Reviewed by Shantanu Bhattacharya
This is a remarkable book in many ways - ambitious, layered, dense with characters, and obviously the product of a lot of research. It spans two countries in terms of geography, but references a dozen others. It has a singular plot, but a plurality of digressions, lending it the air of a putative epic novel. Kunal Basu has been writing for some time with a fair amount of success and it is fair to say that he has a pretty sure grip over the language and the milieu he writes about. He knows a lot about the orient and his best success previously has been a story based in far East - The Japanese Wife, later made into a eponymous arthouse movie.
The Yellow Emperor's Cure is set primarily in China in the era between the Opium wars and the Boxer rebellion. The protagonist, Antonio, is a brilliant Portuguese libertine and surgeon, whose charmed, and charming, life is rudely jolted by the news that his famous, hugely admired father has contracted a deadly form of syphilis. That one fact changes him completely, starting him on an obsessive quest for finding a cure for the deadly disease and save his beloved father. He soon realizes that there is no cure in Europe or America - just a few hints and rumors of a almost magical cure in China guarded by their inscrutable doctors and medicine men. This is based on anecdotal information that the Chinese seemed not to be as affected by syphilis as the Europeans. The European sailors came back racked by the disease after visiting the fleshpots of the Far East regularly, while the Chinese seemed to fare better overall.
In his desperate quest for the "Yellow Emperor's Cure", Antonio leaves his both his best friend and betrothed behind and sets sail for China. Luckily for him, his father's fame, and his own stature and connections ensure that he's welcomed and given royal treatment wherever he travels. Even in Peking, he is provided bed and food at the Dowager Empress' palace with the empress' personal doctor Xu teaching him the Chinese systems of medicine. His native European arrogance frequently causes him to dismiss the esoteric methods the Chinese use, while his desperation to cure his father makes him an impatient student.
That is, till the doctor's beautiful assistant, Fumi, arrives as a replacement teacher.
The mysterious Fumi turns his world upside down, acting as both teacher and lover, friend and maddeningly exotic adversary. Her dark past and incomplete back story consumes Antonio, who now wants to know everything about her and her earlier, murdered paramour. In fact the book now takes a turn towards a mystery novel where Antonio now wants to know more about Xu, Fumi and the Empress, but his quest gets more and more dangerous, because the anti-foreigner Boxer Rebellion has started. Whose side are the Chinese on? Are they friend, or foe? What will happen to Antonio and hs quest for the cure? These answers take up the last third of the book.
In the middle of all this there are a host of characters, mostly European, some with important and many others with bit parts to play - most of them representing various nationalities who stay in closed walled communities, gotten rich because of the opium trade, but now scared for their livelihoods (and lives) because of the incipient and inevitable Boxers' "spirit army" revolution. Add to these eunuchs, prostitutes, soldiers, beggars, thieves, and you have a cornucopia of characters that should make for a rollickingly colourful and exciting book.
The puzzle then for me was - and there is no way to put it delicately - with all these elements mixed in, why is so much of the book such a crashing bore?
There were stages in the book where I could barely will myself to turn the next page, so somnolent were the words, so static the story. Of course some parts are interesting and informative, but nowhere while reading the book could I ever use the word "excited" to describe my experience. Now, I am perfectly willing to believe that it's my failing. My tastes might have been corrupted by reading too many Steig Larssons and not enough "literary novels". But the truth is, as I reread my comments above, they seem to promise a book more interesting than the one I actually read.
This is not to say it's a bad book. It is obviously is the product of an enormous amount of research. I just wish Mr. Basu had resisted the impulse to put it all in this one book - the number of characters is immense - at least 5-10 could have easily been cut out. Some details are redundant - used only to prove Mr. Basu's research rather than contribute to the book in any tangible way. I get the feeling there is a more interesting book hidden within this one - one that is only 250 pages long instead of the current 350 odd pages.
For people who like arcana and milieu-based novels, this book might yet be a good read. I suggest they go for it. People who prefer shorter, snappier, faster reads should probably skip this one.
About Shantanu: I work as Chief Learning Designer with Tata Interactive Systems. I hold a Masters in Literature and love reading and movies - though I have very little time for either nowadays. I am active on social networks like Facebook and Twitter (@shantanub) and am a complete news and current affairs junkie. Currently though, my most satisfying job is being father to a 5 and half year old girl.