Ways of looking back are a recurring concern in Christopher New's China Coast Trilogy. In the final book, A Change of Flag, memory becomes a central theme as the protagonists' retrospection - frequently involving a recounting of events that take place in the earlier novels - structures the narrative.
Metaphors for the act of remembering and forgetting can be said to be significantly obtrusive. The novel opens up with the arrival of a newcomer to Hong Kong, but as Rachel sits in the descending aeroplane, she is musing over an old photograph that depicts her stepmother's family in the 1940s. It is a glimpse of the protagonists of New's earlier novels, reminding the loyal reader of those other stories and at the same time introducing the recurring theme of memory and its most frequently evoked metaphor - the critically, sentimentally, or blankly studied photograph. Memories are repeatedly likened to something that can be collected. Grace Denton retreats into her "re-collection" of the past: “For years now she’d been collecting memories as others collected rare books or scrolls or antique furniture. Some she lost – they slipped out of her consciousness; but she was always gaining others." (244) Yet there are also other forms of - less consciously - recalled memories, complicating the historical novel's reassessment of the past and of ways of representing it by juxtaposing nostalgia with trauma. Michael Denton's mutilated finger, for instance, forms “a kind of solid memory” (76). But while still attempting to come to terms with the most traumatising experience of his childhood - his abduction - Michael is also conscious of the comforting effects of pleasant memories, of the constructive side of nostalgia. He wishes to plant nostalgia for the landscape of their home, a memory of place, in his children:
They’d always come to that bay because he’d wanted to plant it in his children, to grow it in their bodies, in their brains, like bone and muscle, that blue-grey water and brilliant sky, that strip of sand beside the grass and trees, those long, careless, tranquil afternoons. With a stolid obstinate passion he’d wanted all that to grow in them, like a farmer planting trees that he knew might not bear fruit till long after his death. He wanted it for them because he hadn’t had it himself, and he knew the harm the lack of it had done him. They must have it; it must be rooted in their memories, to strengthen them against the day, whenever it might come – but he was sure it would come – when things went wrong and the ground just slid beneath their feet. (93-94)
Michael Denton's engagement with memory is easily the most conflicted one in the novel. At one point, he even feels "an irrational regret" (56) over the removal of rat-bins: “Michael thought of the little rat-bins you could still see about the place, from the last plague outbreak in the twenties. The Government had had them fixed to lamp-posts for dead rats to be put in and a van would come round once a day to collect them for examination." (56) As the old lamp-posts are being replaced, the bins disappear as well. To Michael they are another part of a familiar landscape that rapidly changes: "He’d have liked to see the past embalmed, nothing lost, not even the rat-bins.” (56) His regretful musings come shortly after his stroll in a graveyard to which his historical research has taken him. However, his historical and archeological interest in the past is sharply contrasted with Dimitri's rejection of any such deliberately preserved signs of the past. The graveyard to which he accompanies Michael reminds him of his dead wife: “He was glad Helen had been cremated. He wouldn’t want to find a stone engraved Killed herself because her husband had a mistress. Not that he would of course. They’d be more discreet – but, all the same, it would remind him.” (56) The contrast between Michael's selective regrets of the disappearing signs of the past and Dimitri's self-ironic analysis of his own need to forget pinpoints the protagonists' - and the novel's - difficult relationship with the past:
Dimitri thought irony was the one advantage life had given him over Michael. Not that he’d always had it; it was a quality he acquired only with disillusionment, and he hadn’t always been disillusioned. [....] On the other hand, the greatest advantage Michael had over Dimitri was his unvarying satisfaction, his completedness, in his inveterate passion for history. Nothing was so weird, so noble or so vile but that some obscure and ordinary person had done it, even on that barren rock of Hong Kong, and Michael had to find out how and why. (308)
Christopher New's novels combine historical interest and the fictional recreation of a past era with a retrospective irony. His protagonists significantly show a contrasting variety of attitudes to the past and uses of memory, ranging from the historical and the ironic to the bitter and the frivolous. Michael's historical research leads him to compare the life of the minor official whose life he studies to the very similar shady past of his own father, and ultimately to his own life. As New's trilogy seems to be implicitly suggesting or re-enacting, history keeps repeating itself after all: “He thought of Caldwell, that minor colonial official a hundred years ago, whose life he was uncovering now. He thought of his own father in Shanghai. Each of them had been tainted by shady dealing. Was he to be tainted himself in the same way?” (111)
The bitterness that induces his sister Lily to write a book on "the fourth world" (communist China) that is to describe her experience during and after the Cultural Revolution moreover forms a negative counterexample to Michael's personally informed historical interests. Similarly, the cheerfully resigned Chu, Lily's only friend, not only contrasts with embittered Lily, but also with frivolous Elena, Dimitri's daughter. Elena is “dedicatedly frivolous” (136) as she makes "light of everything:" "As though she was simply oblivious of starvation and cancer and torture, of people cutting each other’s throat for a belief and murdering for a flag. She blotted them all out, as she’s blotted out the memory [...] of those weeks after her mother’s death.” (136-137) In the same pattern of contrasting forms of remembering and recollecting, Grace's collections of memory are significantly compared to the similar remoteness of her mentally ill son Paul. The "lightness of being" - a recurring phrase in a book full of literary allusions - that informs Dimitri's ironic and self-ironic reassessment of the past is similarly also Patrick Denton's last thought, as his even more extreme self-irony fails to protect him from the phantasmagoric memories of a murder he witnessed, which is closely connected to his own humiliation. Such pairings of contrasting characters and juxtaposed events permeate not only A Change of Flag, but connects it to the previous volumes in the trilogy, as the re-collections of the past become the central motif and structuring pattern of the final novel.
Last Modified: 8 October 2002