Wilding’s hero must navigate Kolkata’s chaotic streets.ASIAN DAWN. By Michael Wilding. Arcadia. 226pp. $24.95
Plant, the astutely named private detective in Michael Wilding’s novels, knows little about Asia and cares less about going there. But in this latest yarn, he shakes off his grass-induced torpor, leaves his Queensland hideaway and, drawn to the offer of paid work and a credit card, takes the case.
The elegant owner of a Gold Coast gallery, Alice Ackerman, wants him to find her husband Alec, who is missing, somewhere in the region. ”Asia. It covered a lot of territory,” Plant reflects.
Trawling for Alec through Bangkok, Kolkata, Manila, Baguio, Singapore, and Pattaya, Plant nets some large, small, and queer fish, some of whom literally make him sick.
All the perfumes of Arabia will not redeem his Kolkata hotel room after one such episode. In his bycatch are bottom-feeding species from academia, publishing, and intelligence. All are served up for satire, as is Plant himself: for in his time he has fought the work ethic, and has said yes to free love, contraception, and drugs.
All these, Plant learns, are now global industries owned by the same names.
Academics, Alice tells him, ”are jealous people. Not a very nice breed at all.” She seems to be right: ”A good lad for someone who wasn’t a footballer,” is the best recommendation an Australian professor has for Plant. Getting his own back, the current breed of academics, Plant alleges, favour baggy clothes, body piercing and androgyny. One of them, Dr Bowles, who has wangled a university job in Bangkok, scores cheap sex by hanging around the brothels until closing time. He is sarcastically called ”Bowels” by Prem, an ex-Colombo Plan student who, having overstayed, knows so much about Australia that he can call it ”the lucky country” and giggle.
Bowles is a spook, according to Professor Ghosh, the missing Alec’s former Sydney colleague, who staggers on with a silver-topped stick, and imperiously orders Plant about. Ganja is no longer available in Kolkata, he declares, just before Plant buys a bagful in the street.
Ghosh delivers long, impassioned, self-interested assertions about all and sundry yet fails to impart the key information he has about where Alec is.
As for publications, Ghosh and Alec have achieved precious little. At Asian Dawn Publishing, their Manila affiliate, the same applies to Johnny the bookseller and Alfredo the writer. One accepts subsidies from the CIA and the other writes propaganda for some mayor. No books are visible. There are, Johnny laments, ”so many fronts and feints and subterfuges in this part of the world”.
Secret agencies threaten people for doing what they are themselves engaged in. Today’s bogey is terrorists, yesterday it was guerillas. General MacArthur in the Philippines, Plant is reminded, had the communists declared illegal after they won seats in the 1950 elections, creating the Hukbalahap rebellion.
When Benigno Aquino flew back to Manila to contest the 1983 elections, at the airport a security man shot him and was then shot too, American style. (Plant’s informants call him ”Nino” instead of Ninoy).
James Bond he is not, nor George Clooney either, but Plant is not always the slouch he appears to be. A master of the one-word sentence and quick repartee, he gives little away. The problem is, neither does anyone else. Even after Plant locates Alec he loses him again not once but twice, and in the end Alec’s death remains unexplained, as do the deaths of Bowles and Starr, the CIA agent.
The name Kolkata dates the story after 2001, but from Plant’s reluctant use of the internet you’d hardly know it. Having no laptop, Plant wonders whether to make a list in his head or commit it to paper which might be found.
Ghosh and Ackerman seem not to have computers and don’t use email. None of them has a mobile phone. Plant hunts for monographs in the library and bookshop, not in the university’s web catalogue, and when trying to find out Starr’s background he doesn’t think of Google or Facebook. Why ever not?
On page one, Plant humbly admits another shortcoming: he’s never been good with strong women. Both Alice and the only other woman in the story, Anna-Imelda, are always either in come-on or dominatrix mode, implying that when they are good they are good for one thing, and when they are not they are horrid.
Both have lived with Alec, but Plant’s one-sentence questioning style elicits nothing about those relationships, let alone why either might want him dead. Both proposition Plant, and the last page leaves it open whether or not he will succumb to Alice’s charms.
So in spite of Wilding’s subtle humour, and his perceptive observation of several Asian societies, the novel remains unconsummated. A sequel will be welcome.
This story Administrator ready to work first appeared on Nanjing Night Net.