Non-fiction – Kindle edition; Vintage Classics; 137 pages; 2010.
This is one of those books I probably would never have bothered reading had it not been for two important facts: it was a free download from manybooks.net and it was about China.
What I hadn’t clocked when I first began reading it was this: there is no narrative thread holding this book together. It is merely a collection of pen-portraits of various people, mainly expat officials, that Somerset Maugham met on his travels through China in the early 1920s.
There are 58 short sketches in total, and while each one is expertly and vividly drawn, it does not make for an effortless read because it is simply too disjointed. It’s almost like reading someone’s notebook rather than a published book.
Its importance, I guess, is more as an historical “document”, because Maugham’s “reportage” offers a glimpse of Europeans living in China during the interwar years. What he depicts is far from pleasant. These are people who don’t give a damn about the culture or the people. They simply cling onto the vestiges of home. No one bothers to learn the language or befriend the natives. Assuming that Maugham’s descriptions of British diplomats, Catholic missionaries and the like are accurate, this is a rather damning portrayal of the English abroad.
This is a good example:
China bored them all, they did not want to speak of that; they only knew just so much about it as was necessary to their business, and they looked with distrust upon any man who studied the Chinese language. Why should he unless he were a missionary or a Chinese Secretary at the Legation? You could hire an interpreter for twenty-five dollars a month and it was well known that all those fellows who went in for Chinese grew queer in the head.
Funnily enough, I get the impression that many of his sketches are tongue-in-cheek and that Maugham knows full well that these people are truly hideous in outlook and attitude.
Indeed, the book works best when Maugham offers up his own opinion of the Chinese natives (mainly “coolies”) and the places he visits (mainly villages along the Yangtze) — he seems far more accepting, interested and intrigued by his travel adventures than his British counterparts.
There in the mist, enormous, majestic, silent, and terrible, stood the Great Wall of China. Solitarily, with the indifference of nature herself, it crept up the mountain side and slipped down in the depth of the valley. Menacingly, the grim watch towers, stark and foursquare, at due intervals stood at their posts.
The book, however, is probably best read by genuine W. Somerset Maugham fans, those with a deep interest in China or budding authors wishing to learn the art of descriptive writing.
It was first published in 1922.