THE PEKING LETTER

A Novel of the Chinese Civil War

By Seymour Topping

Public Affairs. 300 pp. $25

Historical novels are a problem. Either the history suffers, or the novel does. In cases where history and personal experience overlap, the problem is sometimes less obvious, but it persists. Here is an example.

"The Peking Letter" is called "a novel of the Chinese civil war." The author is the distinguished correspondent and Asia hand Seymour Topping, who between 1946 and 1949 covered the civil war from both Nationalist and Communist sides, from Beijing and Nanking (Chiang Kai-shek's capital). The Communists were closing in on Beijing then, Americans were being evacuated from the mainland, the CIA was in its infancy and in America the congressional witch hunt for communist sympathizers was on.

"The Peking Letter" takes place against this historical background--rendered by a brilliant journalist who not only lived the history but has also managed to shape it into a setting for a romantic adventure. That much of the scene-setting takes the form of large blocks of explanatory text that fall out of the mouths of the characters in place of normal speech seems to go with the territory.

The hero of this adventure story is Eric Jensen, a young Chinese scholar with a specialty in Taoist philosophy. After fighting under Gen. Joseph Stilwell's command and distinguishing himself in battle during the reopening of the Burma Road, he stayed on in Beijing to further his work in the Taoist archives. A connoisseur of rare Chinese art objects, Jensen had been buying up antiques at distressed prices when he was recruited, under threat of exposure, by the CIA. His assignment was to cultivate the sympathy of students and intellectuals, "to keep open a channel to the Chinese people" in anticipation of the Communist takeover.

Jensen has just been kicked out, on account of rowdy behavior, of the language school that has served as his cover when he meets and falls in love with the lovely Li-nan, a university student. Soon he is swept off his feet in all kinds of ways--by Li-nan, by her involvement in a plan to protect Beijing from destruction when the Communists arrive and by the upheaval of the war all around. The quest for a crucial document (the Peking Letter) leads Jensen on a circular mission of derring-do that begins and ends in Beijing, with detours to other centers of intrigue and conflict: Nanking, Shanghai, Hsuchow and the Huaipei Plain. Along the way he encounters the devastation of savage battles, flies swarming on piles of amputated limbs, torture and treachery, suicides in the face of defeat--all the familiar brutalities of war. Familiar but mostly undifferentiated--like the characters themselves.

These characters, alas, tend to look alike--despite the author's attention to bone structure. One has "high cheekbones suggestive of Manchu ancestors." Another's "wide cheekbones marked him as Mongolian." Even a "hawk-faced" character manages to have high cheekbones. There is one old scholar whose cheekbones go unmentioned, maybe because he's "ageless" and "forever smiling." The Chinese women in this book lower their dark eyes and bow politely. The unattached foreign women are not so graceful--they "sashayed about China" and were "considered unsavory, slipping from one job to another."

When one of them ends up in bed with Jensen, she wakes up the next morning and "strands of hair loose from her bun strayed over her cheek, her mascara was streaked, and a button was missing from her white blouse." Our hero, who has done quite a bit of sashaying about China himself, presumably doesn't have one hair out of place. He is "engrossing, a man of bewildering contrasts." Often, though, he seems more bewildered than bewildering. When a French diplomat speaks of the civil war as a game of generals and politicians, Jensen is baffled. "Game? . . . But what about the ordinary Chinese?"

Even readers with limited knowledge of Chinese civil war history (myself included) will sense from his many nicely observed details of place and mood the author's caring for historical accuracy. If only he were as caring of personality. Even when the big players make an appearance, they have all the substance of cardboard. Chiang Kai-shek is "ramrod erect" and "deep with Confucian humility." Of Communist Defense Minister Lin Piao's appearance we learn only that he was "dressed in a wrinkled fatigue uniform and black peaked cap."

Perhaps it's wrong of me to nitpick at a book that will satisfy a certain nostalgia for a time when Communists were Chicoms and Nationalists were Nats, when prostitutes were singsong girls and sex could be described simply as "a night of delights," when rickshaw men still said, "Likee girlie?" Maybe Jensen has the right idea when he thinks, "It's all like a bad Hollywood movie . . . and this gave him reassurance." I wish I could say the same.