Pages Menu
Abbey's Bookshop
Plain engish Foundation
Categories Menu

Posted on 9 Dec 2014 in Fiction |

NICHOLAS JOSE Bapo. Reviewed by Michael Richardson

Tags: / /

bapoDiscomfiting reflections and literary pleasures are to be found in this new collection of stories inspired by China.

In his new collection, Bapo, Nicholas Jose has assembled stories touched – in ways both direct and hidden – by China. Each is sleek, elegant, unique; connected not by specific reference but more elusively through resonances, glimpses, half-caught reflections.

In this, the stories reflect the art form of the title. As Jose writes in the author’s note opening the volume, ‘Bapo, which means in Chinese “eight broken”, is an aesthetic of illusion and salvage, of creative retrieval from the destructions of historical progress.’ Developed in the mid-19th century in response to profound change in China, in no small part due to deepening engagement with the West, bapo is a collage genre of painting: a work that might be composed of fragments of torn classic artworks or burnt calligraphies. Jose’s stories enact this technique in the tension between the smallness of their subject matter – an heirloom fossil, an appointment to a diplomatic posting, a suburban garden – and the largeness of the changing cultures within which they are situated.

Jose is perhaps the most crucial contemporary Australian figure in literary relations with China, not only through his novels and essays but by facilitating countless literary encounters (he was also, I should mention, on the supervisory panel for my PhD). He served as Cultural Counsellor at the Australian Embassy in Beijing from 1987 to 1990 and so saw up close the protests and brutal repression in Tiananmen Square.

How those events marked China and its relations with the world more broadly, and its artists in particular, is at the heart of the first story and establishes the ground from which the rest grow. Narrated by the ‘invisible photographer’ of the only image of eight once-dissident artists, ‘Donkey Feast’ recounts their fates as those who remain gather years later for the titular feast. After Tiananmen, according to the narrator, ‘resistance, asserted in a blood bond’, gave way to compromises with power of various kinds: complicity, emigration, disappearance. On this night, the story of each artist is remembered, old grievances are rehashed and laughed at, but unity is fleeting:

Then as we drive away down the hills and back towards the city, the darkness finds words. The backbiting begins. The dark murmurings behind our backs, for all of us, rumble louder. Doubts, and crimes, all unforgotten.

History – its great movements, its chance turns – has marked each artist differently, just as a changing China permeates, haunts or shapes the stories that follow in distinct and unexpected ways.

Bapo’s 18 stories are divided into two parts, the first engaging China specifically, and the second responding to the themes of loss, resilience, hope and change that emerge in the first. As the stories progress through the first part, Tiananmen and its violence recede from view – the rebellious artist of ‘Ha-ha-ha!’ defeats the inquiries of state officials only to stop speaking his mind; a Chinese woman hungers anxiously for her American lover to send for her in ‘One Fine Day’; two young Australians fall for one another through their mutual obsession in ‘Loving China’ .

Across these and the other stories, Jose examines themes and subjects in common with his novels The Red Thread and Original Face, but the style here is more in keeping with the latter: unflinching, comfortable with muck and mess, accepting of darkness. The passage of time, chance encounters, resistance and embrace of change, the desire to succeed and to escape, to find comfort and to transgress rules – all operate in different ways across a rapidly changing relationship between China and the world.

Yet the further that Tiananmen recedes, the more transgressive the stories become and the more experimental in form. ‘A Game of Go’ plays cleverly with sex and power: Professor Theo Weiss seduces a Chinese boy with money only to himself become the conduit for the boy’s escape to Melbourne and control over his life. ‘Beautiful Island’ captures the sexual and existential ennui of the Taiwanese wealthy. The final story of the first part, ‘Angled Wheels of Fortune’, most explicitly performs the assemblage technique of bapo. Focalisations shift, the narrative fragments, reflections on viewing art slide into descriptions of specific moments:

It is hard to tell from umbrellas whether it’s still raining. People forget. They walk with their umbrellas open, unaware that the rain has stopped. Others walk without the protection of an umbrella, unaware that it has started to rain.

A hand knocks lightly on the bamboo gate. There comes no answer.

The duck stays on the pond. I’m the one who flies away.

Later, the story shifts into a subtle meditation on pronouns and the differences in the ‘shelter’ each provides. Jose writes:

Lights dazzling, blinding, as they bounce off facets of a mask. Portrayal/self-portrait? Opaque substance, like sheeting rain. Pronouns transmit with shifting densities. Like sequence and depth, there is scope for re-arranging the ways in which an image is formed.

Of all the beautifully written passages in Bapo, this perhaps best captures how the stories themselves work: shifting in density, playing with light, rearranging images in unexpected ways.

In the eight stories that make up the second part of the collection, China and the themes of the first part are found more in the play of light across the text’s surfaces than in the content of the stories themselves. In ‘Marriage Bonds’, the uneasiness of an enduring ménage à trois performs the complex lusts and fears that emerge in new forms of relationship.  ‘After the Show’ chronicles a young man witnessing his grandmother as a desired and desiring being, himself caught up in an uncertain relationship. ‘The Aunt’s Garden Story’ tells of a carefully tended garden that is changed and then lost as its gardener ages and dies. Some of these latter stories don’t always have the same vivacity as those in the first part, perhaps because they are assembled more through approach than content – ‘What Love Tells Me’, for instance, forces its emotional intensities a little too much in order to fit the referential role of Mahler’s symphony within the plot.

Only in the final story, ‘Diamond Dog’, does China explicitly return – here in the figures of a Chinese emigrant artist and his family living on a small Australian island. Themes hidden in the first story by the harsher shadow of Tiananmen return here: the necessary personal change that comes with time and new cultural encounters, the resilience of art in the face of upheaval, the hope that might be found when people reach across seemingly vast divides.

Bapo is a powerful collection. Its assembled fragments are as readily capable of disturbing as intriguing, but Jose’s command of style makes their aesthetic whole more powerful than each alone. In his opening note, he refers to the Chinese notion of ‘wild history’ – certainly history is untamed here, but Jose lets that wildness play through language and form as much as through content. It is this that brings the stories of the second half – more varied, less clearly connected – into resonance with the whole. Bapo is the kind of collection that encourages slow reading: these stories call for meditation rather than page turning, they provoke discomforting reflection as much as literary pleasure, embrace the end of things as much as their beginning.

Nicholas Jose Bapo Giramondo 2014 PB 224pp $26.95

Michael Richardson is an academic and writer. Once, he was the only Australian speechwriter in Canadian politics. He can be found on the web at and on Twitter @richardson_m_a.

You can buy this book from Abbey’s here or from Booktopia here.

To see if it is available from Newtown Library, click here.