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Sunday, March 21, 2004

THE ASIAN BOOKSHELF

Paradise to asylum, the city for storytellers


SHANGHAI STATION, by Bartle Bull. New York: Carroll & Graf Publishers, 2004, 340 pp., $26 (cloth).

A full listing of novels and short stories set in the International Settlement of Shanghai between the first and second world wars, and then again up to China's 1949 revolution, would fill a book in itself. The city's reputation as a paradise for adventurers, however, largely masked its status as a haven for waves of refugees who fled to the city from China's own internal strife; from the civil war in Russia; and from Nazi Germany. Most lived in abject misery.

"Shanghai Station" tells the story of two members of the Russian aristocracy who fled to Shanghai in the wake of the Russian Revolution. In the autumn of 1918, Young Alexander Karlov abandons his family estate to the approaching Bolshevik forces and accompanies his mother and sister to Vladivostok, where his father, in command of czarist troops, awaits them. En route, their Trans-Siberian train is attacked by Communist forces. In the fray, Alexander's mother is killed, his sister is abducted and he receives a crippling leg injury during a struggle with Viktor Polyak, a brutal Bolshevik agent.

Count Dmitri Karlov is reunited with his injured son in Vladivostok and the two depart by ship, together with a brigade of soldiers and the count's favorite horse. They head for Shanghai in the hope that a distant relative will help them get established in a new life. Karlov pere et fils attempt to pull themselves up by their bootstraps in Shanghai's European society, parlaying their recently honed military skills into a commercial fencing and riding academy.

Alexander, although partially crippled, shows his metier as a swordsman and soon forms a romantic relationship with Jessica James, the daughter of American missionary parents. Jessica, Alexander soon discovers, has been imbued with revolutionary spirit. Upon witnessing the consumption of a live monkey's brain at a Chinese restaurant -- a feast that almost certainly never could have happened in reality -- the radical Jessica pontificates: "That's why the Communists are right. . . . All these old barbaric ways have to stop. Everything. Selling children. Eating live animals. Beheadings. Cannibalism. The Reds will change it all."

Shanghai, too, is ripe for revolution, and the Karlovs are soon haunted not only by such reminders of the country they just left, but by the re-appearance of the evil Victor Polyak, who is now in China to spread Marxism. And who persuades Jessica to work for him as a messenger. A succession of intrigues lead to repeated clashes and the story's melodramatic finale.

Despite a great deal of research that went into its writing, "Shanghai Station" is not without flaws. The use of the hanyu pinyin romanization for Chinese personal names, adopted from the late 1950s, detracts from the book's historical flavor. And the song "Tea for Two" was composed by Irving Caesar, not Irving Berlin.

The book's chronology is largely left to the reader's speculation. Based on actual historical events, the first Comintern agent was dispatched to Shanghai by Moscow in 1923, and "Tea for Two" was released in 1924. These minor shortcomings aside, it's still a better-than-average work.



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