The Australian, 3 May 2008
The Private Papers of Eastern Jewel
By Maureen Lindley
SEX sells, and sex with an orientalist twist sells very well indeed. This could explain the increasing popularity of orientalist novels with covers that feature fetishised body parts of Asian women: a ruby red close-up of painted lips, a thigh exposed by a cheongsam slit, a coyly averted gaze framed by silky hair.
These books tend to be first-person narratives of Asian women, and many are also based on the lives of real people. Arthur Golden’s Memoirs of a Geisha and Wei Hui’s Shanghai Baby are two popular examples.
New to this genre is The Private Papers of Eastern Jewel by first-time novelist Maureen Lindley. It has the predictable cover: a veiled face from which gazes a dark eye and next to it is the single word, riveting, an endorsement from Wild Swans author Jung Chang. The eye is indeed riveting, but the novel
disappoints, despite being about a unique woman who broke oppressive social mores. The book overly eroticises her and depicts the East as passive, traditional, mysterious and, ultimately, the West’s exotic
other. In short, the novel is underwhelming because it is textbook orientalism.
The historical Eastern Jewel, or Yoshiko Kawashima, was a wilful Chinese princess turned Japanese spy, renowned for her ruthlessness and penchant for cross-dressing. Born into Manchu royalty and adopted by Japanese aristocrats, Yoshiko lived in a whirlwind of glamour during the first half of the 20th century, as Asia edged towards war. Her sexually precocious childhood, her escape from her Mongol husband, her relationship with emperor
Pu Yi, and her heady days as a spy in cosmopolitan Shanghai are presented like a sumptuous banquet.
Each chapter is named after an exotic dish, for example, Snake and Chrysanthemum Soup or Champagne and Pickled Ginger. Reading the novel is akin to experiencing a tasting menu: interest is aroused, but it’s hard to be genuinely moved by the characters.
Yoshiko pays for her espionage crimes in the end, making her a victim of the men who betrayed her, but her characterisation is thin and her lack of remorse for her acts of betrayal prevents us from feeling the
sympathy we’d like to.
And it’s sex that’s the root of this problem. The blow by thrust accounts of Yoshiko’s formidable sexual exploits, complete with details of tongue action and body odours, may titillate, but do these add to the narrative? In fact, the copious copulating mostly serves to alienate the reader.
Take page one. We meet eight-year-old princess Eastern Jewel spying on her father having sex with a 14-year-old girl. During this “amorous ritual”, her father eats a sweet almond pressed between the toes of the girl’s bound foot, which is “putrescent and fetid; yet crushed into the shape of a lotus flower”. The reader might react to the pedophilic sex and culinary grotesquerie either by closing the book or accepting the scene as part of the “other’s” strange erotic culture and reading on. Either way, the scene distances us from the book’s subject, and this sense of ambivalence towards the princess’s intriguing but unfamiliar world grows with every subsequent sex scene.
Immersing the reader in a world that is foreign without resorting to stereotypes is no easy feat. Memoirs of a Geisha had this problem, but Golden redeemed the novel’s orientalist framework with deliciously Dickensian plot twists that played out as high camp bitchiness in the geisha house. And the big love story that runs through the novel is engaging enough to appeal universally.
Not all works in this literary genre fall into the trap of exoticising the East. Two novels by Chinese author Xiaolu Guo, A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers (2007) and the more recently released 20 Fragments of a Ravenous Youth are both first-person narratives about self-actualising young Chinese women.
In each case the author steers clear of stereotypical depictions of the East by examining more universal themes. In Fragments, she explores the exuberance of youth, and in Concise, the limits of language to
convey true meaning. These two stories feel refreshing after Lindley’s overworked themes.
There is one thing all these books have in common, though: their exotic covers. A naked woman and a juicy, split fig adorn the cover of Concise and pretty blossoms painted over an ethereal image of a female face illustrate Fragments. This just goes to remind us that while orientalism sells, we shouldn’t judge a book by its cover.
Masako Fukui is a Japanese journalist based in Sydney.