Sunday, 16 February 2014

Pearl S. Buck - The Patriot

At the end of the novel The Patriot (1939) one feels let down. What for example happens to Tama, I-wan's wife? Does I-wan (the patriot in question) cross the seas and go back to be reunited with his Japanese wife and two children? We are only left in abeyance with the terse last line of this 371 pate novel, 'And he went to find his father.' As if, till the last, he looks for his future course of action to others.

Patriot, Pearl S. Buck's novel is replete with history -- with love intertwined. It takes place we are told in the opening paragraph in China in 1926. It documents the sad lot of the poor and the hope for a better order by En-lan and his band of communists. Chiang kai-shek does come to redeem the lost but suffers a change of heart and instead takes Shanghai at the cost of the loyalists. I-wan is discovered as a traitor by Chiang kai-shek and is roused by his father Wu in the middle of the night and commanded to flee to Burma to escape certain execution. That his father is a rich banker on whom Chiang relies heavily is the ticket to freedom.

Thus begins the second part of the novel, viz. in Burma where I-wan conveniently forgets his revolutionary days organizing the mill workers in Shanghai and laves his conscience by believing En-lai would be dead following the purge. Here he is seduced by the beauty of Japan and takes Tama, a Japanese wife. That he does so to the daughter of his host and father's friend, seems convenient to the plot.

Buck (1892-1973) lived at the same time as the Chinese leader Mao Zedong. Like him she was heir to a nation in ferment, finding its feet. So the novel is well structured with the necessary verisimilitude. Where Buck scores is not really in her charting of a tumultuous period of nation building but in probing the cul-de-sacs of ethics and loyalty. By having I-wan love and marry a Japanese woman -- a nation at war with China -- Buck heightens this tension to the fullest.

'I shall send for you and the children,' he said to Tama. As soon as I can do it you shall all come.'
But Tama shook her head.
'When shall we be wanted?' she said.
Her words, her voice, her quiet fatal eyes, recalled him and swept him out of this moment again into the vaster hour where their individual lives were lost.
'I must go,' he said quickly.  
He seized her in his arms, pressed his cheek against hers, looked at her once, and in her face saw eternity between them. (302)

The savagery with which En-lan allows his men to torture the prisoners from Japan cannot be borne by I-wan. He says, 'It is not only that a Japanese is a man also. It is that I am ashamed to see Chinese do such things.' (355) True, I-wan is an idealist. But then why fight? We are drawn into a vortex not of our/his own making and often we have conflicting loyalties -- which only time can resolve.

Buck's characterization is a study in understatement. Bunji, I-ko, Peony even MacGurk the American are finely and convincingly portrayed. Filial relationships are dealt with great psychological insight. Age and youth are lavished equal care by the writer with a deep understanding of these life stages. The case of the Muraki loot is not resolved. We are not told from where the shipments arrive though we do know whence they go -- to the Western markets. Patriot is a book which leaves us questing for the answers to the questions that it raises. But at the end we pause feeling the desolation of the futility of war.

See commentary in; pix courtesy; edition used London: Methuen, 1939

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