What’s a mild-mannered middle-aged New Zealand policy consultant doing writing a novel about a young Chinese violin prodigy growing up during the turbulent rise and reign of Mao Zedong? John Sinclair looks slightly baffled. “A few things came together into the novel,” he says. Part of what gave rise to it was a desire to explore “the migrant experience”. Sinclair emigrated from the UK at the age of seven, but The Phoenix Song, this month’s Listener Book Club choice, grew more from observations of his Taiwanese wife – high-profile constitutional lawyer Mei Chen – and her family as they settled into life in New Zealand. “There’s something about migrants. They can have this really interesting backstory, but they often don’t talk about it. They have to really have it drawn out of them. I guess when you’ve moved to another country you’re not really sure that your interesting story is going to be of any interest to the locals.”
Sinclair’s interest in his wife’s culture led him to learn Mandarin, and in 1995 he had the opportunity to live in China for a period on an Asia 2000 business fellowship. He proposed to study the Chinese response to the formidable social welfare problems emerging as the tide of Communism receded/but a condition of the trip was he should improve his grasp of Mandarin. He was assured it was better to base himself outside the major centres of population to immerse himself where English was little spoken. The northeastern town chosen for him – Harbin – was a complete surprise. “It’s a Russian city! It’s got onion domes, and churches and cobblestone streets. There are still rumours that if you go down certain streets in the old parts of the town you’ll see an old couple in their eighties shuffling along who are obviously not ethnic Chinese. They’ll be the last remnant of the Russian population.”
In the early years of the 20th century, Harbin went from a sleepy railway town to a small city whose Russian inhabitants swiftly came to outnumber the Chinese, as White Russians fled the Bolshevik Revolution into China. This displaced population found themselves at the mercy of the ebb and flow of Chinese history washing around them: the fall of the Qing Dynasty, occupation by the Japanese, the rise of Mao. Harbin’s “tortured history” makes it a fascinating place, says Sinclair. “I like tortured history, because people who have lived through tortured history have interesting stories to tell.”
When one day he was struck by the image of a young woman dressed in a vivid red dress playing an impassioned violin solo in a performance of a work by a Russian composer, Sinclair had an inkling of Magou Xiao, the main character of his novel. And Harbin was perfect for her birthplace: Sinclair has her growing up under the tutelage of Russian Jewish emigrés Piroshka and Kasimir, who provide her with her grounding in music and also, incidentally, with a direct link to the great Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich. As one of revolutionary China’s great hopes, Magou has an exalted position, but it is also isolated and precarious: Mao’s regime makes for fickle weather, and many who are in favour one day are the target of the next day’s purge. “One of the things I admire about Chinese political culture is that they understand where culture can have a really major effect on politics. They don’t have to be in two different spheres altogether.”
Sinclair has not previously published any fiction, although he did serve an apprenticeship of sorts, working as a speechwriter first for Michael Cullen, then for Mike Moore during his brief reign as Prime Minister. After that, he was a policy analyst by trade, serving with the Treasury and subsequently as a freelance consultant (he refuses to be drawn on whether this background gave him the particular insight he seems to possess into the inner workings of Communist bureaucracy). Although report writing is hardly creative, it’s still writing. But with two degrees in English literature behind him and faint ambitions to have a crack at a novel, Sinclair feared the kind of precise, bloodless prose his day job obliges him to produce might inhibit his ability to produce anything else. He therefore enrolled in the Victoria University International Institute of Modern Letters Masters in Creative Writing, and by the end of the course had produced a first draft of what became The Phoenix Song. He nearly abandoned the project a number of times in its 10-year gestation.
“There were times when it sat in the bottom drawer for six to nine months. When you’ve been working on something for a long time and you don’t feel as though you’re getting any closer, you start to wonder whether you’ll ever get there – the usual self-doubt, despair and so on.” With parenthood added to all that self-doubt, a decade slipped by. The success of The Phoenix Song is the characterisation. More than once in our interview, Sinclair affirms that Magou is not modelled on his wife, although some of the minor characters are modelled on historical figures. But all, Magou included, have the ring of truth, and it’s hard not to wonder more about her. Her motivations and emotions are largely hidden from the reader. It’s hard to know how we’re supposed to feel about her, beyond admiration for her talent for music and for survival. It’s difficult to gauge how ambitious she is; whether she collaborates with the regime and its absurdities or is simply naive.
“I like her,” says Sinclair. “I wanted to leave it as a question in the mind of the reader. And what I hoped to get across was this slightly ironic, jaundiced, comic sort of ‘this is a slightly bizarre thing to be involved in, but I’ll go along with it’. I do like her.” It’s easy to believe in Magou as Sinclair pictures her at the end of the novel, contentedly admiring the view of Wellington Harbour from her front lawn, just another Kiwi who doesn’t let on, but who has lived through interesting times.
THE PHOENIX SONG, by John Sinclair (VUP, $38).
To join the conversation and read more about The Phoenix Song, visit the Book Club section, follow the Twitter account @nzlbookclub or go to the Facebook page New Zealand Listener Book Club. This is the last Book Club choice until February, as in December we take a break for Christmas and the summer holidays.