"The Peking Letter: A Novel of The Chinese Civil War," by Seymour Topping. PublicAffairs. 320 pages. $25.
As China prepares to celebrate five decades of communism on Oct. 1, Seymour Topping's "The Peking Letter" serves as an entertaining read and timely reminder of how the grand, flawed experiment began. Set amid the Chinese Civil War, the historical thriller illuminates a more idealistic time when the Communists and Nationalists battled for the soul of the world's most populous country.
"The Peking Letter" explores the romance between an American researcher and a Chinese medical student, illustrating the lost opportunity and human costs surrounding socialism's triumph. It is the story of Eric Jensen, a young student of Taoism, and Lilian Yang, a leftist who enlists his help to save the imperial capital of Peking from destruction at the hands of the opposing armies.
Culling details from his years as an Associated Press reporter covering the country in the late 1940s, the author sends Jensen on an odyssey that stretches from the back alleys of Beijing to the muddy battlefields of Central China. The description is often vivid; the images of war stark.
One can feel the loose crates sliding toward the back as the plane Jensen is riding in takes off following a firefight on the tarmac. Communist soldiers calmly mow down starving Nationalists with machine guns as they try to retrieve sacks of food attached to parachutes that have drifted beyond the defensive perimeter.
Joining the couple in the cross-country, cross-cultural love story is a broadly drawn cast of characters including a blue-eyed Nationalist torture specialist, a voluptuous secretary for a U.S. wire service, Communist General Lin Biao and a roguish French lieutenant named Jean.
In places, the writing drifts precariously close to melodrama.
"How could he fulfill his vow to Gentle Spring?" Jensen wonders after promising Lilian's mother that he will rescue her son from battle. And the fast-paced plot reads in sections like a Western male fantasy as Jensen prowls the ancient capital bedding one porcelain-skinned Chinese beauty after another.
As the story progresses, though, it rises above the genre. The tortured romance between Lilian and Eric becomes a metaphor for the politically troubled relationship between China and the West. Eric's spiritual quest for peace through the study of Taoism gives way to personal revelation and a more realistic vision of China.
After the Communists take over Peking, the romantic romp that is expatriate life comes to a swift end as the new regime begins expelling foreigners. Chinese intellectuals must discard the trappings of bourgeois life and become devout soldiers of Mao Tse-tung. The novel hurtles toward a painful denouement that manages to keep the reader guessing while offering a hint of hope.
In the end, Eric has risked his life for the woman and the city he loves.
If only he could see the capital today. What the Communists resisted doing with tanks and artillery a half-century ago, they are now accomplishing with sledgehammers. Rising in place of the old gray-brick Peking that Jensen nearly dies to preserve is the glass and steel capital of Beijing -- a garish monument to the capitalist system Mao sought to replace.
Frank Langfitt has served as The Sun's Beijing correspondent since 1997. He has covered such stories as the hand-over of Hong Kong, the demonstrations against the U.S. embassy following the NATO bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade and the recent crackdown on the spiritual-meditation group Falun Gong.
Pub Date: 09/26/99