Tuesday, 10 August 1999

Christopher New: Goodbye Chairman Mao (1979)

Edition: New English Library, 1979
Review number: 308

There are two opposing tendencies in Western popular literature that is about China and the Chinese, both of which have, to my mind, some racist overtones. The first is to portray them as hardly human, completely (and proverbially) inscrutable to Western minds, motivated by incomprehensible objects, capable of both unearthly beauty and fearsome brutality. This is the world of Sax Rohmer's Fu Manchu stories, or Robert Heinlein's The Day After Tomorrow. The other extreme, towards which this book tends, is to ignore the differences in culture, education and so on completely - to present the Chinese characters as Westerners. Clearly, as far as it is possible to generalise about a fifth of the world's population - so not far at all - the truth must lie somewhere in between. It is equally clear that neither extreme takes any account of the difference that the events of the twentieth century must have made. This century has seen the downfall of the political and religious systems that have formed the backbone of Chinese life for millennia; then Japanese occupation of large parts of the country, and two further upheavals with hardly less effect - the Communist and the Cultural Revolutions.

Goodbye Chairman Mao is a thriller based on an attempt to overthrow Mao towards the end of his life, with Russian help. British intelligence are baffled by a new highly secret Russian code, used only in two fragmentary messages that have fallen into their hands. They need either a clue to how it works or more substantial text to analyse. It is clearly important, as the Russians are refraining from using it until whatever operation it is to be for is ready.

British intelligence persuade the mathematician John Coombs, an expert in cryptography, to help them and, despite his lack of training, send him to Russia to learn more. This is unlikely, as is his agreeing to help them at all: his beloved daughter is dying of leukaemia, a consequence of his wife's over-exposure to radiation while working for the US Atomic Energy Commission when pregnant. This has turned him into an ardent anti-nuclear campaigner; why would he help the British government? And why would he be willing to be separated from his daughter in the last few weeks of her life?

Despite these gaping holes in his plot, and his unimaginative portrayal of his Chinese characters, Christopher New has written a moderately gripping thriller.

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