In the opening scene of The Yellow Emperor’s Cure, Kunal Basu’s fourth novel, the reader meets the surgeon Antonio Maria, “the most eligible bachelor” in fin de siècle Lisbon. He is preparing for the feast of St Anthony, during which he has every intention of quenching his thirst for wine, women and song. The festa is shortly revealed to be a bummer, however, when Antonio learns that his similarly rakish father is in the advanced stages of syphilis—“French Disease, Spanish Itch, German Rash or Polish Pox”.
The diagnosis is something of an end of an era for the louche Marias, who were “both blessed with the same dashing looks and the air of sweet insolence”. The city is ruined for Antonio. “Wherever he went, Lisbon stank of rotting genitals,” Basu writes.
Unable to cope with his father’s decline and death, Antonio is at a loose end, until he hears that though syphilis is a “disease of sailors”, no Chinese sailors are afflicted by it. On the basis of this flimsy lead, Antonio decides to travel to China to learn the cure for syphilis, said to be contained in the “Yellow Emperor’s Canon”, fully expecting to be back in Lisbon, “treating patients and fathering babies with a new wife”, by next year’s festa.
Things get complicated in Peking, though, where Antonio is installed at the Empress Dowager Cixi’s Summer Palace, some 40 years after it was sacked by the British after the second Opium War. Antonio is frustrated by his enigmatic teacher, Dr Xu, who isn’t forthcoming with the syphilis cure and is generally an absconder who leaves Antonio in the hands of his beautiful, but predictably mysterious, assistant Fumi (Dr Xu is also a “eunuch maker”, naturally unsettling to a Lothario like Antonio).
Chinese whisper: Basu’s hero sails the world in search of a syphilis cure. Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Adding to the urgency for Antonio, who just wants to learn the syphilis cure and be on his way, is the fact that the Boxer Rebellion—during which some Chinese rebelled against foreign commercial and religious influence—is on. Inevitably, against the backdrop of impending violence, Antonio falls hard for Fumi, who has been laboriously teaching him the principles of Nei Ching, or traditional Chinese medicine. “In just a few seasons he had lost the fire that had made him the most successful doctor in Lisbon, turning him into a lovesick wretch,” writes Basu.
Though he remains petulant and impatient with the progress of his medical training, learning the syphilis cure eventually becomes secondary for Antonio, who becomes preoccupied with getting to the bottom of the mysterious death of Fumi’s previous foreign lover, Jacob de Graff, a Dutch printer of Bibles. Naturally, Antonio wants to take Fumi back to Lisbon, but Fumi is, we learn, bent on avenging de Graff’s killers, to accomplish which she must align herself with the shadowy Boxers. As the novel lurches to its denouement, Antonio finds himself trapped between his commitment to his Chinese patients and a motley crew of foreigners living at the international legation, the siege of which by the Boxers is imminent.
The Yellow Emperor’s Cure: Picador India, 325 pages, Rs 499.
Basu’s novel owes a great deal to J.G. Farrell’s empire trilogy, historical novels about the folly of colonialism in which disparate groups of Westerners deal with shifting sands abroad, be it the siege of a residency during the first Indian War of Independence or the fall of Singapore to the Japanese during World War II. But where Farrell succeeds in creating sympathy for all actors and finding humour in dire situations, Basu’s characters are one-dimensional, the plot is turgid and the language feels canned.
While the book has value as enhancing the historical record in English on China during the Boxer Rebellion, it has less in common with Farrell—or with Amitav Ghosh, to whom Basu is compared on the book’s jacket—than with Night in Bombay, Louis Bromfield’s recently re-released novel of Bombay in the 1930s: another book of historical import that doesn’t succeed simply as a novel.