THE NEXT BEST THING
James Spenser is a man obsessed by beauty – a collector haunted by his almost supernatural response to art. A sophisticated, complex character, he would seem the last man on earth to turn to theft. But his target is exceptional: twenty 11 th-century Buddhas from the deserted city of Pagan, Burma – their value, $1 million each. Teaming up in Thailand with Field, a drunken expatriate journalist, and Blake, an American Baptist minister-cum-guerilla leader, Spenser finds himself unwittingly embroiled in a deadly web of private and public feuds: from the bizarre relationship between Blake and his girlfriend Marea, with whom Spenser, too, becomes involved, to the bloody rivalries of the guerrilla armies and opium dealers vying for power at any cost. Ruthless leaders and desperate individuals are brought face to face in a life and death struggle for supremacy.
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It is a thriller about expatriates and suburban desperados in exotic locales – and at the same time, a study of moral ambiguity amid conflicting values. That combination was once the preserve of novelist Graham Greene, but now appears in The Next Best Thing by John Ralston Saul. In his third novel, the Paris-based Canadian undertakes the kind of parable of the damned in which Greene specialized. What the Saul variation may lack in subtlety and economy, it makes up for in sheer drive.
The Next Best Thing opens in Thailand, as James Spenser, former deputy keeper of London’s Victoria and Albert Museum, is recruiting guides, mule handlers and armed guards from a rich array of domestic and imported scoundrels in order to mount an expedition deep into Burma. His plan is to steal 20 glowingly beautiful statues depicting the life of Buddha from an abandoned temple. Spenser’s passion is so extreme that he becomes physically aroused while bestowing caresses on his treasures with, Saul writes, “a warmth unexpected between a human and an object.” Yet he cannot remain indifferent to the beautiful refugee Marea, who has “the same effect on him as a wonderful sculpture”- but whose current lover is Spenser’s most important ally, Matthew Blake, and whose former lover, Spenser’s enemy Khun Minh, retains a powerful hold on her. Still, for the hero, a woman is only a woman, while a good statue is a spiritual experience.
Central to the novel is the journey to and from the Ananda Pagoda on the Irrawaddy River. Outward bound, it is largely a matter of conquering physical obstacles and dealing with conflicts among opium smugglers and private border armies. Saul, who traveled through the area as a journalist in 1980, describes those matters with great authenticity. But once Spenser accomplishes the theft, everything begins to unravel and his return becomes an allegorical journey. Not only is there retribution for plundering a sacred place, but Spenser must also – belatedly – confront the human factor. His associates and adversaries have their own obsessions and rationalizations, and Spenser must accept that he is powerless to control them.
Calamity-fatigue threatens to set in near the finish. Spenser seems doomed to perish from sheer excess of wretchedness, as disaster is piled upon indignity and he begins to imagine the statues “crying out for pity and protection.” He survives, physically at least, but as the journey ends and Spenser’s obsession loses its force, the reader is left to judge how much he has lost. The novel might have packed even more power had the author curbed his own obsessive devotion to his research. Scrapping a brace of rivers, a surplus mountain range or tow and even a couple of lesser characters would have helped the reader to focus on John Ralston Saul’s impressive mastery of his real subject: the mysterious terrain of the human heart.
When it comes to adventure, scheming and general derring-do, archeology has what it takes. Whether you’re a French soldier gazing at the Rosetta Stone, Heinrich Schliemann uncovering the gold of Troy or just an ordinary soul watching Indiana Jones wrest the Lost Ark from the snakes, it’s marvelous to join the adventurers who dig for the great artifacts of past civilizations.
Some of the real dramas behind archeological finds – the Elgin marbles, Tutankhamen’s tomb, Chichen Itza – are as good as most thrillers, so it’s difficult to find fictional plots that aren’t hackneyed. It also takes a particular combination of talent and intelligence to pull off the story. Luckily, there are a few writers around who can do it with style.
The Next Best Thing is John Ralston Saul’s third novel, and it should finally net him the international reputation he deserves. Saul belongs to that tiny band of gentlemen adventurers who, after a superb education (McGill, King’s College, London, and the Paris Ecole Politique) choose to roam the world and record their observances in literate journalism and fiction. In his first novel, Birds of Prey, Saul explored the fallen worlds of French North Africa. Now, after months of traveling with the Shan State Army, he takes us to the balkanized universe of the Burma-Thailand border.
The protagonist of the novel is James Spenser, a former museum curator with a passion for the rare and beautiful. We first encounter him in Singapore, where he lumbers about hoping to make a deal. To the Thais, he’s just another farang, a left-over from the bad old days of the empire. But Spenser has no imperial insouciance. His eyes betray “a half-crazed look, a weakness for the wild card.”
The wild card in this case is a place – the legendary temples of Pagan in Burma. Spenser wants to get into Burma through Thailand and spirit away 20 magnificent statues of Buddha from the temple. To do this, he must bribe and/or negotiate with the various private armies who control the border states. These groups are the leavings of decades of war, and all subsist in great measure on the opium trade. Everyone has a price. Everyone has Thailand, where it can be smuggled out and sold to avid Western buyers.
Spenser is hardly the man to carry off this feat. Despite his eagle eye for quality, he’s hopeless at the venal little tasks of cheating his employers or carrying off elaborate flip-sales with shady art dealers. Accustomed to the small-time antique grifters of SoHo, he’s an easy mark for the sharks of the Orient. He is unprepared for men such as a cause. Spenser’s task is to find those who will combine his quest with their own, get into Burma and then manage to get 4,000 pounds of stone statuary safely back into Blake, a descendent of Baptist missionaries who has spent his life in the border states as a living God and guerrilla leader. There is Shirley Chu, the Harvard lawyer daughter of General Chu, leader of the stateless Second Army of Kuomintang China, and one of Asia’s major narcotics dealers. There is the intelligent and enigmatic Marea, a Hong Kong beauty who is never what she seems, and a host of other fascinating and superbly written characters.
Once the journey to Burma begins, everything alters and all needs coverage. There are overtones of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness in Spenser’s confrontations with men and God, and there is a trip out of the highlands that makes Apocalypse Now seem like punting on the Cam. Saul misses no trick, leaves no soul unexamined and no action unavenged as events build to a climax that only Buddha can reconcile. The Next Best Thing is a wonderful novel about passion and obsession by a writer who understands them both.
You can’t read a book by looking at its cover but you do hope to get some clue as to its contents. Here, the clues seem designed expressly to mislead. The front depicts a Buddha whose singularly grumpy expression could be attributed to the fact that he is being forcefully embraced by a giant cobra or to an aesthetic distaste for the clouds of pink and green smoke which the designer has provided as a backdrop. The review quotes on the back hail Saul as the Voltaire of our day. So what’s on offer, a grisly piece of science fiction or an essay on the state of man? Not having read the author’s two previous novels, I was in no position to guess.
Cobras don’t get much of a look-in and references to smoke are of a non-pyrotechnical kind in what turns out to be a masterly adventure-story with a sharp moral edge. The prose is lucid and strong, bar an occasional lapse into the thrillerese of growls, punches and snarls. The plot drives forward at a pace which kept me turning the pages to the beat of an imaginary metronome and the Asian background is presented in rich and evocative detail. Mr. Saul obviously knows and understands his subject and area very well. His skill lies in conveying complicated information in such a palatable form.
James Spenser, the chief protagonist, is a shrewd young expert on far eastern art whose ethics have been corrupted by his obsessive pursuit of beautiful things. (To go to bed with a photograph of a rare statue excites him more than the presence of a compliant woman). His response to art is instinctive and almost supernatural:
“What was the love of flesh next to this? Not something to which he was insensible. Not something he would refuse or avoid chasing. Yet neither would he sacrifice his other love in its name, no matter what he lost. He could not imagine the pain of his loss lasting so very long; at worst only so long as he himself was alive. What was that, next to his love of these sculptures and the divine service they rendered to beauty?”
Spenser’s criminal career commences in a modest way when, as a deputy keeper at the V&A, he starts using his remarkable acumen to being quietly buying on the side for his own pleasure and profit. His defence, now and later, is that his rare understanding of beauty gives him a moral right to ownership, a view which is not shared by his colleagues at the museum. When he hears about the fabulous Ananda statues, worth a million dollars each to the man who can get them away from their neglected temple in a Burmese jungle, Spenser is prepared to argue theft into being an act of salvation.
Setting up the delicate operations for his robbery from Bangkok, notoriously the pillage capital of the east, Spenser is rapidly sucked into a whirlpool of personal and political vendettas. His colleagues are Field, and alcoholic Canadian whose claim to know every crook in town is swiftly substantiated, and Blake, ‘a third-generation Lahu god who happens to hold an American passport.” Field is a perfectly acceptable stereotype, rather thinly conceived. But in Blake, an American Baptist minister with a reputation for having once been the best guerrilla leader in Asia, Saul has created a subtle and complex character and one well-suited to the job of leading Spenser safely through the Shan States, “a gigantic rich vacuum inhabited by a lot of clever men who fight with each other for little victories and money on ground they can’t control for more than one hour over a hundred yards.”
No amount of warning has prepared Spenser for the treacherous network of opium dealers, spies and warring guerrilla leaders into which he is drawn on what he is finally to see as his own ignoble crusade. At the Ananda temple, he can still make a passionate defence of his planned sacrilege:
“You’re not stealing them. I am. And you’re not selling them. I am. It’s my responsibility. What’s your right to judge me? I have more love for these buddhas than this place could ever give them. Even the people I sell them to will want the buddhas for their beauty. Here they are dying.”
As with all Spenser’s arguments, it’s a neat piece of casuistry and it is robbed of all credibility when the horde of treasures is lost on the journey home. In the temple, the buddhas had been neglected but safe. Under Spenser’s care, they are lost forever to the rivers and gulleys of the jungle. The responsibility, as he has said, is all his.
The looting of the Ananda temple is the main plot and a very good one. Underpinning and enhancing it are the stories of the book’s secondary characters, of Blake’s Hong Kong mistress Marea, a woman with a hidden past, of Shirley Chu, the tough Americanised lawyer daughter of one of the old guerrilla leaders, of Santana, a religious fanatic who ends his days itemizing his innards on a funeral pyre – not my favourite scene – and of Eddie, an old Shan who sees the world in terms of the picture magazines which come his way and who is consequently never short of a topic of conversation. Limping back from Ananda with leeches on his legs and enemy soldiers all around, Eddy is still ready to discuss Lady Di, “such a pure example for everyone to imitate”- and the unappealing appearance of Jane Fonda’s muscles. In a novel which seldom glosses over a gruesome moment, characters like Eddy are more than usually welcome for the light relief they provide.
When James Spenser left school he had two obsessions: a love of beautiful things and the dilemma of what to do with his love. At 32 he was already Deputy Keeper at the Victoria and Albert, devoting his working day to Indian and Burmese art. But being a curator of beautiful things was not enough. He must own them. He must be free to touch them, to hold them at will, as if he were their lover. It was, as Cocteau said, all a question of sex.
At Pagan on the Irrawaddy, 5,000 temples, ruined but still rich in statuary, beckoned to him. The rest of the novel deals with his attempt to steal 20 of the finest Buddhas in the Ananda Pagoda.
This is a thriller, but in the mode of Conrad. Like that master of the modern novel, of whom he is a frank admirer, the author is fascinated by power play. Spenser launches his raid into Burma from the Thai side of the Golden Triangle and there he has to deal with rival armies engaged in drug traffic, smuggling and the Shan nationalist insurrections, as well as a 30,000 strong anti-communist Chinese army still living China’s civil war, and the Thai army. Ralston Saul, who developed his powers of political analysis writing a doctoral thesis on de Gaulle, conveys well the curious mixture of restraint and ruthlessness that shapes their struggle.
The people who will make Spenser’s project succeed or fail come from all the many varieties in the Golden Triangle and Bangkok. They live on a frontier between the middle ages and modern society. They fit no categories. Being no stranger to these parts, I can testify that Ralston Saul has caught their likeness well.
After raiding Pagan, Spenser and his armed party must make a long, slow trek back through the jungle of the Shan states. Their mules are laden with statues, they are harassed by hostile forces, and the monsoon has begun early. But the struggle is not just physical: even more, it becomes religious and moral. Day after day Spenser must face Buddhists in his party who are wracked by guilt at the sacrilege they have committed. He must live with the fact that final success depends on an extraordinary American who is the effective leader of his party, Mathew Blake, half-missionary, half-guerilla leader who seeks to bring order to the anarchy of the jungle and of the Shan states, with a righteous brutality unthinkable in South Kensington.
Conrad would have relished this climax, but he would have counseled the author not to let his love of action push his pen too fast.
James Spenser, an Assistant Keeper at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, is a buyer of artifacts for the India and Burma collection. Privately, he keeps his eye peeled for his own collection, drawn from Thailand, Cambodia, China and Japan. Somehow, James’ sex impulse has been sublimated into art works, and so now he sees a truly spiritual work – a magnificent Chinese scroll or a Buddha that sings beyond cliché – the work takes on an ecstatic animism, as if the Great God Pan were present. Slowly, he finds himself entering into shady deals to support his raptures with new pieces for his apartment. When he runs across photos of a series of 20 statues depicting the life of Buddha, which are clearly a collector’s dream and immensely valuable, and which are waiting to be plucked from a centuries-abandoned temple in the most remote mountains of a political no-man’s land between Burma and Thailand, he must have them.
Once into Thailand, he begins setting up the ruses by which he can mount an expedition, successfully cut through jungles, traverse some six mountains ranges, locate the temple and make off with his booty. Every step of the way is deadly. Jade and opium smugglers demand payment for safe passage through their individual plots of turf. The corrupt police, who have their own arrangements with the smugglers, must also be paid off in a cat’s cradle of graft that seems to include every Thai, Chinese or Burmese in the area. Through it all, Spenser is led by a lapsed Christian missionary, Matthew Blake, who wants enough money to return to civilization, and by an alcoholic Spanish Buddhist, Santana, who is also an opium addict and eventually has himself burned alive on a funeral pyre by his son. All of the way, while plans collapse and the horror of the jungle works its grip on Spenser, as do the tiny leeches infecting his legs and the fungus rotting the soles off his feet, he holds before himself the steady image of the dancing Buddhas. It is the power of art, even more than the power of gold in B. Traven’s classic, that inspires Saul’s best pages and compels the reader to await the ecstasy at the end of the horror.
Saul will find this a hard act to follow, even as Traven did with Treasure.