Posted by: Lisa Hill | June 16, 2019

Avenue of Eternal Peace, by Nicholas Jose

I am indebted to Wakefield Press for their June 4th Tweet about this book, “as topical and revelatory as when first published”.

I hunted out a copy at the library as, almost contemporaneously, there were mass protests in Hong Kong, against a proposed Extradition Bill which would not only enable extradition from Hong Kong to China, but would also enable the integration of aspects of Hong Kong’s legal system (which is basically British, i.e. innocent till proven guilty) with China’s (which is basically socialist, i.e. guilty as soon as you are charged).  But it is not just the prospect of this change to the protections of Hong Kong’s separate legal system that is a matter of concern.  Those of us who remember the horror of the Tiananmen Square Massacre in June 1989 have been watching these protests in Hong Kong with alarm in case the violence escalates.  The situation as I write is that the proposed Bill has been dropped, but protestors are maintaining vigilance despite the violence against them by their own government.  It was the eerie confluence of this protest movement in Hong Kong, with the 30-year anniversary of the democracy protests which ended in the massacre, that made reading Nicholas Jose’s Avenue of Eternal Peace such riveting reading.

Nominated for the 1990 Miles Franklin Prize, Avenue of Eternal Peace was Jose’s third novel, and it was written from an ‘insider’s’ perspective.  In 1986-87, Jose worked in Shanghai and Beijing, teaching at the Beijing Foreign Studies University and the East China Normal University, and after that was Cultural Counsellor at the Australian Embassy in Beijing from 1987-1990.  This is the blurb from Jose’s website:

Beijing’s Avenue of Eternal Peace is the boulevard leading to Tiananmen Square. The world witnessed what happened there in May and June 1989, but ultimately came no closer to understanding the riddle of contemporary China than a TV screen montage. Now, in an atmospheric and penetrating novel that takes place a short time before the massacre, Nicholas Jose captures this city of contradictions, its people, and a moment in history much as Christopher Isherwood did for 1930’s Berlin.

Wally Frith, the hero-observer of this remarkable novel, is an Australian doctor and university professor specializing in cancer research. Middle-aged, emotionally bereft, recently widowed, he feels himself burnt-out. Therefore he readily accepts an invitation to come as a visiting professor to Peking Union Medical College, China’s leading teaching and research hospital. The prospect pleases: new scenes, new people, new life… and beyond these vague expectations, he has a particular goal–to meet Professor Hsu Chien Lung who, years before, had written a trail-blazing paper on cancer, and who Wally believes may still be on the faculty there. But Professor Hsu seems to have vanished; perhaps he never existed. The search, which has its macabre as well as comic elements, is stalled, and Wally meanwhile immerses himself in the ordinary (sometimes extraordinary) life of Beijing, newly exposed to Western influences, and in a state of vigorous contradiction.

This extraordinary, kaleidoscopic, multi-leveled novel shows us a China the TV cameras couldn’t photograph—the China inside the hearts of its people. It is a moving and revelatory experience by a writer who was a witness to history and to a people’s dreams.

What drives the novel initially, is Wally Frith’s search for Professor Hsu Chien Lung, and the author (writing in 1989) draws on recent discoveries that cervical cancer is caused by a virus.  Frith’s wife has died of cancer, so his search for cancer treatments is personal: he’s a no-nonsense man (i.e. not interested in quackery) but he has over time witnessed a change in cancer treatments from those that were based on a ‘remove-the-invader’ approach using either surgery or radiotherapy or a combination of the two, to a recognition that the cancer is caused by the body itself in response to poisons or triggers of some kind and that the malformation originated from viruses.  What he needs is clinical data, and he thinks Professor Hsu has it.

Knowing what we do of socialist regimes and the way that people can ‘disappear’, makes the disappearance of Professor Hsu not only mysterious but also potentially dangerous for Frith.  But his ability to speak Chinese wins him friends, and the experiences he has enable the author to paint a fascinating portrait of China in this transitional period of economic reform. But what remains the same despite the reforms is the fear of speaking out, of being non-conformist, of criticising the government, and of being constrained by opaque power structures that can stymie any project or individual’s progress without anyone knowing why.

There are some amusing scenes in the novel:  Frith attends awful boring social events amongst expats, and he has a sexual encounter which turns out to be amusing too.  Amongst the people he meets are a perennially unlucky basketball player, peasants, an opera star, and corrupt businessmen,  but he also meets strong, resilient women and people who have found a way to survive not just the Cultural Revolution but also a pessimism that to Western readers seems more than justifiedHowever it is as the novel moves towards its conclusion and the inevitability of the democracy protests that the tension ramps up… I don’t know how this novel ended before it was revised in 2008, but it’s certainly a sobering ending now.

(PS SBS on Demand is currently screening Chimerica. a series about a photojournalist on a quest to find the ‘Tank Man’ who stopped a column of Red Army tanks in Tiananmen Square.)

Author: Nicholas Jose
Title: Avenue of Eternal Peace
Publisher: Wakefield Press, Revised Edition, 2008, first published 1989. 278 pages
ISBN: 9781862547995
Source: Bayside Library Service, Sandringham Branch

Available from Wakefield Press, where you can also buy it as a eBook.

 


Responses

  1. Please don’t conflate socialist with Communist.

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    • LOL Bill you’re quick to pick that up!

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  2. I think I saw the same tweet, Lisa, and was intrigued – but can’t right now squeeze it into my reading schedule, so thanks for filling the gap! Interesting about his revising it. I would like to read it one day.

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