Lustbader's China Maroc Trilogy

Two not outstanding, third not forthcoming

By Mark Schreiber

Jian, 1985
Shan, 1986
Yi Er San, 9999

Jian, 1985 Panther paperback (UK)
Jian, 1986 Fawcett paperback (US)

Karate-chopped chop suey

Eric Van Lustbader
New York: Villard Books, 1985
London: Panther Books, 1985
701 pages, paperback
New York: Fawcett Crest, 1986
531 pages, paperback

A version of this review appeared as
"Karate-Chopped Chop Suey" in
Mainichi Daily News, 20 January 1986, page 9

Koinobori is the "Boys' Day Festival." Usagigoya is "a tiny apartment in modern Tokyo." Nawanoren is a "neighborhood pub," and karmah is the Japanese word for the Buddhist concept of destiny.

Or so we are led to believe, according to a marvelously inventive four-page glossary at the end of Jian, the latest novel by self-proclaimed Asian scholar Eric Van Lustbader. Like Dennis the Menace allowed to run amok in Gimbel's toy department, Lustbader continues his mad dash through Asia picking up terms and concepts he only half understands, and serving them up to readers in a style that can only be described as karate-chopped chop suey.

It has become apparent to this reviewer that Lustbader, who originally broke into the fame as a writer of science fiction, long ago exhausted his subject matter, but continues to find markets for his books about Japan because people are still attracted to the more explicit dirty parts.

The story included in the bargain in Jian (for those who demand a semblance of plot), concerns a super secret organization of American spooks called The Quarry; a ranking member of the Chinese Politburo; the yakuza, and the Russians, who, as usual, are up to no good, although I was never quite able to figure out exactly what it was they were up to.

Multitalented Eurasian secret agent

The book's hero is Jake Maroc, a multitalented Eurasian secret agent who works for The Quarry. After losing his rebellious wife under mysterious circumstances to a quarry hit man, Jake the Ripper leaves a swath of mayhem, death and destruction over extensive parts of East Asia, all the while eluding The Quarry, which by this time has decided it no longer has much use for Jake's services (meaning they've moved him to next on their hit list).

In the interim, Maroc takes off on such side adventures as challenging an unfriendly yakuza godfather to a Zen archery contest. After Jake successfully demonstrates his prowess in archery to the xenophobic oyabun (boss), the two become inseparable buddies on the spot, departing arm in arm to get drunk and play pachinko together. This must be the "international goodwill" that people are always talking about these days.

Jian also features some remarkable Asian characters: Hong Kong Chinese, for example, with names like Venerable Chen, formidable Sung, Three Oaths Tsun and Neon Chow. Appellations of the Japanese in the book are, if anything, even worse.

A female character in the book is named Kamisaka Tamba, and a sarakin loan shark with the unlikely surname of Fujikima, are enough to suggest to me that Lustbader has never in fact exchanged meishi with, and possible never even made the acquaintances of, a real, live Japanese. But the biggest thigh-slapper of all is the mysterious Japanese agent known as Nichiren. (If you miss the humor in this name, ask any Soka Gakkai member who Nichiren was.)

If you wonder where Lustbader goes for his inspiration, you won't have to look too far. Jian reminded me of a large figure made out of papier-mache, that concoction of old newspapers, flour and water used for my childhood sculptures. After a papier-mache figure dries, you can look closely and still be able to read parts of the newsprint.

Here, one recognizes a portion of the front page, there, a few square inches from the classified advertisements; and there, a part of the Sunday funnies. In the same manner, I could identify the styles, and in some cases the actual titles of works from which Lustbader has "borrowed" to supplement his own paltry research.

Pretentious glossary

The book's pretentious glossary of Asian terminology warrants nothing less than a unanimous condemnation by the U.N. Security Council. Written with a completely straight face, it contains several dozen errata that serve to inspire much glee. Lustbader, for example, defines "faan-gwai-loh" as "Mandarin for 'foreign devil'"; a few lines below this, he informs us that exactly the same term is Cantonese! (Which it is.) Joss is erroneously given as Chinese for luck or destiny, when it is in fact of pidgin English derivation, a corruption of the Portuguese "dios"

Other errors abound. Yin-Yang is described as the Buddhist concept of the duality of nature (it's Taoist); and "Tai-tai" is not, as Lustbader suggests, a taipan's wife, but merely a common form of address for "Mrs." in Chinese.

Okay, so Mr. Lustbader is one smart cookie who knows how to use his typewriter to turn out big wampum. But I must protest when he shows his cynicism this way, throwing drivel into the faces of a naive public eager to read of supposed Asian intrigue, sex and martial exploits. He even misspelled the title, which to be correct in Chinese should end with a "g."

Frankly, it disturbs me that tens of thousands of Americans, having read this book, now walk around believing such ludicrous statements as "Hara resides in the lower belly." My gosh, I hope they don't mistake it for a tapeworm. (Hara is the Japanese word for stomach or abdomen.)

While this reviewer's own glossary of derogatory Asian terms is decidedly more extensive than those provided in the glossary of Jian, I nonetheless find myself lacking words to do this appalling book justice. My advice to you then, dear readers, is to shun this author. And while you're at it, shun his publisher too. Who, I suspect, is not at all displeased with the profits being generated from this sham.

Shan, 1987 Fawcett paperback (US)

Despoiling Asia

Eric Van Lustbader
New York: Random House, 1986
503 pages, hardcover
New York: Fawcett Crest, 1987
524 pages, paperback

A version of this review appeared as
"Despoiling Asia" in
Mainichi Daily News, 25 May 1987, page 9

Poor Hong Kong. As it moves into the last decade of its impending takeover by China, it has become the locale of one thriller after another, including the latest potpourri of sex and violence by that prolific purveyor of potboilers, Eric Van Lustbader. Shan offers the reader a somewhat novel twist; instead of Hong Kong going communist, China is (shudder!) the object of an insidious plot to turn it capitalist -- a story line that's about as likely to happen as the Pope's conversion to Zen Buddhism.

Of course, Lustbader know there's more to boiling the Hong Kong plot than just plot, so look for a trail of broke bones, bullet holes and oh yes, soiled bedsheets, as hero Jake Maroe and friends despoil the map of Asia. Bad boy Jake even tosses a live snake at a well dressed Japanese lady -- but only in self-defense, mind you.

Webwork of circumstances

Shan, two-thirds into what is being touted as a trilogy, is very much a webwork novel of seemingly unrelated circumstances taking place in the U.S., China, Soviet Union, Japan and elsewhere. As a tight circle of wealthy Hong Kong taipans prepares to activate what is know as the Kam Sang project -- a plan that will catapult China (and therefore the world's) leading capitalist country -- the spooks are starting to get curious.

What spooks, you ask? Well, there's the top-secret American intelligence group known as the "Quarry," Maroe's former employer back for its second appearance in the trilogy. It is joined by the Russians, who, despite the fact that beautiful and deadly KGB general Daniela Vorkuta is working day and night at breaking into the Kam Sang plan, seems to expend a horrendous amount of pages with very little to show for it. In fact, all the Russkies ever really do much of is conspire.

Meanwhile, a clique of renegade Chinese, no doubt resentful at not being allowed to run a cloak-and-dagger organization worthy of the name in the first book of the trilogy, have at last got around to organizing a sinister group of their own, and it's a doozy. Their name is the Chinese word for the earth, "diqiu" (pronounced dee-chew), and one sees here that Lustbader's propensity to sprinkle his manuscripts with generous helpings of romanized Chinese pinyin gibberish has at last caused his long-suffering proofreader to throw in the towel, as I noted that "diqiu" was regularly and repeatedly misspelled throughout the book.

Jake's Red Chinese father, the Jian (the Jiang in real Chinese), is efficiently bumped off by a three-man yakuza hit team on his yacht in Hong Kong harbor. The real damage is done what an embezzler steals enough to cause a run on Jake's bank. So while the whole mess is about to come apart at the seams down in Hong Kong, Jake naturally leaves town.

Flying up to Japan to search for Kamoto, his old yakuza buddy, Jake winds up in the center of a gang war, forced to dodge deadly missiles right and left while strolling through the garden of a famous Kyoto temple. Let that be a warning to all the gaijins out there about the hazards of traveling on a shoestring budget as a result of the sharp appreciation of the Japanese yen.

The entire shtick of conspiracy, blood, gore, sex and high finance is all put in perspective as being part of Jake's master strategy in a figurative board game of "weiqi" ("Go" in Japanese) -- again nothing original as this formula was given a much handier presentation in the Trevanian novel Shibumi. Piled one atop the next, the coincidences all come together at the end of the book in a remote part of suburban Burma, where we are treated to a final majestic crescendo of gratuitous violence.

Errata-strewn glossary

On a somewhat disappointing note, in Shan Mr. Lustbader has dispensed with the errata-strewn glossary of Asian terminology that amused us so heartily at the end of Jian, his previous work.

Still, there are more than enough new mistakes to keep us entertained, as the author's fragmentary knowledge of Asia continues to supply belly laughs. On page 123, for example, the Chinese city of Chongqing is spelled no less than three different ways on a single page, and I suspect at least one version came off the package of the author's frozen TV dinner. Likewise Yenan, Mao Zedong's pre-revolution redoubt in Shanxi province, is repeatedly confused with Yunnan -- a locale well over a thousand miles to the south.

Another amusing characteristic of Lustbader's books is how he makes it easy to recognize those comical Hong Kong Chinese at a glance: Instead of red putty noses and fright wigs, they all sport utterly ridiculous English nicknames. There's the epithet-spouting "Three Oaths" Tsun ("All gods strike down worm-ridden bankers!"), back once again from Jian, as is his vampish mistress, Neon Chow. Newcomers include "Big Oysters" Pok and "White-eye" Kow. There is also a corrupt Australian cop the Cantonese locals derisively refer to as "Great Pool of Piddle." Tee-hee. Now behave yourselves, second graders.

Right being better than might, it is only fair that the book's hero neatly turns the tables on his business rivals, serving as evidence that his acumen for wheeling and dealing in the world of finance is every bit as good as that for pounding and mashing rivals into submission in back alleyways.

After having reluctantly followed Mr. Lustbader's career this far, I must confess that reading -- let alone reviewing -- his novels has become somewhat of an ordeal. To read Lustbader is to read a second-rate mishmosh of Fleming, Calvell, Ludlum, Trevanian and so on. Confronted with the evidence of this continuing popularity and current distribution by a publisher the caliber of Random House, I can only nod in sad agreement with H.L. Menken's remark about no one ever having gone broke underestimating the taste of the American public.

There will doubtless be a third book in this trilogy, but when it appears, don't expect my review of it on this page. Sorry, folks, but to paraphrase Richard Milhouse Nixon, you won't have Mark Schreiber to do your kicking around for you any more.


Eric Van Lustbader
Yi er san
Beijing: Foreign Languages Press, 9999
0000 pages, uncovered or recovered

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