Samuel Pink is brought up in an English country rectory in the 1880s. He knows that the Pinks are not his real father and mother. He believes that he is the illegitimate son of Queen Victoria by her servant John Brown, who must have ‘lifted his kilt’ on some unrecorded occasion. Everywhere, on tea-caddies and biscuit-tins, he looks proudly at images of his mother’s face.
Samuel believes it, but we don’t, any more than we believe Pip’s great expectations have anything to do with Miss Havisham. Leslie Wilson’s powerful and brilliant book strikes me, first and foremost, as a burlesque. All burlesque is anti-heroic, and The Mountain of Immoderate Desires gives a sardonic version of the 19th-century novel’s trusted heroic themes: a riddle of mysterious parentage, an innocent against the world, a sinister figure who reappears with his unwelcome secrets, misunderstandings, inscrutable Chinese, repentant sinners, murder, the distribution, at the very end, of moral justice. All these things appear more or less in their accustomed places, but in a disconcerting perspective. Meanwhile the story races along with the help of coincidences which certainly don’t suggest the tragic workings of destiny. Characters are conveniently finished off by a trunk happening to fall off a cart, or a heavy tile slipping off a wall, at exactly the right (or wrong) time. The Pinks – the rector and his wife – are standing on the edge of a Dorset cliff when ‘just a little bit’ crumbles away and they are both gone for ever. A tiresome old savant is killed by taking a Pill of Immortality. A lady missionary is about to shoot herself when a poisonous spider comes out of a crack ‘where it had been hibernating all winter’, bites her, and causes her to drop her gun.
But these goings-on are not nearly enough for Leslie Wilson, who has combined them very skilfully with a novelist’s novel, or reader’s read – an engrossing story, that is, of human beings and their devices for getting through life. Samuel Pink starts out at the rectory with a number of handicaps – he is short, timid, liable to be sick and a victim of bad dreams. Never sent to school, he is almost entirely in the hands of his tutor, Reynolds, who seems ‘a good sport, and an indulgent and interesting teacher’. Reynolds, however, has told him that purity is for cowards. When the book opens, the two of them are at the local fairground – forbidden by the rector – riding the roundabout and watching the pickpockets at work. There is a danger of falling. Samuel falls.
At the age of 21, having passed the necessary exams, he sails, as a very green young man, to Hong Kong to begin a career in the Colonial Service. On the boat he is seduced by a luscious, promiscuous middle-aged woman on the way back to her husband. ‘“I’ve had a woman,” Samuel wrote to Reynolds (the letter could go into the post at Colombo). “I’ve had Mrs Darley.”’
At this point in the Bildungsroman, Wilson introduces another life story to alternate with Samuel’s and at times to run with it side by side. Among the passengers on the Pearl River is the eccentric old scholar Mr Jackson, an Edmund Backhouse-like figure, obsessed with prolonging his life by means of Taoist sexual techniques. To this end he has adopted Lily, a foundling picked up outside the walls of Suchow, and trained her in erotic exercises. But his little plum blossom must stay confined to the cabin. To have it known that he indulges in a Chinese girl would mean social death.
In a moment of calm after a tropical storm, Lily ventures out into the passageway. Samuel, who has never in his life encountered a Chinese person before, comes face to face with her. ‘There was no one else in the world, just the two of them in the quiet passage. A picture came into his mind from somewhere he had no idea – light moving on a stone wall. His heart slowed.’ But he continues to wallow with Mrs Darley in her stateroom.
Mr Jackson and Lily are asked to leave the ship at Penang. She does not meet Samuel again until they are both in Hong Kong. In this closed area of thirty square miles in the blue-green South China Sea the rest of the story is played out.
Wilson looks back to the island’s centuries of quiet days, when huge black swallow-tail butterflies fed almost undisturbed on the sparse flowers, until the British arrived in 1842. Since then ‘it had been cast off from the Dragon Empire and loosely anchored – though by the most modern means of communication – to a small barbarian island seven thousand miles away.’ Samuel, of course, is a small barbarian, and the blundering nervousness of the new cadets is most sympathetically described; you can tell how far they have come by how much they have to learn. They have a rigid hierarchy to serve, with fixed aspirations, though the women’s differ a little from the men’s. ‘We might die today,’ says the Colonial Secretary, ‘but at least I’ve left something behind me, sewerage, main drainage here. Justifies a man’s life.’ ‘Men,’ says the Postmaster General’s wife, ‘have their weaknesses. We are out here to make homes to keep them safe.’ Meanwhile, old Master Feng instructs the cadets in Cantonese and the Confucian Way: ‘The common people are ruled by their appetites, and it is therefore necessary for the gentleman to use his heart on their behalf.’ It is these common people, however, the teeming crowds in the narrow streets and the stinking tenements of Taipingshan, who strike fear into the hearts of the raw cadets. Whisky helps, but, as always, not enough. Young Henderson, who shares a house with Samuel, hangs himself at the beginning of the hot weather.
Official life in Hong Kong is also a struggle against Nature – the effort to maintain dignity in the stifling humid summer when your clothes are wet through in a few seconds, the hopeless rearguard action against mildew, putrescence, malaria. The Colonial Secretary’s dinner-party is cut short by a blinding storm – ‘Hong Kong rain, like a waterfall’ – and in one of the finest passages in the book Samuel is caught in a typhoon in the Tai Tam Valley and has to cling to the ground to save himself. But Nature also works in silence, underhand, undermining. Furniture collapses in powder, riddled with white ants, and documents have to be written on varnished paper, or the cockroaches will eat them. Although Leslie Wilson doesn’t attempt anything on the scale of Timothy Mo’s An Insular Possession, she gives a detailed, vivid, disturbing picture of Hong Kong as a patient adversary.
Lily herself, speaking English and Mandarin but no Cantonese, feels herself a foreigner in the island. After Mr Jackson’s grotesque death she is turned out on the streets, until she is picked up by the lady missionaries, Mrs Ellis and her sister. ‘“Come,” she said to Lily, and tugged her onward, pulling her through sudden pools of water: “hush, hush, hush,” said the rain, collaborating with the oppressor.’
Mrs Ellis, like almost all missionaries in English fiction, is self-deluded and repressed. She sets her captive to work in a steam laundry for repentant prostitutes. But Lily, whose wants are really very simple – a protector, a baby, a business of her own – is resilient. She goes with, instead of against, the spirit of the place. She finds her way to Samuel’s door, and at the cost of both his religious and his patriotic convictions he sets her up in a little furnished house near the Chinese cemetery. ‘He was living a lie, pretending to be a responsible government servant, while he did the one thing a white man must never do.’
Still convinced that he is the child of Queen Victoria, he must not fail the royal expectations. Every now and then he receives a mysterious letter from Scotland, surely from her Majesty, praising him as a dutiful son. His duty, as he well knows, is to maintain order and system. His greatest dread is formlessness.
The breathless spring mists had swallowed the nine dragon hills of Kowloon: he couldn’t see the Peak when he turned round, or anything beyond the dark arches of ranked godowns. The lights were coming up in a fuzz against the hanging warm vapour.
A sampan came up past him: the woman at the oar brought it to a halt with an expert twist, and the child with her jumped out and made it fast. They began to unload baskets of some struggling seafood: Samuel couldn’t see what it was, only that it was a mass that moved in an ugly way. Formlessness, he thought, is the most frightening thing of all. The muddle of the half-finished face, leering out from the mist to devour me. The hungry ghost.
The hungry ghost, who finally materialises, is his onetime tutor Reynolds, once thought of as a good sport, now – in his letters to Samuel – increasingly foul-mouthed and disreputable. Loitering from job to job, he threatens to come to Hong Kong, then does come, a hideously unwanted visitor. His seedy humility is a trap for Samuel, who ‘slid straight into it and was impaled on sharp pangs of self-reproach’. Reynolds, like Hong Kong’s snakes and rats, must somehow be expelled or exterminated, but how?
All this could not be better invented. The one weakness of the novel, it seems to me, is the lack of definition in Samuel himself. Even in colourful situations he remains, like Ernest Pontifex in The Way of All Flesh, dim. He never, it seems, gets over the indecisiveness he showed as a boy in the fairground (when he could have given money to a young man robbed by a pickpocket, but didn’t). His religious faith comes and goes, irregularly, and so does his compassion for the coolies. When thieves break into Lily’s house he hides under the bed and comes out thickly plastered with dust. He cries and vomits repeatedly, and (although I can’t believe this would be acceptable at the Hong Kong Club in the 1890s), pours whisky into his claret and port. Again like Ernest, he survives his disgrace on a comfortable income. I have to accept that he becomes a not-very-successful artist, trying to paint the ‘light on the wall’ which he had seen when he first met Lily. But although I enjoyed reading The Mountain of Immoderate Desires, I found it hard to care what happened to Samuel.
In an epilogue – a last affectionate glance at the Victorian classic – Leslie Wilson hands out much gentler fates to her characters than we might have expected. But by then they will have left – for Java, for Penang, for Singapore, for mainland China. There is neither consolation nor salvation for them in Hong Kong. Whether any kind of hint is intended for their successors a hundred years later, I’m not quite sure.