home | login | register | DMCA | contacts | help | donate |      


my bookshelf | genres | recommend | rating of books | rating of authors | reviews | new | | collections | | | add


Chan commuted from bed to sofa to kitchen-and back. Every two hours or so he took a vertical voyage up to the filthy roof or down to the swarming street.

Staying home was a study in domestic clich'es. In the flat above a Chinese couple nurtured an eight-year-old daughter. At seven forty-five exactly the husband took the lift to go to work. Half an hour later the wife took the daughter to school. In the lift he heard her talking to a friend about money and emigrating to New Zealand. Below a French couple had fights over breakfast. The man went to work at eight-thirty while his wife stayed home. From his travels in the lift Chan knew that around ten oclock a tall Chinese man visited her. French culture was based on adultery. He had read that somewhere.

He held out stoically against the temptation to telephone Moira in New York. Instead, he conjured those welcoming breasts in a variety of fantasies, not all of them erotic. The most tantalizing was a dream in which they appeared beside him on the bed. In the dream he dreamed he slept between them. He believed it was the closest he came to full-fledged unconsciousness. Insomnia was at its worst now that there was nothing to do during the day. At night his mind raged like a tiger on amphetamines, though he used nothing stronger than beer and nicotine.

He found that television was intended for minds exhausted by a full days work. Now that he was cursed with an attention span, its messages had the substance of cotton candy; did anyone over the age of twelve actually watch MTV?

Outside, Hong Kong buzzed like a high-voltage cable. When he went out to buy cigarettes or beer, he saw the people of Mongkok as through glass, saw the frenetic energy, the tunnel obsession with the task of the moment, the exhilaration of work, the invisible joy of being free from all choices, of having ones mind harnessed by the simple, all-consuming obligation to make money. He envied them their liberation from wayward thoughts, self-obsession, doubts about the meaning of life.

He thought of the two divers who had died hating him; he thought of Higgins swollen and skinned like a monstrous pig; he thought of radiation sickness and the word exfoliation. He thought also of the enigma of Cuthbert. At home he ransacked his library, which lay hidden in a wardrobe that could not be opened without moving the bed. When he did so, old books tumbled out like corpses, each one a mood or hope or perception hed once entertained for a long, sleepless night, before killing it in the morning.

As an officer in the Hong Kong Police Force Chan didnt need to be secretive about his reading. No one would have believed him anyway. He rarely admitted it, but it was a fact that his father had just had time to communicate a wanderers eclectic taste: the poetry of Rudyard Kipling, W. B. Yeats and e. e. cummings; the books of Lewis Carroll; the Rubaiy'at of Omar Khayy'am-not in book form; the Irishman had known the seventy-stanza poem off by heart. What the wanderer had really communicated, though, was a Celtic tendency to seek answers in books.

Chan had read a great deal about modern China and about the British, his colonial masters. Hed decided that the latter formed the greater enigma. Pompous, blundering fools for the most part, racist exploiters who had never begun to understand the true wealth or depth of the Oriental cultures they were plundering, yet it seemed that every now and then this insensitive people gave birth to a genius so exalted that it defied classification. The best book about China hed ever read was by an Englishman whod never been there and who didnt know that he was writing about the PRC. By an uncanny coincidence 1984 was published the same year that Mao founded the Peoples Republic of China. All the cruel perversity of Maos regime was contained in the first sentence of the book, which he had memorized in two lines as if it were a Chinese poem:

It was a bright cold day in April,

And the clocks were striking thirteen.

It was from Orwells gray hell that Mai-mai had escaped and to which shed finally returned. Indeed it was mostly Mai-mai he looked for in the books, and she was not difficult to find. In a manner of speaking she was the Asian twentieth century: a simple peasant caught between two heartless systems that had ground her to dust. At three in the morning, alone with the neon leaking through the curtains, Chan wondered if the same were not happening to her son.

He should, he knew, have been concentrating on means of extricating himself from his predicament. Indeed the peculiar anguish of false accusation, a kind of spiritual nausea that clawed at the hackles, choked him from time to time with a murderous rage. Strangely, though, it passed in minutes. For long stretches of time his own case merged in his mind with that of a billion others. Frequently the image of an old Chinese man with long sparse beard and incongruous John Lennon T-shirt popped into his mind and seemed to beckon like a sage of ancient times.

Ever since boyhood Chan had recognized in himself a fatal tendency to vibrate at the same frequency as certain tragic souls. On the rare occasions that he and Jenny had gone to the movies he always emerged choked from overidentification with the hero. Jenny was always thrilled by the action; horses, guns and blood cheered her up.

Like a powerful lover, the old man was difficult to resist, but Chan foresaw only pain, embarrassment and failure. Thursday evening he dragged his feet on the way to Wanchai and took time to buy a bottle of Jack Daniels, the sages favorite liquor. When he arrived, the old man was alone and morose.

What happened to your meeting, your recruits?

The old man shrugged. They both have New Zealand passports. What do they care about laogai? China, a quarter of the worlds population, can go fuck itself. They think.

How far did you get?

Not to the pictures. Ever since I showed them to you and you freaked out, Ive been quiet about the photographs.

Im a special case. They killed my mother.

Not so special. They killed a million mothers.

Want me to go?

I wanted you to be on time. You might have made a difference.


The old man was working himself up to an unsagelike fury. Why does nobody care? The Chinese prison system, the laogaidui, uses slaves, slaves, to produce wine, tea, paper, cars, opium, heroin that it sells to the West. Over fifty million people have been imprisoned in laogai since 1949; thats almost the population of England. And nobody gives a fuck. Why? When Solzhenitsyn wrote about the Soviet gulag, they practically beatified him.

You know why. Were yellow, Asiatic. The white man cant relate to us. In the back of his mind were basically slave material anyway. Less than a hundred years ago we were selling each other into slavery in the West Indies and Brazil. They dont care because we dont care. Have a drink.

Chan went to the kitchen to fetch glasses. He opened the whiskey and poured two generous slugs. The old man hardly looked at the glass before knocking back half the contents. He breathed out appreciatively.

You have your uses. He expelled some of his rage with a sigh. Youre partly right, the race thing. Its also the sheer mass: one point four billion! How do you even begin to communicate? I tell myself youve got to start somewhere. Hong Kong seemed a good place. But here everyone has other concerns. How to make money or how to escape. Or both. And then I have a credibility problem. Im too old, too weird and not even Cantonese. I guess I come across as a pompous old fart. The old man finished the whiskey in one long swallow, smacked his lips and held the glass out for more. Im out of sync with the times. Ezra Pound said that. Look, while were still sober, would you listen to my presentation? I recorded it. Thats what salesmen do these days, so Im told. He fetched a tape recorder from one of the shelves, placed it beside him on the sofa and switched it on. His voice emerged from the machine in a slow, steady and, to Chan, haunting rhythm.

Slavery is like malaria, the voice said. Forty years ago it seemed as if it had been eradicated worldwide except for a few small, isolated pockets. But nothing mutates like evil. The twentieth century will be remembered for many awful things, but whos predicting that it will be the century when numerically more human beings were enslaved than at any time in history? No one except me.

Bad start, Chan thought. A shocking and difficult idea delivered pitilessly. On the tape a woman said irritably: You havent told us why you were imprisoned in the first place.

Good question. When I was nineteen, my father had saved up enough to send me to study humanities at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in the United States of America. It was 1947. I specialized in English and American literature. After graduation I went back to be part of the great adventure of socialism, the finest challenge and the greatest revolution in the history of mankind.

There was a long silence while the tape wound on; then the old man finally resumed. I had about a month teaching English at the University of Beijing before my first purge. See, no true Communist could believe that anyone would be dumb enough to leave the United States to return to China. I had to be a capitalist spy. From then on I was branded socially.

Chan got up to pause the tape. Bad mistake.

The old man rolled his eyes. I know.

Never tell Chinese youre branded socially. Theyll brand you socially.

I know.

For Gods sake, it was you who told me that stuff about cultures of shame, cultures of guilt.

The old man groaned. Youre a ruthless coach.

The Chinese have a culture of shame par excellence. To be branded socially is the ultimate sanction, a kind of death penalty. Thats how weve been manipulated by a ruling class for five thousand years.

The old man switched off the tape recorder. Youre right, definitely lost them there. Tons too heavy. He picked up the glass that Chan had replenished. What the hell. Am I wrong or are they? I worry about human destiny, the obscenity of slavery in the late twentieth century. They think about what kind of washing machine theyll have in New Zealand, how life will be without a Filipina servant. My soul may be black, but at least I have a soul.

You should be more forgiving, Chan said. You had forty years to meditate on the human condition. Theyre lucky if they get five minutes on the underground on the way home.

The old man finished the whiskey again and smirked. Dont insult my virility. Forty years thinking about the human condition, are you crazy? I spent forty years thinking about women. Why dyou think I live in the red-light district?

Chan watched the old man laugh. He was free, this old man; behind his outrage he walked with his god. Was that the way to go? In an inverted world, stand on your head and let the gods decide who was right? Did Chan want to end up like that?

At the door the old man held his elbow for a moment.

Answer me one question. Thirty miles north over the border theyre starving girl orphans to death in state-run orphanages. Why dont we care?

When Chan searched his face, the old man held up his hand. Im not being self-righteous here; its a simple question. The peasants dump little girls down wells; the state exterminates them. You know about it, I know about it, America and Europe know about it, it was on CNN-why dont we care?

Chan was still pondering this question the next day when the commissioner of police himself telephoned to invite him to a meeting the following morning.

| The Last Six Million Seconds | c