One of the strangest things happened while I was reading this book. One of the main plotlines (regarding the Pashtun tribes) simply disappeared, never to be seen again.
While reading this book I invested a lot of time and interest in the Pashtuns. They were so fascinating that I ended up researching them online. Their plight in the book’s narrative was conveyed in such excruciating detail that I naturally assumed they would become one of the main players of the novel. Yet they were tossed to the side, as the novel’s chapters centered more and more on Wang, the titular Spy Master, and his allies and foes in the Chinese government.
The book goes into satisfying detail covering the backgrounds of its major players, even elaborating on the backgrounds of minor characters that you never hear from again. Wang and his associates study the Pashtun case (dubbed Operation Kashgar) in great detail, and the reader is challenged to keep up with the identities of an endless stream of characters.
In “The Chinese Spymaster,” a variety of international arms dealers try and sell nuclear weapons to the Pashtuns. (Who are the Pashtuns? Think of the 1985 National Geographic cover girl with the bright green eyes). The Pashtun tribes want a nuclear warhead, because they think that they can use it as a threat to successfully secede from Pakistan and Afghanistan. The unification of scattered tribes via a powerful “Talisman,” aka a nuclear warhead, is an interesting story in itself, but that particular story turned out to be a flash in the pan. It simply became the story’s “hook,” though which Wang and his Beijing cohorts could do their Scooby-Doo intelligence work. At first the reader was introduced to Pashtun society in great detail, and Pashtuns were humanized and explored as individuals with various hopes and dreams, morals and ideals. Yet after only a few chapters, they were objectified into the “Other.” In other words they were all lumped together and denied their individuality. On the other hand, we continued to explore Chinese and Western characters on a personal basis, which allowed each Anglo or Sino character to retain their individuality and humanity without becoming an objectified stereotype.
Within the novel, Pashtun social/political intrigue was fascinating. The tribal intrigue centered mainly around Gholam a shopkeeper; Gholam’s nephew Ali, a city boy; Abdur-rahman, a man imprisoned by Pakistani soldiers; Abdur-rahman’s bitter soldier son, Najmudin; Humayan, a captain; and an apothecarist, whose daughter Humayan was in love with.
These Muslim characters were portrayed in a negative light as informants—one and all—to intelligence agencies of neighboring countries such as Pakistan and China. Only the young soldier Najmudin refused to be a sell-out, and remained faithful to his dream of erasing the Durand Line, unifying his tribes, and seceding from the oppressive Pakistani and Afghan regimes.
I tend to root for oppressed underdogs, so I got swept up into the romantic Pashtun dream of independence from Afghanistan and Pakistan. Because of this I was quite vexed when the story of Najmudin and his fellow Pashtuns came to an unexpected screeching halt a third of the way into the book.
Instead of spending so much time on Pashtun characters, only to drop them later, I would have preferred the narrative to have focused on more long term characters such as Hu and Tang. These two were colorful, interesting characters and could have easily had a few chapters all to themselves.
Regarding Spymaster Wang, his reasoning for thwarting the Pashtuns was quite logical and sensible, yet I disagreed with his logic. Wang and his associates were quite capable and brilliant yet sometimes seem cold, dry and heartless. At one point Wang’s close assistant Tang says:
“…Pashtun success in breaking away from Afghanistan and Pakistan to form their own nation-state could encourage ethnic minorities in China, particularly the Tibetans and the Uyghurs.”
Later Wang worries: ‘If the Pashtun tribes, so divided by real or imagined slights and blood feuds, could unify—why not one or another, or all, of the restive minorities in China?’
This fear is repeated many times by various communist Chinese characters as well as their allies. Once again, Wang worries:
“I fear that the Pashtuns may set an example for separatist groups in Central Asia, or even some of our minorities.”
Commissar Cai echoes Wang’s sentiment:
“…the minorities want freedom that they think we, Hans, are withholding from them. They do not realize that such freedom is denied to all of us.”
As a democratic American, I don’t see the logic of that comment, and maybe as a Westerner I don’t have a clear understanding Asian politics. All I do know is that for years I’ve heard of the Chinese government’s brutality towards the Tibetan people. So I was annoyed when Wang, who is supposed to be the book’s hero, repeatedly voiced his wish to repress East Asian minorities, such as Tibetans.
Equally annoying was Wang’s constant recruitment of Asian minorities—such as Uyghurs and Tibetans—for use as two-bit spies. Here’s another passage I found disturbing:
“Those in China harbored a greater resentment to the Han majority than those who had emigrated to adjacent countries. The memory of Chinese insensitivity or injustice had grown faint among the minorities living outside China. They were primarily descended from the Uzbek, Kazakh, or others who had long ago fled China for their own states while these were still part of the Tsar’s empire or of the Soviet Union. But they were marginalized in their own countries, and thus Wang was able to find only ‘passive sources’ among them. They would report on any information that came their way but could not be depended upon to seek out intelligence or carry out ‘covert operations.’”
So our “hero” Wang exploited these pitiful, impoverished people, and then criticized their limited usefulness. Shame.
The last quarter of the book shifted towards Wang’s attempt to stop Kim, a North Korean arms dealer. As a climax scenario I don’t think the North Korean scenes peaked as high as they should have, but as with everything else in this review, it’s just my humble opinion. Moreover, the only China-centered subplot that I truly enjoyed was the one that focused on Kong, Jiang and Wang. This particular subplot became very endearing once you got to the heart of the matter and realized the source of Jiang’s rage towards Wang.
I am fascinated by China and love its culture. Under different circumstances I would have enjoyed “The Chinese Spymaster.” However, the book’s politics towards Chinese minorities had a vileness that kept me from enjoying the narrative. From a practical point of view, I suppose I shouldn’t have expected anything less from a political spy novel. It’s country versus country, and ethnicity versus ethnicity, and the weaker ones are crushed under the heels of the more dominant ones. Ironically, I see the author speaking truth in this fictitious novel, and I cannot fault him for that. In fact, I love the author’s writing style… I just felt uncomfortable over particular elements of the book. Had I read the book for fun I would have given it five stars, but after a critical read, I can’t give it anything more than a three.
On a final note, “The Chinese Spymaster” is one of the most engaging books that I’ve read in quite a while. It has left me with a lot of food for thought. I am impressed by the author’s intellect and in the near future I intend on perusing some of his other works.
(reviewed 2 days after purchase)