Nicholas Jose penetrated far more deeply into Chinese society during his stint from 1987 to 1990 as the cultural counselor at the Australian Embassy in Beijing.
In the stunning narrative pastiche of "Avenue of Eternal Peace," he records his insights, charting not only the personal journey of Wally Frith, an Australian physician tremulously undertaking a year of oncological research at Peking Union Medical College following his wife's death from cancer, but also the human landscape of Beijing at a moment of profound and ultimately explosive discontent. With reverberating irony, the novel borrows its title from the central thoroughfare through the Chinese capital that in June of 1989 was nicknamed "Blood Alley."
Initially, Wally's only contact with China is through intermittent visits from his foreign handler, a familiar type rendered with deft humor, who deals out an array of ID cards, offers vague promises of a welcoming banquet, then leaves him to stare at useless guidebooks in an empty room.
He first encounters the pulsing life of the city when he ventures into a packed restaurant on New Year's Eve, only to be enfolded by guests consuming quantities of fiery liquor at a wedding dinner. Outside he is accosted by Eagle, one of the young banqueters who has Just struggled in halting English to explain the mysteries of qigong, "the breathing power" believed to accomplish such feats as shrinking tumors and causing men to fly through the air.
This chance meeting begins Wally's unmasking of the pleasant and impassive face that China offers to visiting foreigners. In the wintry Beijing night, stumbling from drink, his unexpected responses are conveyed in vivid, imagistic prose. "The bulky coat, the muffling darkness, the frozen air and the obscure shapes of frames and recesses had an essential Chineseness that he suddenly loved as he was enfolded by the empty street."
Wally's search for renewed purpose after his personal tragedy takes the form of a quest for an aged Chinese cancer specialist, Dr. Hsu Chien Lung, whose earlier research findings the young Australian post-doctoral student had discovered at Harvard. Wally, almost convinced at moments that the old man does not exist, finally is escorted to the family home in the charming canal city of Shaoxing. His inquiries have led to a haunting love affair with Dr. Hsu's daughter, who ultimately refuses a proposal of marriage, determined to retain her links with a troubled past and remain in China.
For Wally, the year has been at once an exorcism and a rite of passage that prepares him to return home to his scientific work, his equilibrium restored. As he boards the airplane in early 1987, demonstrations continue in central Beijing, foreshadowing the massive outpouring of popular sentiment two years later.
Many of his friends, presumably deftly drawn composites of the author's own companions -- those who meet on the boundaries where foreign and Western lives intersect -- have become actively involved. One was "detained without trial until the fun died down, (then) branded a counter-revolutionary and locked up for 15 years, along with his democratic dreams."
Jose's brilliant novelistic portrait of China on the brink of monumental change ends with a scene that will forever be read as prelude: "In Tian An Men Square the crowds continued to tramp across the frozen moat, under the red arch and the dead leader's portrait, and video cameras installed by the security forces, to visit the Forbidden City."