Liz Wan reviews an erudite, captivating East-meets-West novel.
Trevor Hay, Redgrave’s Ghost (Australian Scholarly Publishing, 2019), 224pp.
There he was, gliding down from the mountains to the fabled oasis town of Dunhuang at the start of the three great routes of the Silk Road through the Tarim Basin, including the southern route taken by Marco Polo. (82)
If you would like a novel that explores cross-cultural communication, travel and romance, with a dollop of Gothicism and psychological drama narrated through wit, humour and erudition, then look no further than Trevor Hay’s Redgrave’s Ghost. Himself an expert of Chinese studies, Hay tells a compelling tale of Dr Alan Redgrave, an Australian scholar of comparative literature and Chinese culture who runs an antiquarian bookshop. Redgrave’s life changes when he meets Fei Yun, a mysteriously charming Chinese artist who shares his fascination with eighteenth-century China and who has recently moved to Australia. As Fei Yun leads Redgrave onto a journey to the sublime deserts of Dunhuang, the intertwining narratives, of personal and impersonal pasts and the present, as well as their relationship, become even more intricate. Fei Yun turns out to be an enigma for Redgrave, and he finds it increasingly difficult to banish thoughts of the supernatural from his mind – and hers.
Enriching and gratifying intellectualism pervades the novel. Whether Redgrave is shown researching for “a journal article about the influence of Nepalese art on Tibet” (50), or showing Fei Yun his discoveries like “a map of Beijing 1829, by Father Hyacinth Bitchurin” (73) and treasures such as “A Compleat History of the Empire of China, Containing Memoirs and Remarks, by Lewis Le Comte (1739)” (74), the novel is generously sprinkled with dazzling details of literature, history, artwork, culture, explorers and beyond.
Initially, Redgrave’s expertise in both Chinese and English empowers him and gives him an edge in courting Fei Yun. For the first time, he experiences linguistic equality during their conversations:
He found himself responding to the stimulus of being treated as a native speaker, soaking up a wealth of language delivered in her rapid, idiomatic Chinese, with no concession made for his foreign shortcomings.… It was by turns exhilarating and cringe-making as he lurched from dazzling literary and poetic heights to the depths of foreigner solecisms, but she rarely corrected him. (19)
Simultaneously, he has the upper hand in his native tongue as Fei Yun recruits him to be her English tutor. He observes how language can both open new doors and inhibit one’s potential: “Her lack of English, while providing a wonderful opportunity for him, was clearly a real problem for her, confining her within what she called her ‘Chinese palace,’ a restricted social and professional environment that did no justice to her talents and gave her little chance to participate in a new culture” (21).
At the same time, the novel also seems to question the extent to which knowledge is conducive to relationships. As Redgrave falls deeper for Fei Yun, he finds himself tripping over linguistic barriers. How does she feel about him? “Maybe he shouldn’t try to read too much into language, it was all too easy to misunderstand words, even in one’s own native tongue” (60). What did she mean by that metaphorical phrase the other day? “Redgrave was conscious of the ambiguity, but such poetic ambiguities were very difficult to clarify, whether in English or Chinese, and were sometimes better left alone” (70). There seems to be the futility of language to unequivocally convey meanings – frustrating for Redgrave yet tantalising for readers.
Redgrave’s confusion culminates in his repeated ruminations over the “Chinese” and “Western” notions of love, of which his knowledge seems only to complicate matters. What does “love” mean? “[Redgrave] had often heard that Chinese women had different, more pragmatic, expectations of a relationship, but maybe this was just a matter of generation. Modern Chinese women might well be no different from modern Western ones, maybe they had all seen the sort of movies and listened to the kind of songs that had long ago bridged the cultural gap” (57). But there was the big question: “Was Fei Yun ‘modern’?” (55) In an instance of desperation, Redgrave consults Guo Xiaolu’s A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers, but ends up scratching his head still. He reflects: “In Chinese, love is a state of being beyond tense or temporality” (59); however, language again assumes a paradoxical role: “how could a single speech act be both so strong that it can, of itself, bring about a change of state in a new relationship, and yet so weak that it has to be said all the time, even in an old relationship?” (59). Beyond theory, however, is the possibly bigger dilemma of action: should he tell her that he loves her? And when? “What would happen if he started behaving in this ‘Western’ way with Fei Yun? On the other hand, would there be ‘consequences’ if he didn’t?” (60) These are some of the unnerving but inevitable, philosophical yet relatable questions that the novel invites readers to ponder with Redgrave.
What is perhaps the greatest mystery is the issue of the perpetual visitations of a ghost at Fei Yun’s place. She seems to be obsessed with Castiglione’s eighteenth-century painting of the “Fragrant Concubine”; every now and then she confides in Redgrave about a spirit that sits on her bed at night, but she refuses to go into further detail. What is it? Is it real? How do we discern what is real or not? From which cultural lens should Redgrave interpret that spectre? His speculation culminates, in part, in ontological questions:
Our ‘selves,’ what are they really? … What kind of phantom was it that was visiting Fei Yun? What exactly was he to make of this ghost business, from such a well-educated, cultivated and otherwise rational woman? Was it simply the result of her culture and training in a tradition that placed no great store by Western psychological jargon for the names of demons that haunt us all? (39)
It is extremely difficult to sum up this bewitching novel, for the work encompasses much more than what has been mentioned. But if I must give a one-liner: Redgrave’s Ghost is an enticing story of cultural encounters between the East and the West, transcending geographical borders as well as boundaries among human – and perhaps spiritual (who knows?) – beings, in a reassuringly humane and empathetic way. And to close this review with a warning: this book may haunt you, whether in terms of imagery, ideas, or simply several innocently powerful words… but again, what may language do or not do?
Liz Wan Yuen-Yuk is currently a part-time research assistant at the Open University of Hong Kong, where she formerly taught as a part-time lecturer. She holds an MPhil in English (Literary Studies) from The Chinese University of Hong Kong. Her research interests include 18th–19th century British literature, comparative literature, literary translation, and beyond. For more: @lizyywan and lizyywan.wordpress.com