The more you delve into Hong Ying's new novel An Anda, the more you are feeling you are reading an Argatha Christie detective story.
The suspense makes it impossible to put the book down. But most striking thing about An Anda is the philosophical and heart-breaking tragic ending.
Hero An Anda, finally unknots the mystery of his birth and the relationship between his parents and the parents of his girlfriend Su Fei, and then drowns himself in the Ganges River in India. Immediately following his death, Su Fei also commits suicide.
At first the storyline reads as a romance between a former pop star and a businesswoman. But it is actually a hotchpotch of romance, suspense, travelogue and the self-salvation of the soul in Buddhism.
Using the first person, the book is told through the eyes of a woman who has been entrusted by a Hong Kong media tycoon to write a novel after a journey to India, and she is given a sideline task to find the tycoon's boyfriend, An Anda, a former Chinese mainland pop singer.
Mystery follows her on her journey, and she finally discovers that An Anda and his girlfriend Su Fei are involved in economic crimes and are suspects wanted by Chinese police.
The woman also discovers Su Fei is the daughter of a British military officer and a Chinese woman, while An Anda has a Chinese father and an Indian mother.
Through stories about the entangled relationship between the two couples -- the parents of An Anda and Su Fei -- during World War II, Hong Ying delves into cross-cultural conflicts.
The author, 40, a Chinese compatriot but a British citizen living mainly in London, first highlighted the conflict between different cultures in her novel, K. The Art of Love, which tells the tale of an extra-marital affair between a Chinese teacher and a British poet.
In that novel, real life British poet Julian Bell, nephew of well known novelist Virginia Woolf, falls in love with a fictional Chinese teacher. She was his 11th mistress, which is why he refers to her in his diary as "K" -- the eleventh letter of the alphabet.
The significance of this romance lies in the fact that the British poet has never before been so attracted to a woman. He has always been a conqueror in his affairs with women before, and he just goes away after he feels tired of them, but this time he can not.
He is so deeply involved affectionately that he feels that life is meaningless without "K."
The sexual relationship between the two characters epitomizes the cultural conflict between the East and West and women and men. And in the end, the British character is defeated.
Hong Ying returns to the conflict of her earlier work in her new novel, showing the clash between a Chinese military officer and a British officer during World War II and the barriers that prevent the Chinese officer from marrying the Indian woman he loves.
Far from home
This clash may come from the author's own experience of living away from her homeland for many years.
"Living on a land which is not your home country, you have a different frame of mind and thus different angles to judge the same phenomenon," Hong said.
She said she has been traveling for nearly 20 years even before she settled in London, and likens her experience On the road to that of American author Jack Kerouac (1922-69) and his well-known book of the same name.
Hong said people are always in a floating state or a state of rootlessness in terms of culture when they live in an alien land and therefore solitude and anxiety are inevitable.
Yue Daiyun, a professor in comparative literature with Peking University, said that a writer who stayed on a foreign land would have different views of his or her own culture from those home novelists. "This helps a writer to have more creative ideas in writing their fictions," the professor said.
She reads extensively to prepare for her writing. She usually writes a book in three years, with reading totaling one year, she said. For An Anda, Hong read much about Buddhism. One aspect that fascinated her was where and how a person's soul moves to another world.
Her interest in Buddhism may be attributed to the fact that she was brought to a Buddhist temple by her mother when she was three to ask Buddha to protect her.
Hong admits that she has a love for rivers that always seem to wind into her books. In the Daughter of the River she describes the Yangtze River; in K. The Art of Love, it is also the Yangtze; and in An Anda, she portrays the Ganges River.
"Rivers give me life, and I inject life into rivers in my works," she said. "Rivers are a symbol in my novels."
In the Daughter of the River, the heroine starts a new life when she crosses the Yangtze River. In K, the British poet crosses the Yangtze every time he is frustrated with his relationship with his mistress.
The British poet hopes to find something else on the other side of the river to forget his love, but can't. The last time he crosses the river is when he leaves China suggesting that he can never reconcile himself to Eastern culture.
In An Anda, the Ganges River is a symbol, which has witnessed the love affairs of the two couples who are the parents of the two main characters. The generational love story also ends by the river. An Anda drowns himself in the Ganges River in the hopes that the river may wash his sins.
"It is quite important for a novelist to raise questions through his or her novels," Hong said. "My novel will possibly disturb the peaceful mind of readers."
Raising questions is nothing new to Hong, in Daughter of the River, there isn't one character with complete moral integrity, everyone in the book was guilty of something.
Descriptions of death are another aspect that interests Hong which stems from seeing corpses of people who committed suicide during the "cultural revolution" (1966-76) in China when she was a child. They were her neighbors, she said.
The men always lay on their stomachs while women on their backs. Hong came to the conclusion that women were greater than men because they had the courage to face the heavens.
"Of course, this may be my own bias, but I still hold on to my belief that women are greater than men," Hong said.
She also firmly believes in accurately portraying female desire.
"Whenever a woman is willing to suffer or even give her life for the man she loves from the bottom of her heart, the inner world of this woman is always the most exuberant," Hong said.
How women are able to free themselves from the shackles of desire is also a question she tries to answer in her works. The book of 342 pages costs 22 yuan (US$2.7).
(China Daily July 3, 2002)