Thursday, December 3, 2015

Peking Picnic, by Ann Bridge

Ann Bridge (1889-1974) is the pen name of Mary Ann Dolling Sanders. The wife of a British diplomat, she spent many years abroad with her husband in various diplomatic postings. It is these experiences which she used as material for many of her novels. Her first, Peking Picnic, is set in China during the 1930s.

Laura Leroy is the 37-year-old wife of a British diplomat posted to Peking. She is restless and somewhat ambivalent about the diplomatic lifestyle she leads in China, seeing it as artificial, even silly. It is not so much the place but the society of diplomats and their hangers on that she finds so trying. Laura also misses England and her two children, which she has had to leave behind. 

When a group of expats organise a picnic to a great temple at Chieh T’ai Ssu, Laura is dragooned into joining the party. The pleasures of the Chinese countryside (which Bridge describes with great delicacy in her precise prose) are enjoyed by all, but there is a danger looming. Two military groups are fighting each other. The lovely background of the tranquil Chinese landscape is disrupted by small arms fire. Soon enough, the group of gallivanting expats get caught up in the guerrilla fighting. Taken hostage, they must plot their escape.

Peking Picnic was first published in 1932 to wide critical acclaim. Reading it in 2015, it certainly has dated. Although the novel is very carefully constructed and skilfully executed, it has many problems. None of the characters are at all likeable. Laura Leroy, whom we see the story through, is cool, distant and withdrawn. I know that that’s the whole idea of her character, the ethereal spirit wandering through a foreign landscape dreaming of home, but it’s impossible to feel any sympathy for her. Her colonial arrogance leads her to think she has the whole country stitched up.

The second major problem is the novel’s chauvinistic attitude towards the Chinese. There are absolutely no well fleshed out Chinese characters. The one recurring Chinese figure, Laura’s servant, is simply portrayed as emotionless and tricky. When the Chinese guerrilla fighters and warlords are introduced, Bridge doesn’t hold back, repeatedly describing them as either yellow, simian, monkeys or apes.

Lastly, the novel has at its centre a lot of psychosexual dynamics. There is much sex talk amongst the characters as they contemplate affairs and relationships. A Freudian gloom hangs over everything, and all the players are frozen with hopeless indecision as they try to figure out the best way to proceed. After so many pages of sex talk, no one even gets it on. Worse still, when Bridge endeavours to describe the complex psychosexual mental states everyone is in, none of it makes much sense. It all reads like so much gobbledygook. I tried reading certain passages over and over to try and figure out what it meant, but couldn’t make head nor tail.

Why read Peking Picnic at all? Perhaps as a literary curio, as a great example of a novel that was much feted in its day, but has since fallen into decline. It is also very instructive about imperial attitudes towards the Chinese. Clearly the British didn’t think much of them at all. It reminds one of today’s imperial adventures in Afghanistan and Iraq, where the US paid little attention to local culture, custom, politics and language. How much history repeats.  

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