Kunal Basu, The Yellow Emperor’s Cure

Historical fiction that isn’t just historical fiction and isn’t necessarily set (when written by an Indian author) in India. There isn’t enough of it around. I like a lot of Basu’s earlier work, and I’m a big fan of how wide-ranging it is. But The Yellow Emperor’s Cure is not his best work.

I reviewed the book in Saturday’s Indian Express. An edited version below.

 

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At the end of the nineteenth century, Portugese doctor Antonio Maria discovers that his father is dying of syphilis, for which there is no known cure. Antonio is unable to accept the painful and ignominious (syphilis sufferers are social outcasts) death that awaits his father. He looks to China for a cure, placing all his hopes in the rumour that few Chinese have syphilis and in the Yellow Emperor’s Canon of internal medicine.

In China he is established in a part of the Queen’s Summer Palace, though the Queen herself is never seen. Antonio is placed under the care of a doctor named Xu who undertakes to teach him the whole of the Nei Ching school of medicine, since it seems that the cure for syphilis cannot be applied without knowledge of the whole.  He divides his time between the Legation, a nearby colony of Europeans, and the Palace where he rapidly falls in love with Fumi (for his own reasons, Xu seems to prefer to leave his student with his assistant).

Through all of this, larger political events are taking place in China. The Boxer rebellion is brewing through most of the novel, breaking out properly in its final third.

The Yellow Emperor’s Cure looks back to a fascinating moment in history. The delicate equations between the great powers at the dawn of the twentieth century may not be the subject of this book, but they are ever present. This is particularly evident in the interactions of the various foreigners (Americans, Japanese and an assortment of Europeans) at the Legation. In addition, there’s a strong sense of an end to power in both of the novel’s main locations. Portugal’s colonial prominence is all but over, and in China the almost phantom Queen (never seen, though when Antonio trespasses into the forbidden parts of the palace there is the implication that she has only just left) does almost nothing to assert her power.

Portugal and China are also notable for being relatively unusual settings for English language fiction. This has its disadvantages though, and over and over again one gets the feeling that the text doesn’t quite trust the readers to keep up without being fed quantities of historical context. Particularly in the early stages of the novel, we are subjected to many scenes in which things are painstakingly explained. It’s hard to do such a thing without being awkward, and here Basu’s writing is at its least elegant.

 

Antonio’s perspective is another difficulty. His impressions of China are entirely in line with those one would expect from a nineteenth-century European man. The problem, however, is that many of these assumptions also colour a great deal of later literature which takes them perfectly seriously – we’re all too familiar with the “inscrutable” Chinese, or the European who bothers to learn his native servants’ names being morally superior to his fellow countrymen. At times it is easy to remember that Antonio’s vision is imperfect. The Legation scenes recognise this with deadpan humour. And when his internal narrative comes up with “lovesickness, a disease no less mysterious than the rarest of female disorders” or “the secret workings of the Chinese mind, how it went about solving puzzles and inventing things” we’re being invited to roll our eyes at him. But all too often in his interactions with the natives the only thing reminding us of this is a prior faith in Basu’s abilities as a writer. And the binaries the book sets up are predictable and uninteresting; in Xu’s words “Western doctors deal with simple cause and effect …the Chinese look for reasons that might even lie outside the body”.

The search for the cure that lies at the heart of this book is an elusive one. Syphilis, a disease associated with sin, comes to mean more than itself. “What if it was immortal?” asks Antonio’s friend Arees, speculating that syphilis is “the price we must pay to be alive”. Antonio himself connects the mystery of syphilis to that of his lover Fumi, “two symptoms both arising from the same condition”. Even the name of the disease reflects this endless deferral of meaning; the “French Disease” in Portugal, it is named after the Portugese elsewhere and in China is “Canton Rash” (historically it has also been “the German sickness” and “the Christian disease” among others). In the real world a cure for syphilis would be developed within a decade of the events of The Yellow Emperor’s Cure; within the novel, this seems almost inconceivable.

The Yellow Emperor’s Cure skilfully weaves together its various historical strands, resulting in an unusual, intelligent novel. Yet it is let down by its own simplicity in places, and (particularly when placed next to some of Basu’s earlier work) is eventually a little underwhelming.

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