yearning that each of my friends in the audience shall also experience the thrilled yet calm certainty that this beauty makes me feel. I want to fill them with a sense of power, a sense of victory, and a sense of potentiality ... "
HERSEY uses the outbreak of World War I to deflate his protagonist, who is sent to serve as an interpreter for the hundreds of thousands of Chinese 'coolie' laborers on the Western Front (itself a revealing and sobering interlude in The Call). Upon his return to China we witness a less ambitious David Treadup, a man who treasures his knowledge of Mandarin more than his knowledge of science, which he has seen put to such horrible use by the Great Powers against one another. He embarks on almost two decades of literacy training in a small circle of villages near Peking; such unprecedented teaching of ordinary peasants serves as an apt metaphor for the second "forbidden fruit" carried to the Chinese masses by the missionaries--the arts, and specifically literacy.
Treadup's final stage begins when he decides to stay with his villagers even in the gathering darkness of the Sino-Japanese War. Treadup's spiritual contraction', begun when he returned from the Wester. Front, is continued in an increasing hopelessness he feels (and Hersey intends us to understand that all Westerners should have felt this) in the face of China's manifold ills--invasion, constant famine, disease, civil war and corruption.
Treadup's alienation is complete when he is repudiated by both the "West"--in the cruel guise of four years in a Japanese prison camp, where, perhaps not too astonishingly, he loses his faith--and the "East"--in his capture, after returning to China to help in reconstruction in 1950, by the triumphant Communists, who have successfully turned Western knowledge against both the Japanese and Chiang Kaishek's Nationalists. Some of the very same villagers he taught to read participate in the deliberately Jesus-like crowd denunciation of his "imperialism":
"In the roar [of accusation] I now heard, I thought I could distinguish different tones--of the gullible, of those who hated the abstraction I represented, of those who knew some history and would never forgive the foreign powers for their part in it, but also of some who were too shrewd and wise to have been taken in by the charade of the day, and--oh, yes, I could hear them--of those who loved me. They all pronounced the same word: Yes!"
The Call is an incredibly complex book. In most contexts this claim would be merely trite; but John Hersey's crowning achievement spans such a wide, indeed almost terrifying, scope of history and large-scale disaster that no one pat conclusion may be drawn from it. The overall metaphor of "West meets East" helps the reader grasp the book, but many, many more ideas lie couched is every nook and cranny. China's cataclysmic passage into modernity deserves no less