by Nancy Wigston
Empress of Asia by Adam Lewis Schroeder (Raincoast Books, 409 pages, $29.95 cloth, ISBN: 1551929872). This terrific tale of love and war opens as narrator Harry Winslow mourns his beloved wife. As a last request, Lily had asked him to contact a friend from the distant past. So Harry leaves Vancouver for Thailand, in search of his wartime comrade, Michel Ney. As the skein of memory unspools in a final, one-sided conversation with Lily, we get to know Harry better than he knows himself.
Harry speaks to his dead wife of his boyhood in Nelson, B.C. He recalls his first job as a merchant seaman, and his voyage on the bombed ship of the title. In British Singapore they meet and fall in love; miraculously, they both survive the occupation. Harry has quite a memory. At times it seems a stretch that he would remember, as he was hiding with Michel from the Japanese in Java, the degrees of hotness in various curries, but food in wartime was so important, and this character is so vividly present, that it works. Curries were the very least of his memorable meals.
The text sparkles and crackles with places and people: shipboard life, nights at Raffles Hotel, years in P.O.W. camps, the Indonesian communists, Japanese occupiers, his fellow prisoners, and always Michel, his saviour. Harry sees everything in close-up, but he so often fails to grasp the big picture that we get exasperated with this surrogate for our own naivete. Wake up, Harry! The people who befriend him, from Eric Shaw, who secures him his first seaman's job before absconding with his money, to Michel Ney, the experienced fixer, and even Lily, more sophisticated than her spur-of-the-moment groom, are all drawn to his pure affability. When Harry's vision is blurred by beriberi, it's the perfect metaphor for a man suffering from mental myopia. The whopper of a secret waiting at the end of his journey makes sense both for Harry and for all marriages. Maybe he should have known. But can we fault a man who not only adored his wife but also worshiped jazz legend Fats Waller? Impossible.
Berlin Assignment by Adrian De Hoog (Breakwater Books, 511 pages, $24.95, paper, ISBN: 1550812181). A professional Canadian has centre stage in this tale of post-Wall Berlin. Anthony Hanbury, a clever boy from the prairie town of Indian Head, where his music-loving mother went mad while his scientist father obsessively measured soil erosion, has landed a plum job: Canadian Consul in Berlin. No one knows why he wants it, since no one else does, and so this competent but not brilliant career diplomat arrives in Berlin. The novel opens as Heywood, an official senior to Hanbury, mulls over what happened during the Berlin fiasco. The author's use of ecclesiastical terms¨priest in charge of investitures, for instance¨lends the tale the feel of a British spy thriller.
De Hoog spent thirty years in diplomatic service, including stints in Berlin and Africa¨which also figures in the novel¨so we assume he knows whereof he speaks. Hanbury becomes a rich source of information, especially about the files the East German Stassi kept on just about everyone, and the mood in early 90s Berlin, including the resurgence of the right and a nostalgia for the East and its clunker of a car, the Trabant.
Hanbury's secret¨he had an affair in Berlin in the 60s and broke it off cruelly¨takes him back, but not forward. The father of the woman in question is far more interesting than she is. Nanve even for a Canadian male, Hanbury remains blithely unaware of the shenanigans going on under his nose. Busy socialising with friends old and new, notorious and powerful, he is finally hoodwinked by an evil German posing as a mild-mannered history professor. The consul's lack of awareness costs him everyone's sympathy, though he does find a new, sexy-smart girl. If our foreign service officers are really so easily duped, it's no wonder the world is in such a sorry state.