The beefy Englishman, with an unlit pipe clenched between his teeth, squats in the dust outside a tent in a bandit camp in Shansi province in central China. The Englishman, who is given a nationality but not a name, knows he will soon be executed. The charges don't matter--running guns, failure to pay ransom, a cheeky attitude--for this is turbulent, seething, anarchic China in 1927.
Squatting next to the doomed Brit is an American prisoner, Phillip Embree--Yalie, would-be missionary and impressionable man-boy who has decided to go native. The Englishman frowns as he notices Embree's coolie garb and says with foreshadowing, "Don't take up with them . . . China's not for us, lad. Do what you came for, then get out."
That brief scene comes early in "The Warlord" and before I had turned the last of the novel's 717 pages I had come to wish that novelist Malcolm Bosse had taken his own advice: Do what you came for, then get out.
In that case, Bosse would have devoted his full attention to the bittersweet love affair that is at the core of the novel--the odd coupling between the good and wise warlord General Tang and Vera Rogacheva, the beautiful, dark-haired Czarist refugee who had survived the degradation of a Shanghai brothel.
Instead, Bosse was determined to write a panoramic novel of China, a kind of Oriental "Winds of War." The result is a mishmash of extraneous scenes and characters. Repeatedly, the story is left dangling for chapters as Bosse sets out to capture the pageantry of this inscrutable land menaced by greedy warlords (including a rising Chiang Kai-shek), the rapacious Japanese, cynical Europeans and the never-to-be-underestimated communists.
Bosse, for example, cannot resist the temptation to give Mao a three-page walk-on role in the novel. This, of course, necessitates the invention of a character to make the grueling trek to "the scrubby, fog-shrouded southern mountains of Chingkangshan" where Mao is encamped after the Long March. This mission to Mao, which occurs late in the novel, is performed by Comintern agent Vladimir Kovalik, who has come to China to spread the Trotskyite gospel of world revolution.
We first meet Kovalik in the crowded camp of General Tang, where he has been abandoned when his sponsor, Borodin, went into eclipse. Revolutionary despair leads to opium addiction, which produces long, harrowing descriptions of Kovalik going cold turkey. Intermittently interesting, perhaps, but almost totally detached from the problems of Vera Rogacheva and General Tang. What, you may wonder, does Mao finally say to Kovalik to justify this lengthy interruption of the novel's narrative flow: "We Chinese are sometimes taken in. If our foreign comrades fart, we call it perfume."
Bosse displays an impressive mastery of Chinese history and politics, but this skill is marred by his persistent problems with the basics of logical character development.
Take our missionary friend, Phillip Embree, who undergoes a conversion experience as unlikely as Patty Hearst's. One moment he is a strait-laced true-believer riding a train across central China, the next he is staring in rapt attention as bandits decapitate an aide to General Tang. One clean stroke of the executioner's blade and Embree is marveling that "never before has he felt so completely alive, so filled with a zest for experinece, so inherently powerful."
Embree emerges as the Frank Merriwell of Tang's army. He learns the Mongol trick of sleeping on a horse, wins an army sports-day trophy, and, of course, saves the good general from a bomb attack. Despite these breathless feats of derring-do, Embree is one fictional character who would have been far more interesting had he remained a dutiful missionary.
Given these structural deficiencies, "The Warlord" would be as forgettable as pre-frozen eggrolls were it not for Bosse's haunting portrayal of Tang. A Confucian idealist and fierce patriot who refuses to make a deal with the Japanese or the communists, Tang is the perfect fictional embodiment of American sentimental might-have-beens about China. Despite his forbidden love for Vera Rogacheva, whom he calls "Black Jade," in the end it is politics, not romance, that holds our interest.
Tang is the classic doomed hero--in storybook fashion he loves to travel around China incognito--trying to maintain tradition in a period of anarchy and greed. Militarily his situation is untenable, devoid of reliable allies, yet defending the crossroads of China. But even here Bosse's writing is mawkish and overdrawn: "In his search for allies he has travelled nearly the length of China, knowing that without help he is doomed, Black Jade doomed too, and his army, and perhaps the entire land."
In the end we may weep for the destruction of traditional Chinese civilization that Malcolm Bosse so clearly loves, but our tears are inspired solely by the political tragedy and not by this all-too-flawed novel.