Footbridge over the Seine (Cont.)

La Passerelle des Arts

Stefan-on-bridge

EXT. PONT DES ARTS – MORNING

Stefan is painting as before, this time it is the original canvas with the model in it. Josette arrives with pastries. She sits down on the bench.

JOSETTE I brought something.

She shows pastries. Stefan covers over the painting.

JOSETTE I didn’t bring any coffee.
STEFAN It’s all right, I’ve got some.

He sits down and pours coffee from a thermos. He has brought two plastic cups.

JOSETTE I saw you yesterday at the Canal Saint-Martin.
STEFAN That’s possible.
JOSETTE That how you spend your days, just walking around ?
STEFAN Yes.
JOSETTE All day?

Stefan nods. Background music based on the overture to “Attila” by Verdi in the background, very quiet at first.

JOSETTE Which parts of Paris?

Stefan shrugs.

STEFAN Anywhere.
JOSETTE Just drifting?
STEFAN Yes.
JOSETTE Like a leaf?

Stefan nods. Josette looks down at the water flowing under the bridge.

STEFAN Or a piece of paper.

Josette tears off a piece of paper  from the wrapping of the pastries, screws it up a little and throws it into the air.  We watch it being taken up by a gust of wind, eventually falling into the water on the right side of the bridge and then taken rapidly  downstream. Josette rushes to the other side to see if it has re-appeared and leans over the side of the bridge.  The current takes it away and we watch it going down through other bridges, past Les Invalides and onward.

JOSETTE It’s gone for ever. We’ll never see it again.

She sits down on the bench again. Music stops.

JOSETTE (Inquisitorial) You looking for someone or something when you’re wandering around?
STEFAN  (Decisive) No. Sometimes I do get in conversation with odd people I come across but that’s not the point.
JOSETTE What is the point ?

Stefan shrugs.
STEFAN Just to feel the pulse of life in the great city. That is enough.

 

La Passerelle des Arts

A very beautiful Parisian woman, stylishly dressed, crosses the Pont des Arts. Josette follows her with her eyes and looks at Stefan quizzically to see how he is reacting. We see the woman moving away very slowly with a special grace until she is eventually lost in the crowds in front of the Louvre. The camera switches to the water and we see various twigs and bits of paper taken away by the current.

Suddenly, a young North African rushes onto the bridge hotly pursued by two policemen. He is about to knock over Stefan’s easel in his flight and Stefan hastily moves it to one side of the bridge. Other police appear from nowhere at the other end of the bridge barring the way. The North African  looks desperately over the side of the bridge but then allows himself to be seized. Stefan watches with a pained expression as the man is bundled into a police van.

JOSETTE Bastards!

We hear the main theme bursting out but this time it is much more sombre. It trails away into nothingness and the scene on the bridge fades into jumbled shots of police vans circulating around the streets of Paris, angry demonstrators, disconsolate young French conscripts getting on a train taking them to Algeria, French soldiers patrolling an Algerian casbah and a victim of a shoot-out lying on the pavement.

Conscripts going to Algeria

Conscripts going to Algeria

 

Victim on pavement

 

Casbah

Casbah


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Were Rats to Blame?

Rat “From April 18 onwards, quantities of dead or dying rats were found in storehouses and public buildings (…) The situation worsened in the following days. There were more and more dead vermin in the streets and the scavengers had bigger cartloads every morning. On the fourth day the rats began to come out and die in batches. From basements, cellars and sewers they emerged in long wavering files into the light of day, swayed helplessly, then did a sort of little dance and fell dead at the feet of the horrified onlookers. People out at night would often feel underfoot the squelchy roundness of a still warm body. It was as if the earth on which our houses stood was being purged of their secreted humours….”

An extract from Boccacio’s account of the Black Death in Florence in 1348 which serves as a preface to his Decameron ?  No. The passage is taken from the opening of Camus’s famous novel La Peste in Stuart Gilbert’s translation (with two or three words altered so as not to give the game away). In Camus’ novel the plague which attacks Oran in Algeria (where Camus was born) commences as an epizootic (animal epidemic) amongst the rat population of the town. This is how one would expect an outbreak of bubonic plague to begin since the usual carrier of the bacillus, the flea Xenopsylla cheopis, is a parasite on rodents  and normally only transfers to humans when there are no available (living) rodents.

So why didn’t Boccacio and other fourteenth century chroniclers of the ‘Great Mortality’ of 1348-50 mention a preliminary wave of very heavy rat mortality preceding human cases? There are no convincing answers to this question. Most writers state, or rather assume without stating, that the inhabitants of fourteenth century Europe were so thoroughly unscientific, filthy and unobservant that they either failed to notice, or deemed unworthy of mention, the enormous quantities of dead rats that must have accompanied bubonic plague as it swept through Europe at breakneck speed, taking less than three years to get from Sicily to upper Norway and visiting most rural areas, even very remote ones,  on its way. As for being ‘unscientific’, well, I personally do not expect fourteenth century man to have a knowledge of microbiology centuries before the construction of a decent microscope ¾ it was only in 1894 that the French doctor, Yersin, identified the plague bacillus during the so-called Plague of Canton. Whatever the ‘Great Pestilence’ was — the term ‘Black Death’ is of much later date — it was almost certainly a bacterial or viral disease and, equally certainly, there was very little that medieval doctors and Public Health authorities could have done other than what they did do, which was to  recommend flight to those who had somewhere else to go such as Boccacio’s wealthy Florentines, to clean up the streets and to enforce strict quarantine on incoming vessels in ports. Although there was a certain amount of talk about ‘God’s judgment on man’, and naturally some attempts to blame minority groups such as Jews, medieval Health authorities and doctors did make an attempt to understand the phenomenon in a ‘scientific’ manner and the theories proposed were by no means idiotic. It was, for example, suggested that the origin of the pestilence was probably ‘vapours’ emitted by rotting corpses and this same theory was proposed by Creighton in the latter nineteenth century.

It is essential to continually bear in mind that medieval man was not an animal lover : the cultural and religious climate of medieval Europe was utterly different from that of, say, India where devout Hindus stubbornly resisted the attempts of authorities to exterminate the rats that shared their habitations as late as the  early twentieth century. As to medieval men and women being indifferent to dirt and filth, this assumption needs some qualification, at any rate as regards the towns which one would expect to be the most promising foyers of infection. To judge by the frequency and venom of ecclesiastical tirades, bath-houses during the later Middle Ages were only too well-attended, though it was perhaps more the nudity of these unisex establishments that attracted men rather than the opportunity to get a good wash. Public latrines existed in large towns — there were at least thirteen on London Bridge — and municipal authorities were extremely concerned about the dangers that, notably, butchers’ offal represented. Boccacio himself, who lived through the Black Death, speaks of “the cleansing of the city [of Florence] by officials appointed for this purpose, the refusal of entry to sick folk, and the adoption of many precautions for the preservation of health  (Decameron, p. 5 Everyman Edition). But, though Boccacio does mention a pig dying in the street, nowhere is there any mention of rats.

There is, moreover, one very good reason why medieval man would have been more, not less, attentive to rat mortality than people living today, for he would have envisaged a wave of dying rats as a portent. Folklore and folk wisdom in China, India and many parts of Africa have traditionally associated mortality of rodents with human epidemics. There is a Chinese poem quoted by the plague specialist Wu Lien-Teh  containing the lines

“A few days after the death of rats
Men pass away like falling walls.”

likewise an Indian saying, “When the rats begin to fall it is time for people to leave their houses”.

In the country, although peasants may well have become resigned to the permanent presence of unwanted guests under their roofs, they can scarcely have felt much affection for them. I myself  have inhabited a traditional  one room ‘long house’ in a remote area of France, and was extremely annoyed by the racket that rodents living in the eaves made each night. But no medieval poet or chronicler writer mentions rats. During a visitation as severe as that of 1348, dying rats would have been falling down into the living quarters and dwelling-places everywhere must have stank of putrefying rat corpses.

For we are speaking of a very substantial rat presence across the whole of Europe. Shrewsbury, an out-and-out bubonic plague believer, estimated that around 69 rats per square mile were needed to sustain an epizootic of the scale of the Black Death — the term incidentally was not used until two centuries later — and this works out, given the population density of the time, at the incredible figure, as Shrewsbury himself admits, of over a 100 rats per two-room peasant cottage in many rural areas of Great Britain !  It is only too typical of otherwise reputable historians that, instead of questioning the hypothesis (that the Black Death was bubonic plague), Shrewsbury dismisses the medieval evidence as unfounded rumour and categorically affirms that the pestilence could not have visited large areas of Great Britain.

But are rats indispensable for an epidemic, or pandemic (world-wide epidemic), of the disease we now, rather irritatingly, call plague?  The answer is that rodents, not necessarily rats, are absolutely indispensable for an initial outbreak of bubonic plague and it seems most unlikely that there were any other rodent candidates available in fourteenth century Europe. There exist permanent reservoirs of plague amongst squirrels in North America, but they cause little harm since individual squirrels very rarely interact intimately enough with humans to infect them. And in Asia there are enormous foci of plague amongst burrowing rodents such as marmots, which, again, considering the numbers involved, cause very little damage.

Bubonic plague is not properly speaking a disease of humans, nor even of rodents, but of fleas. It is caused by the bacillus Yersinia pestis, named after the scientist who identified it at the end of the nineteenth century, which, in certain conditions, gets established in the stomach of certain fleas, especially Xenopsylla cheopis. The bacteria multiply, filling the stomach entirely and, because of this, the flea cannot take in nourishment and, in desperation, feeds all the more frantically, or tries to. In the process it regurgitates some of the blood it cannot ingest, and also defecates, depositing bacteria in the faeces (see Illustration I). The bacteria infect the host, the host infects other fleas and so on.

It is not in the interests of a parasite to kill off too many of its potential hosts, fortunately for us or pandemics would be more frequent than they actually are, and in general a status quo results as in the bacillus-flea-rodent tripartite biological system. Only about 12% of the fleas get blocked, and we can assume that only a small percentage of rodents such as marmots die, since marmots were, and still are, extremely numerous. Epizootics flare up, of course, from time to time, on occasion spreading to other rodents and thus to man who gets involved quite co-incidentally. Since the black rat, Rattus rattus, the only rat present in Medieval Europe, is an almost exclusively domestic animal who, typically, lives in houses, warehouses or ships, i.e. in close proximity to man, Rattus rattus is a good deal more dangerous than the rest of the rodents put together from our point of view. Xenopsylla cheopis will normally only transfer to a human being when there are no available living rats — it leaves the corpse as soon as the body temperature cools. And the bacteria can only enter the human body by flea-bite or, just conceivably, very close physical contact such as wound-to-wound, so, contrary to what most people believe, bubonic plague is not a contagious disease. The human flea, Pulex irritans, is a much less efficient transmitter of plague since it rarely becomes blocked even when feeding on infected humans : there is widespread (though not quite total) agreement that it can be ruled out as an insect vector for plague except in the case of septicaemic plague, a complication of bubonic plague that remains very rare.

We know a considerable amount about bubonic plague today because the last big outbreak, the so-called Plague of Canton, occurred when there were plenty of trained doctors and Health Officials available and the secret of bacterial infection was at long last known. Officials from the Plague Research Commission chronicled the relentless spread of bubonic plague through India in great detail, though they were incapable of doing much more than taking preventative measures prior to the discovery of antibiotics.

The most striking feature of the Plague of Canton was its extremely slow rate of dissemination despite the availability of modern methods of transport. It is thought that the pandemic originated in the Yunnan during the eighteen-fifties, but it was only in 1894 that it reached Canton and Hong Kong. It reached Calcutta in 1895, presumably by sea, and a year later found ideal conditions in the teeming, insanitary city of Bombay (Mumbai). Something of the Camus scenario of rats coming out to die on the streets was in fact observed, though not usually quite so dramatically. Plague maintained itself at these locations spreading outwards throughout much of India for some thirty years and, in Bombay itself, its progress was often no more than two or three miles a year!  Compare this with the lightning sweep of the 1348-50 Black Death which covered the ground from Messina in Sicily to Northern Norway in less than three years!

George Christakos and fellow authors (Interdisciplinary Public Health Reasoning and Epidemic Modelling: The Case of the Black Death, 2005, Springer), using advanced modelling techniques estimates that “plague advanced at an accelerated pace that peaked in October of 1348, when it infected a quarter of a million km2 in one month” (p. 230). To get an idea of what this area represents, I have roughly marked it out on a map of France (see Illustration II), though I hasten to add that the actual territory allegedly covered was not restricted to France and was a much more elongated shape.

The assumption that the Black Death so-called was caused by rats is of relatively recent date, since it only goes back to the late nineteenth century,  when Yersinia pestis was discovered and Koch, amongst others, immediately identified the bacillus as the cause of the 1348 pestilence. Practically all history books today, when discussing the issue, speak of three main onslaughts of bubonic plague in Europe, the Plague of Justinian, the medieval Black Death and the Plague of Canton. It is somewhat alarming to see how quickly an assumption becomes unassailable dogma, for that is what the rat theory has become. The principal; stumbling blocks to the identification of the Black Death with plague are, then :

1. Bubonic plague requires a rodent epizootic to get going, while contemporary witnesses nowhere mention rats in connection with the pestilence;

2. A very large native rodent population is required, and references to rats throughout the entire medieval period are few and far between, to say the least;

3.  The rate of spread was phenomenal and the mortality enormous — between a quarter and a third of the entire population of Europe.

On (2) further evidence that there can hardly have been a substantial rat population in the mid fourteenth century in Britain comes from the design of dovecotes. Everyone is agreed that the more familiar Brown Rat, Rattus norvegicus, only arrived in Britain in the early eighteenth century rapidly spreading inland from ports. According to Dr Twigg, who cites McCann, The Dovecotes of Suffolk (Suffolk Institute of Archaeology & History 1998 p. 21 -2), dovecotes were re-designed at around this period because of rats which climbed inside and ate both doves and eggs. Staddle stones, large toadstool-like constructions of stone on which barns, and even small houses, were laid, and which are very common in the area where I live (Dorset) appear to date from this period also. Now, in Tudor and late medieval times, one would expect there to have been more, not less, dovecotes as, apart from their value for food in monasteries and such establishments, the droppings were collected, mixed with earth and boiled to produce saltpetre, the main ingredient in gunpowder. Rattus rattus is actually a better climber than the Brown Rat so, had there been a substantial rural rat population in the preceding centuries, one would have expected to find mentions of it as a pest. Also, since  grain losses from manorial granaries were a recurring bone of contention, one would have expected bailiffs to have attributed them to rats, which, as far as we know, they never did.

Incidentally, for what it is worth, the story of the Pied Piper of Hamelin does not go back to the mid fourteenth-century (though conceivably based on earlier sources) and the first versions do not specifically mention rats as carriers of disease. Defoe, in Journal of the Plague Year, a partly fictionalized account of the seventeenth century Plague of London, does mention rats though he nowhere suggests that they were responsible for the epidemic. Black rats may well have become something of a nuisance in cities by Stuart or Commonwealth times, but the problem remains that the Black Rat is a strictly sedentary animal that has rarely been found even more than a mile or two from its, usually urban, birth-place.

Some readers are perhaps already getting impatient because I have not, as yet, mentioned pneumonic plague. Pneumonic plague is simply bubonic plague which affects the lungs : it is, however, a very different kettle of fish in many ways. Prior to the discovery of antibiotics, it was almost invariably lethal and can be spread person to person rather like influenza through droplets released into the air, by sneezing for example. This ties in quite nicely with the common medieval belief, not so long ago dismissed by historians as rank superstition, that you could ‘catch the pestilence’ simply by being in the same room as an afflicted person. Medieval doctors were themselves so worried about the possibility of contagion that they often refused to visit their patients !

However, the pneumonic plague hypothesis does not quite do what many people think it does. We know a lot about pneumonic plague, because of the 1910/11 and 1920 Plagues of Manchuria, voluminously recorded by a practising physician on the spot, Lien-Teh. In the first place, if the Black Death actually was plague, it cannot have been entirely, or even mainly, the pneumonic variety. For all medieval observers mention buboes (swellings) especially at the groin or armpit as being the principal symptom. In the case of pneumonic plague, there is not enough time for the buboes to form — in fact, paradoxical though it may sound, pneumonic plague is too deadly to make it a good candidate for a pandemic. For an epidemic to develop, we need an abundance of healthy carriers, or at any rate persons who appear healthy — precisely why AIDS is such a danger, likewise influenza, the cause of the last major pandemic in the West, that of 1918 which killed far more people than World War I. In the case of septicaemic plague the afflicted person dies within six hours, which makes it a very unlikely candidate for even a local epidemic. But pneumonic plague does not rate much better : it has been officially estimated that an afflicted person dies within an average of 1.8 days.

Why, then, the substantial mortality in Manchuria? The Manchurian outbreak had the benefit of extremely favourable conditions (from the bacillus’s point of view) which are most unlikely to repeat themselves  : migrant workers in the trapping industry travelled about in winter on heated trains and by night slept on platforms in crowded steam-heated hostels. Moreover, the authorities were taken by surprise in 1910 with the result that the 1920 outbreak was a good deal less serious though practically the only methods available were the ‘medieval’ ones of isolation and quarantine. And the Manchurian outbreaks, though severe, do not even remotely compare with the Black Death. Not everyone in 1349 could have avoided all contact with other human beings, since they had to procure food, but, as we know from Boccacio, people certainly kept as far away from each other as they possibly could with the honourable exception of the clergy called in to hear bedside confessions — they paid for their zeal by heavier mortality than amongst other professions especially in Germany. So the same difficulties for the rapid transmission of pneumonic plague by person to person contact would have applied in the fourteenth century, only more so given the absence of railways and steamships.

The second point to be stressed is that pneumonic plague does not get rid of the need for rats. Infected rodents in serious numbers are still required to start the epidemic, and we simply have no evidence to suppose that there were enough rats around in 1348 — except the circular ‘reasoning’,  “No rats, no plague”.  In the Manchurian case, it was marmots who started the epidemic : the first human victims handled them directly on a day to day basis and, it has been observed, were largely inexperienced migrant workers unaware of the dangers involved. Whether an outbreak of pneumonic plague can persist without an accompanying epizootic amongst rodents, is still a matter of learned debate, or rather controversy, but it seems more probable to me that an outbreak restricted to humans would burn itself out fairly quickly. Note that, if we accept de Mussis’ account (which almost everyone does with some reservations), the Black Death entered Europe via a Genoese galley hailing from the Crimea. The trip, even under very favourable conditions, would have taken a good six weeks, and this is ample time for an outbreak of any known form of plague to have either burned itself out, or, at the very least, to have killed off enough of the crew to make the harbour authorities at Messina most suspicious, which apparently they were not.

Frankly, the case for the identification of the Black Death with plague as we know it, just doesn’t stack up. As an amateur with no vested interests either way, when I first did some research into the Black Death for an article back in the eighties, it was not a matter of whether I did, but whether I could, in all honesty believe the two were one and the same. I decided I couldn’t, especially after reading Dr Twigg’s epoch making book, The Black Death (Batsford, 1984), also the very interesting Ph. D thesis of Palmer into the history of plague in Venice (though this does not cover the 1348 period). Since then, the small band of bubonic plague sceptics has been swelled by various other figures, notably Scott and Duncan (Return of the Black Death, Wiley 2004), Professor Cohn (Epidemiology of the Black Death and Successive Waves of Plague), Lerner (Fleas : Some Scratchy Issues Concerning the Black Death, Journal of the Historical Society June 2008) and, most recently of all, Gummer (The Scourging Angels, 2009) to mention only the main authors known to me.

The best that can be said for the bubonic plague hypothesis — and that is all it is — is that the description of the surgeon Guy de Chauliac and one or two other contemporaries of the symptoms of the disease does sound rather like bubonic plague. The buboes are not specific to plague but there is no doubt that they are distinctive. Bubonic plague can also give rise to small, black pustules, which fits the description of ‘God’s tokens’ as they were often called. However, these are much less distinctive than the buboes and it is worth noting that these marks, the “ring, a ring of roses’ of the (18th century) nursery rhyme, seem, over the years, to have become a more typical symptom than the buboes, assuming that subsequent outbreaks of ‘pestilence’ had the same cause, which they may well not have done. There is, annoyingly, just enough plausibility to the bubonic plague theory to keep it alive. Though far from being as lethal as the Black Death, or even, globally, smallpox and malaria, no one is going  to deny that plague is a serious disease since it caused over 12.5 million deaths in India during the twentieth century (over a period of forty-three years though, not two and a half).

What of DNA testing ? The jury is still out on this issue. A French team led by Michel Drancourt and Didier Raoult tested three skeletons from a grave pit in Montpellier for bubonic plague and reported positive results. However, various geneticists and archaeologists such as Mike Prentice, Alan Cooper, Carsen Pusch and others have disputed these claims, some attributing them to laboratory contamination. No one has, since then, managed to repeat these positive results and we await a more extensive and thorough investigation which, according to some unconfirmed reports, is currently underway.

The trouble with disbelieving that the Black Death was plague is that it is a negative option : its advocates find themselves pushed into making risky guesses about what the Black Death really was, and this has proved to be a dangerous game. Dr.  Twigg came up with anthrax as a possible alternative. This suggestion does have the advantage that it solves the problem of rapid dissemination since anthrax spores can be spread about by the wind, and are extremely resistant to extremes of temperature (which fits what we know of the Black Death). One might seriously doubt that, given medieval population density levels, any disease could have covered such a vast area so swiftly other than by dispersion in air currents. For what it is worth — and in my eyes is worth something — contemporary (medieval) observers thought that the pestilence was spread both by direct contact and by ‘vapours’, perhaps emanating from decaying corpses. This suggestion was by no means idiotic : the ‘miasmic’ theory of disease was still going strong in the late nineteenth century amongst the scientific establishment.

In other respects, however, Dr Twigg’s mention of anthrax proved to be an unfortunate suggestion since anthrax, in its present form at any rate, is not very contagious as we know from the post 9/11 scare. To invoke a ‘stronger strain of anthrax’ is a dangerous ploy, since it invites the plague lobby to counter by claiming that the bubonic plague bacillus of 1348 was a ‘stronger strain’ than what we are used to today. Dr Twigg’s suggestion, though it is contained only in the ten last pages of his book, simply gave his opponents a good excuse to dismiss, or simply not to read, the remaining densely argued two hundred odd pages.

Scott and Duncan have since then come up with haemorrhagic fever or ebola, a deadly viral disease. Much of their work is outside the remit of this article, since it deals with successive waves of ‘pestilence’ in Europe, not just, or principally, the 1348-50 outbreak, but deserves mention nonetheless. Using modern statistical methods, they have worked out an “average time from infection to death” for plague cases over a period of centuries and have come up with the figure of 37 days. This fits quite well with the ebola hypothesis but, more strikingly, with the Venetian institution of 40 days quarantine for incoming vessels, a period which soon came to be accepted throughout the whole of Italy. There were, subsequent to 1348, only 11 outbreaks of ‘pestilence’ in 300 years in Italy, which compares very favourably indeed with France and other countries. This quarantine was a considerable annoyance to merchants and may even have contributed to the commercial decline of Venice, so the Venetian Health authorities must, at least in their own eyes, have had serious reasons for instituting it. Of course, on the bubonic plague hypothesis, any quarantine is entirely pointless.

One  reason why the rat theory of the Black Death is still up and going, is that we do not, as humans, much like rats, viewing them as ugly and dirty creatures. If a similar pandemic had been initiated by squirrels, as just conceivably it might have been, one wonders whether the bubonic plague hypothesis would have remained established dogma for over a hundred years with very few daring to question it. Even if it were eventually proved to be utterly misguided, people for a long time to come will unthinkingly associate rats with the Black Death much as we automatically associate Nero with the burning of Rome or Louis XIV with the Man in the Iron Mask  — indeed I sometimes find it hard to get rid of the association myself despite having been in the non-bubonic camp for at least twenty-five years already. As a matter of fact, rats have probably been a good deal more serviceable to mankind than squirrels, who we find cute, since, apart from the rather unpleasant IQ maze experiments, rats have long been used to detect unexploded mines because of their excellent sense of smell.

There must, anyway, have been plenty of diseases which have disappeared without a trace, since diseases, being merely forms of life that we, as humans, do not view favourably, are subject to evolutionary pressures like everything else. One such is “the sweats”, a very serious disease prevalent at the time of the Reformation and which no one has subsequently successfully identified.  So it may well be that we shall never know with certainty the micro-organism responsible for what someone called, with not too much exaggeration, “the most nearly successful attempt to wipe out the human species” — a worthy adversary indeed !

Sebastian Hayes

Footbridge over the Seine

As the credits run we see a middle-aged man, Stefan, reasonably good-looking without being handsome, rummaging through canvases in his small flat cum studio. He pulls out a canvas and holds it at arm’s length, examining it quizzically. It represents a slim young girl posing nude on a divan with one hand behind her head. The painting is unfinished, in particular the background is not yet filled in.

We hear for the first time a theme which comes up at moments throughout the film : it is taken from the overture to Verdi’s little known opera, Attila.

Back to a group of students in the Beaux-Arts who are sketching the model in the painting. Stefan, twenty years younger, is one of the group working on the painting we have just seen.

Stefan looks up at the clock and says something which we do not hear. The students pack up and go off. Stefan remains to rearrange chairs and tables as if he is responsible for the class, though he does not look old enough to be a full-time teacher. The model continues to lie there lazily without making any attempt to get dressed. He notices this and she glances up at him  provocatively. He looks away, embarrassed. Irritated, the girl grabs a counterpane, throws it around herself and stalks out to get dressed.

During this time we hear the first two verses of “The Fugitive” (Lyrics and Melody Sebastian Hayes) in the background

I never planned this mission
Where I stay I never know ;
For I let the movement send me
Wherever it wants me to go.

So if the Germans ask you
Have you seen me passing by,

Tell them you never knew me,
Tell them it was not I.

No sign will mark my passing,
No tomb will bear my name,
But I’ll not be forgotten
When I go back to where I came,
When I go back to where I came.

EXT.   PONT DES ARTS  PARIS   1962   MORNING

Bridge over the Seine
Mist which clears gradually. Workers in blue denims cross the bridge, one or two better dressed office workers, maids with baguettes de pain. STEFAN, a man of about fifty wearing a floppy trilby and casual wear, carrying an easel and painting equipment walks halfway across the bridge (which is pedestrian only) and sets up his easel. The canvas is covered by a sheet of paper so we do not see the painting at first. In the background a Juliette Greco or Lucienne Delyle song of the era, very quiet. The man is Stefan.

Stefan on bridge

He lifts the protective wrapping from the canvas we see that it is a half-finished nude executed in the style of Modigliani; The slim model is stretched out on her back with her left hand behind her head, she has black hair and a mischievous expression. The painter sketches rapidly the background for the picture, namely what he sees in front of him —  the rest of the Pont des Arts and the Louvre : this is an imagined backdrop for the nude which has obviously been painted previously in a studio.

A group of noisy students, some carrying musical instruments arrive from the left (the camera side) and one of them flops down on a metal bench on the bridge slightly in front and to the right of the painter. The girl, JOSETTE, is in her early twenties, she is  wearing  expensive high heeled shoes but  is wrapped up in a somewhat shabby red coat. She is slim and has delicate features,  but there is something feverish about her appearance, half drunkenness, half fatigue. She closes her eyes

Boy. Coming, Josette ?

Josette. No.

Boy. Ok, please yourself.

Josette. (Slightly drunken tone) Yes, yes.

(She waves her hand and the students disappear towards the Right Bank. Josette stretches out on the bench exhausted. The painter, whom we see only from the back or the side, looks at her with interest and sets up his easel so that he can get a better view in order to use her as a model. His glance goes from the girl on the bench to the canvas and back to the girl. He gives a few touches to the painting.

The girl wakes up with a start and looks around.)

Josette. You painting me ?

Stefan. Well, not exactly.  In a way.

Josette. I pose for students  in the Beaux Arts sometimes.

Stefan. Do you ?

(Carries on painting.)

Josette. Yes.  (Pause) They pay me though.

Stefan. How much ?

Josette. I charge…..  fifty francs for a half hour.

(To her amazement the painter takes out some notes and hands them to her. She looks at them and him trying to make him out, then stuffs them hastily into a pocket of her coat.)

Josette. Is the pose all right ?

Stefan. Just move your right leg a little. Yes. Now put your  left arm behind your head and look up at the sky. Yes, that’s better.

(Pause.)

Josette. Say something, I’m getting bored.

Stefan. I’ve more or less finished for today actually.

(Josette jumps up and comes round to look at the painting.)

Josette. But that’s not me !

Stefan. (A bit embarrassed) No.

Josette. She does look a bit like me, it’s true.  Who was she ?

Stefan. Oh, just a model at the Beaux-Arts.

Josette. But all this time you’ve just been doing the background ! What is this ?

Stefan. I did do something to the arm. But, yes, I did the figure years ago.

Josette. Anyway, it’s a crap painting.

(The painter smiles weakly, not taking offence.)

Josette. In fact it’s so bad I’m going to throw it in the Seine.

(Josette picks up the painting. The painter makes no attempt to stop her. She pulls her arm back as if about to hurl the painting into the water, but thinks better of it and eventually replaces it on the easel. She turns to face him.)

Josette. I’ll let you off this time. (Indicating the painting) Actually, it’s maybe sort of got something nonetheless. (Slight pause.) But it’s still a crap painting.

(Josette takes the notes out of her pocket, screws them tightly into a ball and tosses it at the painting.)

Keep your money.

(She stalks off.)

Man. Hey!

(Josette stops at once and turns.)

Man. (While packing up his easel and preparing to go off) Have breakfast on me at least.

(He puts a few coins down on the bench.

He walks off without turning round, taking his equipment with him. Josette stares after him with a puzzled air.)

INT CAFÉ NOT FAR FROM THE PRÉFECTURE DE PARIS   MORNING

(Josette is sitting at a table in a café drinking coffee and eating croissants. A few old workers at the bar pay no attention to her, but a young man at a nearby table tries to make conversation. She frowns and looks away.

Groups of police are milling around outside, talking amongst themselves or on walkie-talkie. Police vans pass incessantly. The radio at the bar gives out the 10 o’clock news. Josette looks up at once and listens attentively.)

RADIO ANNOUNCER In the Algerian capital French Algerian protesters have thrown up barricades in the streets and seized certain government buildings. The police have opened fire on the rioters and there is at this very moment intense fighting around Boulevard Laferrière. General de Gaulle has called on all members of the police and military to remain faithful to the Republic and has denounced the parachute regiment commander, Stefan Lagaillarde, as the instigator of this movement whose aim is clearly to sabotage the recent peace agreements.

(Josette gets up suddenly, pays at the counter and rushes out.)

EXT. PONT DES ARTS 1962 – MORNING

La Passerelle des Arts

A few days later. Same scene as before a little later in the morning. Stefan has his easel set up in the same place. His back is towards us and we do not see the canvas.
Josette arrives from the left bank side of the bridge, so Stefan does not see her arriving. She is in slightly better shape though she wears the same threadbare coat. She surveys Stefan for a while, then flops down on the same bench, deliberately taking up the same pose. She looks up provocatively in a way slightly reminiscent of the model.
Stefan pretends not to notice her. Silence. After a bit both smile despite themselves. Josette throws off her coat and gets up to have a look at the painting. The centre of the painting is blank, Stefan is roughing in the Louvre and the Pont des Arts as a background in pastel.

JOSETTE (Shocked) What happened to the model?

Stefan carries on painting.

STEFAN Dead.
JOSETTE What do you mean, dead?
STEFAN I decided I didn’t need her any more. So I threw the painting into the Seine.
JOSETTE (Genuinely perturbed) No, no, you couldn’t have done that.
STEFAN Why not?
JOSETTE You just couldn’t.

Stefan keeps on painting, smiling to himself slightly.

STEFAN It’s all right. The original’s in my studio.
JOSETTE I’m very glad to hear that.

Slight pause.
Stefan puts his hand in his pocket and pulls out a note which he hands to Josette.

STEFAN Why don’t you go and get some pastries ?
JOSETTE What do I get for you?
STEFAN Oh, pain au chocolat.

Josette walks off slowly down to the other end of the bridge still looking somewhat troubled. The camera follows her.

EXT. PONT DES ARTS – MOMENTS LATER

Stefan and Josette are now sitting on the bench drinking coffee and eating pastries.

JOSETTE So what do you spend the rest of your day doing?  Painting?
STEFAN No. I only do it as a hobby now. I did go to the Beaux-Arts once but I dropped out before getting a diploma.

Slight pause. Josette looks at him, calculating his age.

JOSETTE Why’d you drop out? Because the Germans were after you?
STEFAN No. Nothing as heroic as that.
JOSETTE What, then?
STEFAN Personal reasons.
JOSETTE All very mysterious. (Scrutinising him) You don’t look old enough to be retired. You got money, then?

Stefan laughs.

STEFAN Pots. No. But last year I came into a small inheritance, enough to live on for a year or two.
JOSETTE (Stretching her arms lazily) It’s never too late in the day to start doing nothing. What work did you do  when you were active?
STEFAN Teaching a bit. More recently I worked for a firm translating technical manuals into Polish.
JOSETTE Sounds absolutely ghastly.
STEFAN I quite enjoyed it. You?
JOSETTE Oh, officially I’m enrolled at the Sorbonne. Political Science and Economics.
STEFAN What’s it like?
JOSETTE Complete crap. Everybody’s just interested in money and power in this shitty society — you don’t need to do Science-Po to see that. I don’t get a grant – I only enrolled so I could go to the Student Restaurant. Everybody has to eat.
STEFAN Yes, quite.

Pause. Stefan gets up and begins to pack up his things.

JOSETTE You going already?
STEFAN I’ve got to get back to take some medication.

Josette picks up his easel without being asked.

JOSETTE Here, I’ll carry that. Where’d you live?
STEFAN Not far from here.

EXT. PARIS – MORNING

A typical Parisian street. The 19th century five storey houses have balconies with iron railings.

JOSETTE This it?

Stefan nods. Close up of entrance showing the street number and a column of names with bell pushes. The top one is STEFAN WOZINSKY.

JOSETTE Yes. I’m at the top.

Josette looks at the entrance door again. She dumps the easel on the ground.

JOSETTE See you.

She saunters off without looking back. Stefan pushes a button, pulls open the heavy doors and enters with his equipment.

EXT. CANAL SAINT-MARTIN – AFTERNOON

Stefan without his painting equipment is wandering aimlessly along the Canal Saint Martin. From time to time he exchanges the time of day with old men sitting on benches or playing boules, at one point he goes into a small grocery store to buy some fruit  and then resumes his stroll.
Josette and a group of students, mostly male, emerge from a Métro station and walk along in a group purposively as if going to a meeting. One of them consults a piece of paper. He presses the bell. Looking back idly Josette catches sight of Stefan. She stares  at him curiously. He does not see her. The others go in.

MALE STUDENT You coming, Josette?
JOSETTE Oh, yes.

She follows them in. The heavy double door slams to. We see Stefan continuing to wander  along  the canal bank.

To be continued

Antony and Cleopatra


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          Anthony and Cleopatra

 

 

Side by side they stand, surveying from on high

All Egypt slumbering in the stifling heat;

Far off, at Saïs, the black marshes meet

The sinuous Nile, meandering sleekly by;

 

He is from Rome, whom no one may defy,

She like a captive helpless at his feet,

Through his breast-plate he feels her faint heart-beat,

This siren child he seeks to pacify;

 

She looks at him, white cheeks and jet-black hair,

Subtle, all-conquering perfumes fill the air,

With eyes wide open, offers him her lips;

 

And, bending down, Mark Anthony descries,

Mirrored in those gold-fringed dark-blue eyes

The sea at Actium, covered with fleeing ships. 

 

 

 


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  This is a translation of a poem by José-Maria de Heredia, a nineteenth century French poet (18421905)  highly regarded at the time but not much read today.

     The Battle of Actium (September 2, 31 BC) was the decisive encounter between Mark Antony and Octavian, better known by his subsequent honorific title, Augustus. One might be forgiven for thinking Actium was near Alexandria, if one based one’s history on Shakespeare, but it was actually situated in the Peloponnese directly facing the eastern seaboard of Italy which Antony originally planned to invade with his vast armada of ships, five hundred strong of which some sixty or more were Egyptian. Instead of this, Mark Antony, who, whatever his personal prowess on the field, seems to have been an extremely incompetent strategist, found himself bottled up in the gulf with winter coming on and his supply lines with Egypt cut.

            His own general, Canidius Crassus, advised Antony to abandon the vast but unwieldy and undermanned fleet and withdraw his legions by land. Cleopatra, who was present at the Council of War, naturally preferred withdrawal by sea : not only was there the question of her personal safety but she was paymaster with her vast fortune and had a ship laden with treasure. As it happened, whether by intent or design, Cleopatra and the Egyptian contingent seized an opportunity which arose during the sea-battle the following day to pass through a gap in Octavian’s line and fled with Antony following fast after her. The result was that most of Antony’s remaining  seamen and linfantry changed sides — and who could blame them?   (At any rate, this is the version given in Richard Holland’s persuasive book, Augustus, Godfather of Europe.)

            The original French poem is as below

    



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             Antoine et Cléopatre

 

Tous deux ils regardaient, de la haute terrasse,

L’Égypte s’endormir sous un ciel étouffant,

Et le fleuve, à travers le Delta noir qu’il fend

Vers Bubaste ou Saïs rouler son onde grasse.

 

Et le Romain sentait sous la lourde cuirasse,

Soldat captif berçant le sommeil d’un enfant,

Ployer et défaillir sur son cœur triomphant

Le corps voluptueux que son étreinte embrasse.

 

Tournant sa tête pale entre ses cheveux bruns

Vers celui qui s’enivraient d’invincibles parfums,

Elle tendit sa bouche et ses prunelles claires ;

 

Et sur elle courbé, l’ardent Imperator

Vit dans ses larges yeux étoilés de points d’or

Toute une mer immense où fuyaient des galères.

 

                                                José-Maria de Heredia

 

 

 


 

 


  

 

 

Three Novels of Love and War "A Leaf in the Storm"


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3. Lin Yutang :“A Leaf in the Storm”

 

apart from its distinction as a novel  with the traditional virtues of strong plot, exciting narrative, varied and interesting characters (virtues it shares by War and Peace  and Gone with the Wind), A Leaf in the Storm is fascinating from a philosophical and ideological point of view since it puts Buddhism and Schopenhauer’s philosophy on trial in a most unexpected and devastating way. Currently, in the West there is a certain vogue amongst literati for a watered down version of Buddhism which envisages it as no more than a ‘philosophy’, by which we should understand an intellectual system that does not involve giving up the Western consumer life style and is certainly not to be classed as a ‘religion’, now become a dirty word. Buddhism, at its best, has always viewed itself, not as the last word on the subject, but as a sort of well of clear water from which very different travellers can quench their thirst, and there can be no doubt that the West,  desperately needs some sort of release from the interminable samsara of unfulfilling work, possession-gathering, status-seeking and sexual obsession that fills most people’s lives today. However, the uncomfortable fact is that Buddhism in both its forms, the Hinayana and Mahayana, is a deeply pessimistic and world-denying religion : this is its signal achievement, its originality, its merit and its usefulness as Schopenhauer realized more clearly than anyone before him in the West. As much try to dispel the sceptical, world-denying core of  Buddhism as try to eradicate the ideal of self-sacrifice from Christianity. What you are left with may well in both cases have its merits but is neither Buddhism nor Christianity.

            What is notable about A Leaf in the Storm is that it shows us  the Buddhist ethical ideal at its best, exemplified in the person of Lao Peng, but challenges its justice and relevance, while ultimately endorsing this same ideal in a slightly different form. Lin Yutang, the author of A Leaf in the Storm, was uniquely placed to write such a book. Born into a rural Chinese Christian family, as a young man he immersed himself in Buddhist and Taoism and eventually emigrated to America where he absorbed very different cultural influences. Extremely well-read in both traditional Chinese and modern Western literature, as well as being an inventor (he was one of the first people to design  a typewriter for Mandarin Chinese), he seems to have done the virtually impossible, namely to have taken the best from three mutually incompatible world-views. From Buddhism and Taoism he took tolerance, the search for peace of mind and a set of values which radically downgrades the ego; from Christianity he took the urge to give practical assistance to the underprivileged, and from America and the West he took individualism and romanticism. A Leaf in the Storm can be read as a dramatic and highly charged love-story (the romantic strand); it is also the story of how certain human individuals transcend selfish concerns and find satisfaction in life by devoting themselves to the community (the Christian element). Finally, it is a profound, though inconclusive,  enquiry into the human condition (the Buddhist element).

 

How did I come across A Leaf in the Wind ? By chance, in much the same way as I came across other forgotten great books such as The Black Obelisk by Remarque or Reflexions sur la Vieillesse et la Mort by Marcel Jouhandeau (that I am currently translating). A few months ago, in a room I occupy when I stay with my ‘friend’ — I don’t like the term ‘partner’ — I came across a faded old-fashioned ‘Book Club’ novel at the back of a cupboard that I was urging J  to clear out. J said it must have belonged to the people she’d stayed with when an evacuee during the war and that she’d never read it.

            As soon as I glanced idly at the first paragraph, then the first two or three pages, I was absolutely gripped and could not put the book down. The image of Poya, one of the three main characters, strolling through the outskirts of Beijing on a beautiful autumn evening, his carefree mood in stark contrast to the sombre backdrop of the Japanese Occupation during World War II, immediately captivated me. A lesser novelist would have had Poya stopped by brutal Japanese soldiers, but the peacefulness, even nonchalance, of the opening — which perfectly  balances the quiet of the close of this tragic novel —  is just what is required.

 

“He turned left to reach Lao Peng’s house, which was situated in an alley so small that a rickshaw could  barely go through.

   He  gave a few knocks on the iron rings of the closed gate and soon heard the coughing of a man approaching whom he knew to be the old servant of Lao Peng.

         ‘Who is it?’ the man called.

         ‘It’s me.’

         ‘Is it Yao shaoyeh?’

         ‘Yes.’

         The door latch was slowly drawn, to the accompaniment of a violent fit of coughing.

         ‘Is laoyeh in?’ asked Poya.

         ‘He left this morning and has not returned yet. Come in.’

(…) Poya walked across the yard into the parlour. It was a characteristically bare room, with the simplest of furniture, a cheap varnished square wooden table, a few cane chairs covered with hard cushions of dark-blue cloth, and a rickety old armchair that must have cost ten dollars secondhand at Tungan Bazaar.”

 

            It is a deft touch to have Lao Peng, the central male character, absent, for he is all the more in evidence because of this : it allows us to see the contents of the room, including his small library of books — “an odd assortment ranging from poultry and bee culture to Buddhism” — and to hear Poya’s inner thoughts about his best friend and mentor.  

 

            It transpires that Lao Peng, a failed small businessman and language teacher, is absent because he has been to a rendez-vous with Grandma Chao, the incredible sixty year old illiterate Chinese Resistance leader, and, on entering, he immediately asks Poya to advance some money to buy ammunition for the guerrillas. Add in the romantic interest when Poya confides to his friend that he is becoming increasingly captivated by the mysterious young woman with the cinnabar birth-mark behind her ear who is staying at the family home, and we have all the necessary ingredients of  a hyper romantic novel or film…

 

           

After the brooding opening, like that of a symphony by Mahler or Bruckner, the novel changes key as it shifts to the comfortable family milieu of Poya, a somewhat dandified half-Westernized Beijing intellectual, and the book becomes temporarily more like a Jane Austen or Trollope novel. It is all the more interesting to the contemporary Western reader because of this since we have few pictures of such a social ambiance, soon to be swept away for ever by Mao’s Cultural Revolution. For example, I was bemused to find that a favourite delicacy of the time, the equivalent to our Crisps, was dried ducks’ gizzards : in one scene the central character, Malin, takes one out of a glass jar and munches it for a good twenty minutes prior to the main meal. And I learn that both men and women commonly wore in winter, “quilted leg sheaths that were  tied around the ankles below and laced at the top, the seats cut away” (p. 105). Malin has some difficulty putting them on “because there was no trouser braid to which to tie the top strings since she wore foreign panties”. Another interesting detail is that, apparently, as late as the mid twentieth century, traditional ‘big-drum Storytellers’, who gave public recitations to the accompaniment of a  hand-held drum, still managed to compete successfully with Hollywood films for the attention of the Shanghai public, since Malin and her mother were mad about them.

            Throughout A Leaf in the Storm  there is the right balance struck, exactly as in Tolstoy, between interest of plot and characterization, keen social observation and philosophic speculation. However, the novel only really takes off for me with the appearance of the central character, Malin, the recapitulation of her early life in a Shanghai working-class district and her dangerous life as a penniless young woman living on the margins of society and currently pursued by the police and the Japanese.   

            Those who are sufficiently intrigued by what I have written, might be well advised to stop reading this now, and get hold of a copy of the novel either through the Library Service or via Amazon (it has long been out of print). In what follows, I cannot avoid giving away the plot which is extremely important and well managed : my concern at present  is to view A Leaf in the Storm not so much as a work of art but as a lucid voice in my exploration of the twin themes of love and war that I have been dealing with so far. As a matter of fact, it was A Leaf in the Storm which started the whole ball rolling, forcing me back to have a further look at Schopenhauer’s gloomy philosophy and ponder his powerful dichotomy between the World viewed as Will and the World viewed as Idea (or Spectacle). Then I felt I needed to re-read War and Peace and read right through, for the first time, Gone with the Wind, since I saw at once there were parallels between the storyline and setting of these three novels, and I was curious about how the very different authors approached, or evaded, the troubling underlying philosophic  issues.

            Malin, the main character in A Leaf in the Storm, at first sight strongly resembles Scarlette O’Hara. She is devastatingly attractive to men while not being a perfect beauty

 

“There was a slight defect in her eyes, which might be called a squint if it had been more, but which in her case was so slight that it gave her face an inimitable individuality, as if she was looking at the world from a special point of view of her own, as indeed she did.”

 

                                           A Leaf in the Storm, p. 28

           

            Like Scarlett she is fearless, hardy and resourceful with a certain worldly wisdom oddly (but beguilingly) mixed with high-flown romanticism. Left penniless and without a profession at the age of eighteen in mid-twentieth century Shanghai when her mother died, Malin learned to live by her wits from an early age and managed to negotiate the obvious perils such a situation represented for a beautiful young girl without this souring and hardening her character.

            She has a prominent birthmark under her right ear which one might think would be considered a defect, but, since it is of the right cinnabar colour, it is considered a rare trait of beauty and, when she is urged to change her name by Lao Peng to evade the police, they both go over various names, only to reject them as “either too literary or too common”. At length Lao Peng hits on the name ‘Tanni’, the Vermilion Maid, since it refers to this birthmark, and she accepts it at once. The change of name increasingly marks a profound change of personality, and it is anticipated, very much in cinematic style, by the very first time we see her in the book when she decides to do her hair “in a different way which left the red mark in clear view”.           

            She differs from Scarlett in being well-versed in Chinese literature and history (without having ever been to college), but above all because  she has what Scarlett O’Hara, and similar figures such as Becky Sharpe, completely lack : common humanity. The one-roomed flat where she lived with her mother faced an undertaker’s  and  

 

“she could not bear to see a child’s coffin, or a humble woman buying one for her child. ‘You kow,’ she said to Poya, ‘even in death there is a difference between the rich and the poor. Sorrow strikes deeper among the poor bereaved of their kin. Sometimes I saw rich brothers, clad in silk, come to buy an expensive coffin for their parent, bargaining as jocularly as if they were buying a piece of furniture.’ ”

 

            She is speaking to her lover, Poya, himself a rich man who, while not going quite so far as the rich brothers bargaining ‘jocularly’ over the price of a coffin, is to say the least extremely casual in his attitudes to people in distress. When she tells him about Lao Peng feeding starving refugee children, he says rather sharply — “You don’t expect me to hand out food to refugees, do you?”  

 

The Wheel of Karma 

 

The first half of A Leaf in the Storm is, in the main, an exciting adventure story which has a charm and innocence about it similar to certain Shakespearian comedies, since Malin  dresses up as a boy in her efforts to evade the police and pretends to be the nephew of Lao Peng, who himself poses as a travelling merchant. Although they pass through the outskirts of the war zone, we do not see any actual killing or even fighting. It is all somewhat like the beginning of World War II for children in England before the blitz really got going : the evacuee children relished the unaccustomed freedom of life in the country and, temporarily, found the war a stirring Enid Blighton adventure. Malin herself is a city girl  who has never even seen a mountain much to the amusement of the donkey drivers. The guerrillas they meet include swashbuckling figures straight out of Chinese folklore like Rattlesnake who sings opera tunes to the assembled villagers before leading a band of virtually unarmed peasants to rescue their women from the hands of the Japanese. And when eventually Malin gets united to her lover Poya in a hotel in war-torn Shanghai, the atmosphere is very much like that of a  Hollywood forties war movie — Casablanca with a happy ending in view. However, all this is about to be shattered into a thousand pieces and the tragic second part of the book is all the more effective for having this lengthy mainly light-hearted prelude.

            In point of fact, the leitmotif  of Buddhistic renunciation sounds as early as page 8, though we hardly notice it then.  While waiting for Lao Peng’s return in the opening scene, Poya idly opens a book and comes across the story of Ananda and Pchiti. Ananda, traditionally the Buddha’s favourite disciple, is doing the rounds with his begging bowl and comes to the house of the beautiful prostitute Maudenka. Her daughter, Pchiti, is attracted to him and she persuades her mother to cast a love spell over him. Ananda, bewitched, enters her room :

 

“The Lord Buddha had known all along what was happening to Ananda and now called Manjusri and bade him repeat the great Dharani at the place where Ananda was yielding to temptation. As soon as Mansruji reached the house, the magic spell was broken and Ananda regained his self-control. Mansruji encouraged Ananda and Pchiti and they returned with him to meet the Lord Buddha.” 

 

            I found the parable tiresome in its moralism the first time round  — there is, incidentally, plenty of this kind of stuff in Buddhist hagiography. It seemed to strike a false note, though with hindsight I see that it encapsulates much of what will come to pass during the course of the novel. Note the odd ending, quite different to a Christian morality tale : instead of being punished as one might expect, the pair are not only pardoned but rewarded, since “they return with him [Mansruji] to meet the Lord Buddha”.

            The climax of the first half , and the hinge-pin of the entire  book since it leads on to the dramatic change from the personality of Malin to that of Tanni, is the Shanghai dance-hall scene where Malin comes across Poya dancing with another woman, Sianghun, and the pair pretend they do not recognize her. This is not an ordinary betrayal. Malin, who has only returned to Shanghai in order to meet Poya and, hopefully, get married to him, is being sought not only by the Japanese authorities but also by the Chinese Resistance because of her previous association with a prominent Chinese traitor who had used her name, Tsui Malin, without her knowledge, to receive and transmit letters. In reality, when she found out what was happening, she denounced him  to a Resistance group and fled to Beijing (where she meets Poya). However, a newspaper report accused her of making off with the man’s jewellery and of complicity in the whole affair. Back in Shanghai for the first time since these events, Malin keeps strictly to her hotel room where she is registered as the niece of Lao Peng, and anxiously awaits the arrival of Poya who has a family house in Shanghai. He is delayed but eventually reaches Shanghai and visits Malin clandestinely in order to keep her presence there a secret from his family, especially his wife. At this stage Poya does not know about Malin’s past involvement with various men in Shanghai including the Chinese collaborateur. They visit a dance-hall together where Malin introduces him to Sianghun, a young woman Malin knows from their common past as paid dancing partners, and who works there still in this capacity. After the meeting, back in Malin’s hotel room, Malin and Poya formally plight troth Chinese fashion  by writing their names on two scrolls of red silk, promising to love each other “until the rocks decay and the seas dry up”. This pledge is not just play acting since by Chinese law at the time, once witnessed and presented to a lawyer (as subsequently happens), it becomes legally binding. It looks as if Malin’s fortunes have changed for good.

            However, the following day Poya is escorted to the house of a Shanghai godfather figure, Mr. Tung, who has put his organisation at the service of the Chinese Resistance and in particular arranges for the assassination of prominent Chinese collaborateurs. He tells Poya that Malin is on his list and asks if he knows her and where she is living. Poya makes an evasive reply but from this point onwards, since he knows he is being followed, he does not go to see Malin or telephone her. The following day he decides to go to the dance-hall in question to warn Sianghun to say nothing to anyone about Malin’s presence in Shanghai. Malin, now known as Tanni,  naturally, cannot understand what is happening and, fatally as it turns out, she suggests to a peasant girl, Yumei, who is living with her, that they go to a dance-hall (which the latter has never seen) to pass the time.

            The scene is brilliantly described : we see the well-dressed fashionable people, both European and Chinese, desperately seeking pleasure in the midst of war (just as many people did in Paris under the German Occupation) while starving refugees throng the streets outside. Just after Tanni and Yumei arrive, five half-naked Russian women dancers perform somersaults in the middle of an applauding crowd — “Shames one to death”, says the outspoken peasant girl Yumei, “but it is beautiful”. By ill luck, Poya is dancing with Sianghun telling her about the situation, and he knows that agents of the Underworld are there watching him so he has no choice but to pretend not to recognize Tanni and the pair walk coldly by pretending they do not know her.

 

“Tanni sat stupefied, her hands cold and numb.

      The band struck up the St. Louis Blues. The lights dimmed, and the huge glass in the ceiling was turning round and round, throwing its coloured points of light on the jostling crowd. Tanni heard the mad squeals of the saxophones.

      With her senses heightened by anger, Tanni saw what others in the room did not see. They were living in a madhouse inhabited by madly whirling shadows of grotesque human shapes — puny shadows wearing masks which covered emptiness within, going around in that giddy swirl. The music was shrieking its own emptiness in a wild ecstasy of destruction. Everything crashed, reeled, shrieked, swam before her like that infernal music and the ghostly faces of men and the white arms of women suddenly became very small, as we sometimes see the room before us when we sit up too long at night… The people were dancing like automatons without a heart, except one bleeding heart that was her own.”

 

            So far the above passage might have come from any number of Western writers, though one should note the repetition of the term ‘emptiness’ which has strong Buddhistic connotations. But what follows would not have come from a Western novelist : this is not just a moment of heartbreak and disillusionment, as it would be in a contemporary film, but a moment of enlightenment in the  Buddhistic sense, a moment when the true nature of life in the world becomes apparent, and not only in a negative sense :  

 

“The feeling that all was over brought her a strange inward feeling of peace within, like calm on the sea after a violent storm.  (…) Tanni knew the beauty of the human form. But at that moment she saw human nature in all its naked brutality, and seeing it after her sharp impression of a human madhouse a moment ago, she saw the folly and futility and incompleteness of her past life, the life of the senses that she had known so well.”  

                                             A Leaf in the Storm,  pp. 218-9

 

            That night, returning to her hotel room with Yumei, she has a dream which she recounts to Yumei

“I ran on and on and I suddenly realized that I was naked and that many men were chasing after me. I was rolling along very fast, more like skating than like running , and soon I was rolling on a big waterwheel and my body was attached to the wheel, and it went round and round and my body with it going backwards, and there were many people watching me, some of them, laughing and some of them admiring my body.”

                                             A Leaf in the Storm,  p. 211

 

A little later the wheel grinds to a halt and she manages to get off it.

 

“I landed suddenly on my feet. And who do you think I saw…. Lao Peng. He was in a monk’s robe and staring at me. And we went along the road hearing the squeak of the water wheel behind me. We went up a hill and stood on the top and looked down the valley, and he said to me: ‘Look there. That is the Wheel of Karma!’ And I saw the wheel turning, with a big word ‘Nieh’ [Karma] in the centre, and there were still many naked women tied to it. Then I saw there were many other wheels in the valley and they kept turning with many women on them. ‘Was I turning like that?’ I asked, and Lao Peng said: ‘Yes’.”

                                

                                             A Leaf in the Storm,  p. 223

             

            Tanni burns the wedding pledge and also, to the peasant girl Yumei’s emphatic approval, the brassières which are now seen as a symbol of Westernisation and ‘emancipation’ in a negative sense.      

      Then “Tanni lost interest in her body”. It has become fashionable, even politically correct, to view sex in an entirely favourable light and to dismiss fears about it becoming too powerful in society as old-fashioned rubbish and superstition. But there is a fatal ambivalence about sex, mankind’s most powerful instinct since it can even overcome the instinct for self-preservation. Even if sex is not inevitably associated with aggression (which it all too frequently is in imagination if not in fact) it is certainly linked to competitive display and jostling for position. One moment it may appear to lead to a Garden of Delights, at another one feels there is something almost demonic about it — one has only to look at the porn on the Internet to obtain both impressions simultaneously.  

            The dance-hall scene is immediately followed by a chapter where the narrator/author, coming forward for the first time,  gives scarcely credible examples of the depravity of the Japanese military (without dwelling on them unnecessarily) and raises, without resolving it, the question of the nature and origin of  human evil. The sensuality displayed at the dance-hall which suddenly appears to Tanni as something maniacal, is paralleled by the ‘ecstasies’ of physical sadism in which the Japanese soldiers indulge themselves and indeed mix with sex. The two extremes are seemingly both part and parcel of the same eternal round of birth, suffering, death and rebirth from which the only escape is the Buddhist  Nirvana.

 

Salvation through Action

 

And yet not so. Lin Yutang, brought up as a Christian, is not content with this essentially passive and inactive avenue towards salvation, and Malin/Tanni is too vital a character to make a good Buddhist, at this stage in her life at any rate. She leaves Shanghai immediately after the dance-hall scene (refusing to listen to Poya’s explanations on the telephone) and eventually traces Lao Peng to where he is qworking for the Buddhist Red Cross. They find an abandoned mansion near Henkow where no one goes because it is supposed to be haunted, and turn it into a centre for refugees. At first, she shows some interest in Buddhist teachings partly because they must in some way explain the enigma of Lao Peng himself, — “You have the secret of being happy,” she says to him, “Is it your Buddhism? Why did you never explain it to me?” Lao Peng says that religion “has nothing to do with learning, it is an inner experience”. Nonetheless, Tanni finds some of the doctrines strange and incredible : what she takes from Buddhism is not its otherworldliness but its compassion.       

            Tannu thus finds a different sort of happiness in useful, charitable actions : she is revered by the odd assortment of waifs and strays who make up the refugee community as a sort of Mother Theresa and they call her Kuanyin chiehchieh after the Chinese Goddess of Mercy. karma leads on to salvation through karma — the term originally just meant ‘action’, ‘activity’.  She is so changed from the former Malin that Lao Peng scarcely recognizes her at first  :

 

“The final shock had not only shattered her hope but had changed her attitude toward all romance. Defeated once more, and acknowledging defeat with a sad finality, she also seemed to have transcended love.”   

 

                                                A Leaf in the Storm   p. 231

 

            At one point it even looks as if, having renounced personal human love for communal, eros for agape, she will, by a kind of positive ‘poetic justice’, get human love thrown into the bargain, since Poya eventually manages to get a letter through to her explaining the tragic misunderstanding in the dance-hall which she accepts.

            A lesser author would have left things there, and we would have had a happy ending. This would be emotionally more satisfying than what actually happens, but the book would have been a far less subtle and penetrating one. However, before tracing Tanni’s further development, it is time to turn the spotlight on the two men with whom she is irrevocably involved, Poya and Lao Peng.

respect from other people.

 

Poya

 

“He [Poya] was young and tall and called handsome, brought up in all the luxury of a large, rich family, with cultivated tastes in art, literature and the pleasures of living…. ”

 

Although one hesitates to say he has ‘peace of mind’, since one hopes there is more to it than that, he has the sort of easy indifference which one associates with certain Roman aristocrats. He views everything including the Japanese Occupation and even his own love affairs dispassionately, as if it concerned other people rather than himself. (This is how the ancient philosophers and certain types of Buddhists were encouraged to view life.) He fancies himself as a military strategist and indeed his ideas, based apparently on the actual deployment  of Chiang-kai-chek’s armies, are by no means stupid. But he feels no desire to volunteer himself — strangely enough there was no conscription in China at the time — though he does eventually, through his connections, procure himself a job well away from the front surveying the terrain for the building of a great road for the retreating  army. He treats it more as a means of visiting celebrated Chinese beauty spots and historical sites than a serious contribution to the war effort.      

            If this were all there were to him, he would not be the stuff to fill a good deal of this novel. But there are two things which mark him out from the average educated, wealthy Westernised Chinese of his time and which are both related to his family background. 

            A certain respect for, and hankering after, ‘true love’, despite a life of casual philandering, no doubt owes something to the tragic incidents of his childhood. In what was most likely a typical incident amongst wealthy Chinese families of the time, Poya’s grandmother, who disapproved of her son marrying a servant-girl for love, drove Poya’s mother out of the house when the grandfather was absent, kidnapped the child and refused the mother entrance to the house. The latter committed suicide when Poya was still a child. Also, typically, the grandmother became tormented, not exactly with remorse, but fear of being pursued by her dead daughter-in-law’s ghost.  Another member of the family, Red Jade, committed suicide for love and so, with hindsight, it is not quite so surprising that this seemingly superficial and self-satisfied Beijing intellectual eventually carries out a supreme act  of self-sacrifice at the close of the book.

            The second strand comes from his grandfather and is what connects him to Lao Peng.  

 

“[But] with all Poya’s mental gifts and polish and savoir-vivre and worldly understanding of women, he had a touch of mysticism which he inherited from his grandfather. This …. enabled him at once to understand the different character of his friend’s genius. Old Peng had all but saved him from becoming a cynic, which would have been the development of a young man of his intelligence and circumstances.”                    A Leaf in the Storm   (page 5)


Lao Peng

 

Lao Peng is introduced to us in the very first scene as someone truly remarkable which indeed he turns out to be.

           

“Poya sat down in the creaky armchair, picking up the newspaper which lay on it, intending to read. But soon he let the sheets slip from his hand and fall to the floor. He sat reflecting on a mystery, more important to him than the war news. Ever since he had come to know Lao Peng a few years ago, the man had fascinated him. It seemed unbelievable that in this bare room lived a great man in obscurity, the only perfectly happy man he knew, without wife and children. A man who had found himself, ‘without fear and without worry,’ as Confucius described the gentleman.”                        

 

                                               A Leaf in the Storm  p.3

 

            Lao Peng’s imperturbability is not destroyed by the war, though we are told there was a period when he and Poya  would spend their evenings “drinking in sorro w” as they called it, ending up weeping  as they talked about the disastrous retreat of the Twenty-ninth Army and the abandonment of Biejing to the Japanese. Lao Peng is too naturally ‘good’ a person, and also too commonsensical, to blithely ignore the human tragedy all around him , dismissing it as ‘illusory’ along with the rest of physical reality, or as other people’s karma. Instead, he devotes what remains of his small fortune to helping refugees and supporting Grandma Chao’s guerrillas. “You will feel better,” he says to Poya, “travelling and seeing the people and doing things. (…) It was silly how we used to drink and weep.” Though he does not actually fight, he aids people who do and the moral issue of whether, as a practising Buddhist, committed to pacifism, he should support armed resistance does not apparently bother him unduly.     

            In the eyes of Poya and Tanni, and many other people who come across him, Lao Peng seems to have achieved what so many philosophers and writers like Rimbaud spent their lives searching for, “la clef du bonheur”, the ‘key to happiness’.  

 

“ ‘You are a happy man, aren’t you?’ asked Tanni. The fascination of this middle-aged man was strong upon her.

‘Happy?’ he said. ‘I have no worries and I have a clear conscience, if that is what you mean.’ ”

                                             A Leaf in the Storm  p. 239

 

            The lack of false modesty or diffidence in his reply makes a pleasant contrast to what a Christian, with his eternal guilt complex, would have said in reply. Lao Peng actually convinces us that he is not only a ‘good’ person but someone one would actually want to meet. He has something of Gandhi in him but, great man though Gandhi was, I do not think I would have particularly wanted to meet him. Lao Peng does not have anything cranky, or even especially striking,  about him : he is, as ‘enlightenment’ is supposed to be, ‘nothing special’.

            But as it happens, Lao Peng is standing on the edge of a precipice. At the beginning, he is not troubled by Malin, as a beautiful young woman,  except inasmuch as he fears for her since, as a Buddhist, he knows that this passion between her and Poya is bound to lead to sorrow.

 

“He could understand why his friend was enchanted with her. He had known many young men and women and heard stories of their romances. There was always something pathetic about love and romance — the greater the love, the more tragic the romance. (…) And so when he saw Malin’s bright eyes and heard her pleasing voice, he felt a kind of pity that those eyes and that voice controlled a destiny that she must live through.”

 

                                                A Leaf in the Storm, p. 109

 

            However, this turns out to be a moment of hubris. The forty-five year old Lao Peng, whose wife is dead, sincerely thinks he has got  beyond the attraction of the senses, a dangerous illusion for anyone to have as the early Christians found to their cost. “His mind classified feminine charms with the desires of the senses, and he saw not a lovely girl before him, but a woman in the abstract” (p. 109). Lao Peng is not in the least the repressed puritan who projects his inner torment onto the world around him and takes it out on other people, especially women, either in reality or in imagination. Lao Peng genuinely means it when he says, “We must not judge”. By Victorian standards — and mid-century China within the well-to-do families can only be compared to Victorian England — Malin was a thoroughly scandalous person who had been the mistress of several older men at a young age and was believed (though wrongly) to have run away with the money and jewels of one of her lovers. As Malin senses, Poya, like most male philanderers, is far from having a liberal attitude towards women on the sexual level (except, of course, where his own advantage is concerned), and for this reason she keeps back details of her previous life from him. But she has no hesitation in telling Lao Peng everything — “She felt that if anybody would understand her, Lao Peng would. She felt at ease with him as she was not with Poya”.

            During their flight together from Beijing — Poya remains in the capital and does not know what is going on exactly — Lao Peng is thrown into intimate contact with Malin day and night but both of them handle the situation with good sense and discretion. People of the present era may simply say, or think, “Why the hell doesn’t he just take the girl?”  But there are serious issues involved, far more serious than passing sexual satisfaction. Apart from anything else, Lao Peng is Poya’s best friend and he has entrusted Malin into his care. “He found himself under the obligation to take her to Shanghai for Poya. The attitude dictated by old tradition was that ‘a friend’s wife should never be taken advantage of’’”.

            Apart from that, any sexual involvement would, one feels, ruin everything. As it is, there is something of a children’s escapade about the situation especially since Malin, like a Shakespearian heroine, is dressed up as a boy. The relationship has a genuineness and a charm which the Hollywood romance with Poya entirely lacks. Added to this, they are both in serious danger and, as time goes on, are united by their joint charitable work in the ruined house they turn into a refuge for old people and orphans. All this takes Malin away from Poya more irrevocably than the latter’s apparent betrayal, though she does not realize this for a long time. 

            As it happens, it is not simply the sexual attractiveness of Malin that troubles Lao Peng — he would have been repelled by Scarlett O’Hara or Becky Sharpe — it is  the combination of sex appeal with her trusting and affectionate behaviour towards him. He has enough self-knowledge to admit, to himself, that he is not so much of an ascetic as she and Poya think he is. For most of the novel the ups and downs of their life fleeing from the Japanese and running the orphan hostel in the keep them busy enough for the situation not to become too intolerable. However, once Tanni discovers that she is pregnant (from Poya) Lao Peng offers to marry her “for the child’s sake”. This is a point of no return, not from the marriage point of view which soon proves to be no longer necessary since Poya finally succeeds in making contact by letter  and explains the circumstances of his apparent betrayal which Tanni eventually accepts.

            But Lao Peng has revealed himself. The real drama in the latter part of the book is not the commonplace eternal triangle situation, but the inner drama within Lao Peng himself. This is one of the things which takes the book completely out of the normal run of such stories.  For Lao Peng has lost what, in Poya’ eyes, and in Tanni’s, made him unique, his peace of mind that they both sense has something to do with his strange Buddhist beliefs. He coped with the war and, even had he been captured by the Japanese, would doubtless have inspired his fellow prisoners in much the same way as Pierre does in War and Peace when he is taken prisoner during the disastrous French retreat from Moscow.

 

“Suddenly he felt the supreme irony of it — to be caught in the meshes of passion, at forty-five? What was love? Where was the border between the natural affection of congenial and devoted friends and the deeply personal love between man and woman? How unconvincing the theory of Buddha’s impersonal love seemed now! Certainly he had come to love Tanni as a person. How else should it be?  To abolish personal hatred was easier than to abolish personal love. If the assumption of self and individuality was the origin of all struggle and all hatred, it was also the strongest basis of our sentient life. He loved Tanni as a person; it was useless for him to think of her as an abstract woman….”

 

                                 A Leaf in the Storm,  p. 303

 

 

            Yet it is precisely as  an ‘abstract woman’, not as a person, that the Stoic sage, the Christian saint and the Buddhist bodhisattva is supposed to love someone : this is rising above the ‘principle of individuality’ and seeing the world as Idea, not as Will. 

                    

            As if to add insult to injury, parallel to Lao Peng’s turmoil, we have the tragic-comic situation of Poya back in Shanghai embarking on a casual affair with Tanni’s old friend, Siangyun. Siangyun, a sympathetic character, while not being exactly a courtesan makes a precarious living, as Tanni once did herself, as a dance-hall hostess and occasional mistress of well-to-do married men. She has a worldly wisdom which would appear cynicism in someone else, but in her case inspires respect. At this moment in time, Poya has not heard from Tanni or Lao Peng for over two months. Siangyun tells Poya that they must certainly be living together.

 

“ ‘You shut up!’ said Poya angrily. ‘You don’t know Lao Peng. He is my friend.’

   ‘I have never yet seen a man who could resist a woman,’ she said. ‘Not even a monk.’ ”

         Siangun had a fund of droll stories making fun of the monks, over which she laughed as she told them. They always played upon the same theme, of the reputed sainthood of men and women, especially of the Taoist immortals and sainted widows, and always ended with a shattering climax.”

        

                                                     A Leaf in the Storm, p. 285

 

            This is very to the point and, once again, takes A Leaf in the Storm right outside the usual ‘romantic’ story which certain other passages might lead the reader to believe it is. Poya is hardly in a position to contest Siangyun’s views, since he himself has started this quite unnecessary affair when he is supposed to be ‘eternally’ in love with Tanni. It is, moreover, an affair on the cheap since he does not bring her expensive presents and “when he gave her a hundred dollars she thanked him in a way that was almost humiliating” — in the context her ‘thanks’ were doubtless ironical. It is Siangyun, who flaunts  a cynical worldly-wise philosophy, or rather makes an attempt to do so, who is in reality the victim of Poya. There is even something of the detestable Clare of Tess of the d’Urbervilles about Poya — scratch a serial seducer and you will find, if not a puritan, at least a traditionalist.   

               

The Dénouement

 

The eternal triangle is ‘resolved’, if one can call it that, by the mutual self-sacrifice of all of the characters involved — somewhat in the manner of  Racine’s Bérénice.

            Poya eventually makes contact with Lao Peng and Tanni in the refugee house near Henkow and tells Tanni that he has had their marriage vows legalised and is about to divorce his wife, Kainan, a superficial and self-satisfied creature with whom it is impossible to have much sympathy. He does not know that Tanni is pregnant, but it would seem that this Chinese wartime romance is set after all for a happy ending and Tanni is even visited by a member of the Yao family, Mulan,  who is sympathetically inclined towards her, while knowing something of her past, and who facilitates the marriage as much as she can.

            The first person to sacrifice himself, or at any rate his emotions and aspirations, is Lao Peng who leaves the refugee home in Tanni’s care, ostensibly to move into the interior nearer the war zone. Tanni, however, knows that he is removing himself so as not to impede her marriage.

 

“This great-hearted man was now without a question taking himself out of the way as unselfishly as he had offered to protect her name before the word from Poya came. (…) The sacrifice on his part touched her more deeply even than his offer to be father to her child.”

                                             A Leaf in the Storm, p. 321/339

 

            This personal act is set against a backdrop of the newfound, stubborn resistance of the Chinese to the Japanese. In the first part  of the book, what fighting there is, which we do not see at close quarters anyway, is  of the Robin Hood variety and this matches the mood of the ‘romance’, if such it can be called, of Malin and Lao Peng travelling incognito through the countryside with Malin dressed up as a boy. But in the second part, the war becomes a much more serious and ugly business as the civilians are bombarded mercilessly and millions of starving refugees throng the roads and rivers of eastern China. Lao Peng and Tanni themselves narrowly escape death in a bombardment and the refugee hostel itself is hit. The self-sacrifice of Lao Peng and eventually Tanni and Poya also, on the personal plane is matched by the increasing heroism and self-sacrifice of the Chinese soldiers, the guerrillas and ordinary civilians.

 

“Eight hundred volunteers came forward, when three hundred were asked for, to form a suicide squad, and they captured by hand-grenade fighting the Changtoushan Hill immediately north of Taierchuang. (…) The first historic victory over Japan had been promised and delivered.

         On April 7th, Wuchang was in uproar. At half-past seven, Miss Tuan came to the refugee home like a mad person, bringing news of the victory which she had heard by radio.”

 

            Tanni herself leaves to go nearer to the front to gather orphan children but takes the opportunity to visit Lao Peng and finds him alone and ill in a hotel near the war zone.

 

“He was soundly asleep. (…) Lightly and noiselessly she approached his bedside and stood looking at this man who in her eyes was without fear and without reproach, who had done so much for her and now had come to live in solitude on her account.”

                                             A Leaf in the Storm, p. 353

            Tanni realizes that, now that everything is prepared for her, she does not want to live the sort of life that Poya could give her. During this scene, which cannot  be given in detail, the true nature of their feelings for each other is revealed. However, Lao Peng insists on her going through with her marriage to Poya, probably rightly, and the situation seems impossible when eventually Poya arrives. He is at first somewhat irritating, even to Tanni, by his casual behaviour and he takes Tanni and Lao Peng as well on a sort of sight-seeing trip to a place well known in Chinese history and folklore which happens to be on the edge of the war zone. He has realized by now what the situation is between Tanni and Lao Peng and has learned a lot about their life in the refugee hostel. Tanni is now becoming conspicuously pregnant and the marriage has to be speeded up. They happen to come by chance to a spot where there is still sporadic fighting and Lao Peng leaves them to make his own way back along the canal, Tanni and Poya being on a bicycle. Poya sees that Tanni is sobbing because she fears that Lao Peng might die getting back. But then there is a clatter of hooves and a small group of twelve Japanese cavalry come riding across the field. Poya gets up from their cover, stands there in the middle of the road, aims at the horsemen and kills three before he is fatally wounded himself.

 

“She bent over him, calling his name between her sobs.

         “Tanni, don’t cry,” he said in a gasping whisper. “Marry Lao Peng.” He stopped and began again with great effort. “All my money is yours. Bring up the child.” Pointing to his pocket, he said with a last smile: “It is there. Our pledge!” “

                                

                                                         A Leaf in the Storm, p. 381

 

 

          This self-sacrifice of the apparently superficial and unreliable Poya is not, as we find out later, a quixotic spur-of-the-moment act. Tanni later has the opportunity to see his Diary where he discloses his feelings about the situation, and writes notably

 

“Oh, what a fool I have been! Lien-erh [Tanni] must be quite a changed person. She has gone beyond me. I must yet try to understand her better — this Buddhism and her interest in the war work. I feel almost unworthy of her.”

 

  This supreme act of self-sacrifice, all the more impressive because it comes from a character with whom one has lost sympathy, is followed by an equivalent act of self-sacrifice by Tanni. She is given the free choice by the Yao family to get married posthumously “before Poya’s spirit-tablet in the presence of the closest relatives”, in which case the child will be legitimate but this will condemn her to life-long widowhood. It is made clear that financial arrangements should be no part of the decision since the family is committed to providing well for the child in any case. Tanni has to show her decision be the next day wearing either a blue or a white knot in her hair — white being the colour of mourning in China. She is in effect free to marry Lao Peng at last but, true to character, he advises her to accept the marriage

 

“ “Courage, Tanni! You will soon have your baby and he will fill your life. Lose yourself in work for others and you will find that greater happiness which is above the sorrows of our individual lives.”

            “Can I still join you in your work?”

            “Why not? After this, both you and I must find a higher happiness.” ”

                                             A Leaf in the Storm, p. 390

 

 

            Buddhism is a religion of withdrawal and compassion but not a religion of active charity and self-sacrifice. By a combination of the best of the two religions, Lin Yutang concludes the novel — ending that is sombre but not tragic. It is quite the opposite of the ending of Gone with the Wind since in the latter romanticism triumphs, or attempts to at any rate, and different from the ending of War and Peace which is somewhat bathetic though we do have the young Prince Andrei raising the banner of idealism in the last scene. On the other hand, Lin Yutang has an easier task since he has chosen not to show us what happens ‘twenty years after’.

           

“A calm settled over the refugee house at Hungshan. Lao Peng and Tanni found in their common devotion a happiness which they ahd not thought possible.

   Not far away was Poya’s grave. Above it stood an ep[itaph chosen by Tanni and approved by Lao Peng. It was a non-Buddhist, but curiously universal text :

   Greater man hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.     

 

 

 

                                               

 

A Forgotten Novel : "A Leaf in the Storm"


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“A Leaf in the Storm”  by Lin Yutang

 

this strikes me as being a great book, and there are probably not more than a dozen or so novels about which I would say this. On reading the final pages alone in a carriage on the way to London, I actually found myself bursting into tears.   

      Why do I find this forgotten book, discovered by chance at the back of a cupboard in a friend’s house, so interesting and moving?

      Let us deal with the more superficial reasons first. The author, Lin Yutang, was a twentieth century Chinese man who eventually emigrated to America and wrote fluently in both English and Chinese. As a highly cultured individual who embraced Western literature and ideas while retaining deep interest in traditional Chinese art and philosophy, he was very much a man who straddled two worlds, and we have very few articulate accounts of people like this. Moreover, unlike the author of  The Three Swans, he has no particular axe to grind which makes his book, though dealing with a chapter in Chinese history if anything even more dreadful  than Mao’s Cultural  Revolution, a much more humane and inspiring book. The modernization of China had in fact been going on apace for more than fifty years before Mao ever came to power : China’s  ‘Cultural Revolution’ should, in a sense, be backdated to Sun Yat Sen’s time for it was in the early twentieth century that Western ideas and mores really began to powerfully affect the Chinese people.

            As a realistic — but not naturalistic — novel there are plenty of details about how Chinese of all classes during the mid-twentieth century period actually lived, what clothes they wore, what furniture they possessed, how they travelled  and what sort of things they ate. I was bemused, for example, to find that a favourite delicacy of the time, the equivalent to our Crisps, was dried ducks’ gizzards : in one scene the central character, Malin, takes one out of a glass jar and munches it for a good twenty minutes prior to the main meal. And I learn that both men and women commonly wore in winter, “quilted leg sheaths that were  tied around the ankles below and laced at the top, the seats cut away” (p. 105). Malin has some difficulty putting them on “because there was no trouser braid to which to tie the top strings since she wore foreign panties”. And I learn that, as late as the mid twentieth century, traditional “big-drum Storytellers” in Shanghai still managed to compete successfully with Hollywood films for the attention of the urban public. At the same time the Shanghai young Chinese women seem to have been amazingly ‘modern’, far more so, to judge by certain scenes in the novel, than their equivalents in, say, Italy during the same era.  

            For all that, I would like to think that, even if I were a contemporary Chinese man or woman, to whom many of these everyday details would be a good deal less strange, the novel would still have much the same effect on me. As a love story acted out against the backdrop of war, A Leaf in the Storm makes one think immediately of War and Peace on the one hand or Gone with the Wind on the other. Though a good deal shorter than these two epics, and marred by a slow beginning, in many ways it stands up quite well against these mammoth best-sellers.

          A Leaf in the Storm tells a highly romantic story and   could easily be turned into a tremendous Hollywood film — quite as good as Titanic  — but it is also a novel with an underlying  philosophy and message. The implicit ethic is an ethic of self-sacrifice, but not taken to a masochistic or suicidal extreme : Lao Peng even departs from the strict non-violence of traditional Buddhism by actively aiding the insurgency, and we feel that, in the circumstances, this is entirely right. The principle of self-sacrifice is something that has completely disappeared from western society, especially since the decline  and fall of Christianity, and the result is a  culture of  self-indulgence and self-seeking whose baleful results are only too obvious today. A Leaf in the Storm  is, philosophically, a strange mish-mash of Buddhist, Christian and Romantic ideas  but it is an impressive and entirely successful mixture.  Lin Yutang, the author, was brought up as a Christian but later immersed himself in Taoism and Buddhism, while his literary tastes, Chinese and European, were clearly Romantic. The Buddhist in him counters the intolerance of Christianity, the Christian in him offsets the abstractness and lack of warmth of Buddhism, and the Romantic in him makes him, at moments, sweep aside impatiently both Christian and Buddistic morality, at any rate where ‘love’ is concerned.

            A Leaf in the Storm is notable in that it presents us with a genuinely ‘good’ person, Lao Peng, who is both convincing, likeable and even interesting! Novelists and scriptwriters have serious problems with ‘good’ characters since audiences and readers, especially women, so obviously prefer violent and masterful characters like Heathcliffe or Scarlett O’Hara (without even mentioning  debased film ‘heroes’ such as James Bond and Rambo). Dostoevsky gets round this by making his good characters physically or socially disfavoured — Prince Myshkin is an epileptic and Sonia a poor prostitute. But this has always struck me as being an easy way out and is one of the reasons why Dostoevsky is markedly inferior to Tolstoy as a writer and thinker, at any rate the Tolstoy of War and Peace. As for Dickens, his ‘good’ characters, with one or two exceptions, tend to be either implausible or silly, or both at once. But Lao Peng, the unassuming  middle aged Buddhist comes over as someone one would actually like to meet — whereas I am not sure I would have enjoyed meeting Gandhi.

 

         “Beijing did not know Lao Peng. He had done nothing extraordinary. His outward life had been one failure after another. But ever since he [Poya] came to know him, the man had fascinated him. It seemed unbelievable that in this bare room lived a great man in obscurity, the only perfectly happy man that he knew, without wife and children. He was a man ‘without fear and without worry’ — Confucius’ definition of the gentleman.”

 

            A Leaf in the Storm also has some tremendous minor characters straight out of Chinese folklore (though for all that perfectly credible) such as Grandma Chao, an innocuous looking, illiterate Chinese woman of sixty, who runs single-handed a vast guerrilla network, or, at the opposite extreme, the swashbuckling, boastful guerrilla leader known as Rattlesnake.

            Unlike most serious western novels, there are no villains in A Leaf in the Storm — Lin Yutang does not need them — except, of course, the faceless and ubiquitous Japanese invaders. Sex is present but kept in its rightful place and Lin Yutang thankfully spares us the tiresome descriptions of intercourse that a contemporary novelist, even more so a film director, would consider de rigueur.      

            Many great novels have disappointing endings and I for one wish Tolstoy  had never written the bathotic Epilogue to War and Peace where the two main characters who survive the war, Natasha and Pierre, turn into a tiresome middle-aged couple : it seems hardly worth having gone through so much to end up with so little.  

            A Leaf in the Storm ends in a surprising and thoroughly satisfying manner, neither tragic nor happy exactly, and the great thing is that we feel that each of the three main characters really has learned something from his or her experiences and is a better person at the end than he or she was at the beginning (even Lao Peng). Of all novels known to me, A Leaf in the Storm strikes me as the one of which Schopenhauer would have most approved. The main characters pass from the turbulence that comes from subjection to the World as Will to the serenity, inevitably mixed with sadness, that comes from renunciation of the individual Will and everything that goes with it.

 

“ ‘What about you?’ she asked feebly.

‘I shall carry on my refugee work. Try to remember the vision you had at the Chenghow hotel. Courage, Tanni. After this, both you and I must try to find a higher happiness. (…) Lose yourself in work for others and you will find that greater happiness which is above the sorrows of our individual lives.’”  

                                 A Leaf in the Storm, p. 390