The Mandarin Code

August 19, 2010

I’ve almost finished reading Lost on Planet China by J. Maarten Troost. It was filed under “travel” at Half Price Books, but reads more like a series of humorous essays.  Mr. Troost comes across as a congenial and naive, Wodehouse-style protagonist.

He flew halfway around the world despite a debilitating fear of heights and flying.  He remained faithful to his wife in the presence of young Chinese ladies named Meow Meow and Cinderella.  He did not cross the Chinese criminal justice system, though he implied a more-than-academic familiarity with various illicit drugs he encountered on his journey.

Mr. Troost’s account encompasses much of modern China—touching on economics, pollution, social (in)justice, etc.  All of it inconspicuously woven into his buoyant tale of everyday travails making his way through China without knowing a word of Mandarin.

I was mildly disturbed, though, that the author insisted I take off the rose-coloreds and realize one-sixth of the planetary population gets most of their information filtered by 500 fanatical communists.

So I took a side trip to the internet to find out exactly where Google’s recent spat with China ended up.  You can see the results yourself at www.google.cn, the official Google site in China.  It’s a strange truce.  The search box is an image.  Clicking it redirects you (and reportedly all 1.3 billion Chinese residents) to the Google Hong Kong site.  There, one can research the novel 1984 and the Tiananmen Square Massacre all day long.  (Whether one might be imprisoned afterward is unknown.)  I dusted off my rose-coloreds and returned them to their perch.

But the real reason I want to discuss this book is because Mr. Troost read Dan Brown’s Angels and Demons while on a 36-hour train ride from Lhasa to Chengdu.  Mr. Troost captured in dazzling black and white what I’ve thought of Mr. Brown’s work myself.  (Someday, I hope to mass-market a Dan Brown inspired bestseller plot outline as a Madlibs sheet.)  Here’s what the weary traveller had to say:

Come on, Dan Brown, I thought.  I stayed with you through all that bad prose, through every preposterous turn of the plot, and you end like this?  You lost me with this ending.  It’s absurd.  Not good absurd, but bad absurd.  I was irritated.  Fast-paced, plot-driven books depend on the resolution.  Everything is in the resolution—all the buildup, all the tension.  It works and fails by how it ends.  I felt the same way I’d felt when I finished The Da Vinci Code: lightly soiled and snookered.

Bravo, Maarten Troost!  I’m heartened to find a bestselling author willing to put Dan Brown in his deservedly mediocre-thriller-writer place.

Oh, if you’re planning to travel to China, check out Lost on Planet China.  And I hope your tickets are refundable.


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