This buxom book raises the question, What is the reader of sagas looking for? History the easy way, for one thing. Local color, for another. Romance, of course. And most of all the kind of storytelling prowess that transforms several hours' worth of reading into the illusion of decades passing and generations succeeding one another while the human predicament abides unresolved. "Fire in Heaven," the second volume of Malcolm Bosse's Asian saga, delivers almost all of these commodities.
Consider history. Someone interested in, say, American policy toward China in the 1940s but unwilling to tackle such works as Barbara Tuchman's "Stilwell and the American Experience in China" could glean the essentials from Bosse. Chiang Kai-shek's managerial style, for example, comes across strikingly in this bit of dialogue. "He cut regimental orders for Burma when he was in Chungking two thousand miles away. By the time his orders got transmitted they were meaningless. Once I met a Chinese commander who told me this story. During a battle he received a message from the Gimo telling him to give the troops watermelon, because it was good for morale."
There is local color aplenty, including the obligatory open-air market vignettes, which Bosse does as well as anyone in the saga line. "Frogs leap about helplessly in netted bags," he writes of a crowded Bangkok lane; "live perch, their gills laboring, lie in round bamboo trays; and butchers carve up hog guts for jostling housewives. The air, pierced by shouting, clouded by charcoal smoke, is pungent with the death smell of animals . . . "
Bosse delivers romance in several bouquets. In Bangkok young Sonia Embree is aswoon over Chamlong, an aspiring Communist who gladly takes her virginity. Her Russian mother Vera is having a lesbian affair. In China Sonia's estranged stepfather Philip Embree wants to link up with the two women again. When Vera refuses to leave her antique business, he comes to Bangkok, bent on redeeming at least two of the many betrayals he has committed in his lifetime: of the Chinese general who fathered Sonia (Philip set him up for assassination in return for his and the pregnant Vera's safe passage out of China in 1929) and of Vera herself (whom he left for the heady life of a China hand under Stilwell in 1939).
A third betrayal, of his British friend Harry, haunts Philip most of all. During World War II he and Harry went off on a Burmese mission together, and the latter came down with a fever. On the way to get help, Philip let a Japanese patrol divert him. For two days he followed them to no purpose -- he had no weapons or radio -- but slaking his thirst for excitement. By the time he got back to Harry, catastrophe had intervened. Shot by another patrol, Harry was near death and in great pain. Instead of granting the wounded man's request to be shot and delivered from agony, Philip ran away for a couple of hours. When he returned, Harry was dead.
Just as Philip arrives in Thailand burdened with this crowded expiatory agenda, Sonia and Chamlong run off to revolutionary China together. Since in Vera's words Philip is "doomed to pursue senseless adventure," she dispatches him on a mission with a goal: He is to return to China, track down Sonia, pry her loose from Chamlong and the revolution, and bring her home. He can hardly refuse.
This is a promising plot, and some of Bosse's characters are well worth spending hundreds of pages with. I think especially of Vera, an ex-whore whose last vestiges of beauty are fading day by day, and Rama, the Tamil servant who leaves his wife and children to follow Philip in male-bonded mimicry of the American's wanderlust.
But the novel is marred by inexorability. Bosse reverts to themes like Philip's redemption and Sonia's forced maturation with such neat periodicity and in such plodding detail that his narration lacks gusto -- and certainly surprise. When Philip suffers a wound exactly like Harry's, the pattern becomes forced. And you can easily guess which ostensibly unlikely pair will end up having an affair in China because directional arrows have been pointing their way for about a hundred preceding pages.
Granted, keeping a 600-plus-page unit of a saga under control is a formidable task. But Malcolm Bosse, I am afraid, has erred on the side of predictability. His "Fire" could have used the auctorial equivalent of a vigorous poker thrust.