Waiting for the Lady

by Christopher Moore
ISBN: 0968716369

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A Review of: Waiting for the Lady
by Stewart Cole

Sloan Walcott is an opportunist. One of the throngs of expatriate Westerners to choose the balmy climate, cheap living, and exotic promise of teeming Southeast Asia over the increasing expense and alienation of life in America, Sloan is motivated mainly by sex, money, and the prospect of intoxication. The first-person narrator of Christopher G. Moore's fifteenth novel is a shameless philanderer who keeps a Thai girlfriend with an allowance meted out by his Japanese wife, and does drugs, drinks Tiger beer and smokes "fat ones" steadily all day long. But all this doesn't mean much in Sloan's world. He has lived in Bangkok long enough to be shock-proof; indeed, readers couldn't ask for a more street-smart guide to lead them through the labyrinthine intrigues of the region. Details are conveyed with a bluntness which, though often verging on crudity, assures us that Sloan is long past sharing the tourist's distorted looking lens of moral and cultural superiority. Arriving early in the novel at the apartment of his British friend Hart, he cases the scene and describes it with characteristic tactless vividness:

"I looked around his room. Balled-up pieces of white tissue were scattered everywhere as if someone had zapped a fleet of moths with a can of poison spray. The room smelled of sex, ripe, musty, nauseating like the difference between the smell of your own farts and those exploding out of the bowels of someone else. The two girls sat side by side, legs touching, on the edge of the bed."

Particularly illustrative is the way Sloan wonders not who the girls are or why they are in Hart's room (it's obvious, they're yings for hire), but rather how his friend could afford such luxuries, especially since just the day before he had to lend Hart five thousand baht to cover his rent so they could go to Rangoon. Sloan's ethical nonchalance imparts a clarity to the narrative which displays Moore's comfort and familiarity with the region, while making a point about the lifestyle of irresponsible hedonism to which many in the expatriate community are drawn.
Sloan and Hart aren't a couple of irredeemable degenerates however. They are artists-Sloan a photographer, Hart a writer-and co-authors of a well-received study of the Chin people of northern Burma, published ten years earlier. And now, with Hart verging on forty and Sloan firmly in middle age, the two return to Burma together, hoping to catch a glimpse of "The Lady" of the title, Aung San Suu Kyi, the democratically elected leader of Burma in 1989, who was prevented by the military junta of General Ne Win from ever taking office and kept for most of the interim under strict house arrest.
While leaving Rangoon airport on his way back to Bangkok a year before, Sloan found a camera lost for six years in a dusty crevice between passport counters. When its nineteen photographs are developed, Sloan recognizes the subject of eighteen of them as Aung San Suu Kyi, the Lady herself. He is intrigued. But it is the nineteenth portrait, of a beautiful woman in a kimono with a blue scorpion tattooed on her thigh, that absolutely captivates him:

"I went into the nearest bar, ordered a beer, and sat alone studying the photographs. The positioning of the girl had been done by someone who was a pro: a classic after-sex composition, not smutty or overtly sexual, but carefully nuanced with every part of her body in perfect harmony. The girl was so relaxed that any anxiety or tension had evaporated from her body, giving the impression of sensual contentment."

The photo turns Sloan on, and his interest in the alluring mystery woman adds incentive to journey to Rangoon. As the novel begins in the spring of 2002, the region is swirling with rumours of the Lady's imminent release. So when the elderly father of the camera's former owner - a dead Japanese journalist - asks Sloan first to present his son's eighteen photos to the Lady upon her release, and second to destroy and keep silent about the erotic nineteenth photo, Sloan's course is set. He will see the Lady, and pursue the tattooed beauty.
The novel's first half is a patchwork of glimpses into the recent history and contemporary society of Burma as seen through Sloan's cynical though amply knowledgeable perspective. As Sloan and Hart spend their days of waiting for the Lady's release, sipping beer under a tent filled with foreign journalists, their easy sense of mobility contrasts sharply with the institutionalized entrapment of their Burmese acquaintances. Rather than sentimentalize the desperate lives of so many Burmese by slipping into indignant didacticism, Moore usually allows the expatriates' relative affluence to speak for itself. Rangoon's squalor and the jokey interplay between Sloan and Hart are so strikingly juxtaposed that both setting and character gain in vividness. And in those instances when Sloan does venture into ethical pronouncement, the result only highlights its futility, as with his justification for always throwing his empty beer cans into the street:

"[Hart] thought that I chucked the empties into the street as some kind of test of his generation's environmental correctness. But Hart had it wrong. It wasn't a test; throwing empties into the street was one of the great, last freedoms on the planet. And in Burma, where exercising freedom was as likely as dead men dancing the tango in the bottom of shallow graves, you had to steal every small liberty just to see what liberty felt like."

The novel's Rangoon scenes abound in this sort of playful mockery, both amusing and illuminating, as when Sloan and Hart get stoned before visiting the Burmese government's Drug Elimination Museum; their pot-headed running commentary succeeds in exposing their own ludicrousness as well as that of the museum's American-fuelled propaganda.
The dust-jacket blurb compares Moore to both Graham Greene and George Orwell, but the similarities are purely superficial. For many reasons, Waiting for the Lady would not sit comfortably beside the work of either. First, both Greene and Orwell were masters of lucid, nuanced prose, as concerned with the intricacies of language as with those of plot or geopolitics. Moore's prose is strictly subordinated to the story's forward motion - tight, sharp, and functional (though occasionally marred by awkward repetition), but hardly beautiful or innovative.
Waiting for the Lady is a difficult novel to classify, too erudite and historically-informed to be deemed somehow un-literary, but too unashamedly plot-driven to separate entirely from genre fiction. Indeed, it's a novel that makes one question the usefulness of genre distinctions, as the story churns along at the velocity of a high-octane thriller, while the structural deftness and narrative insight consistently force the reader to slow down, think, and absorb.
In the novel's second half, with the appearance of Sarah, a beautiful Hawaiian-born professor of anthropology at the University of British Columbia specializing in tattoos, the book's episodic structure really begins to coalesce. The search for the bearer of the blue scorpion tattoo leads the three foreigners and their Burmese companions north to Moulmein, a city haunted by the ghosts of past occupations. Ming-era Chinese traders, nineteenth-century British, and the Japanese during World War II have all passed through, and Moore skillfully quilts them all in, each as an integral part of the mystery at hand, and the plot's convolutions are resolved (except for an obvious, unnecessary scene about the dubious morality of sleeping with prostitutes) without contrivance.
The image of the world-wizened expatriate may have faded to clich in the minds of today's super-connected citizens of the global village, but Sloan Walcott (and Christopher G. Moore) assert its undeniable relevance with a narrative whose authenticity is never in doubt, where global historical realities are seamlessly knit together with a strong, unpretentious yarn.

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