Today’s Q&A is with Roy Peachey, author of A Terrible Clarity.
What was the initial inspiration for your novel?
While studying for a Masters degree in Chinese Studies at SOAS, I came across a book about the Chinese in World War I. Even though I had a History degree, I realised that I knew next to nothing about the Chinese contribution to the war. What I discovered was fascinating and led me to explore further; soon family holidays on the continent were being interrupted by visits to Great War cemeteries and small French libraries. When I came across the work of a translator for the Chinese Labour Corps, I had my way into this early 20th century meeting of China and the West.
One desert island: one book. Which one?
The Bible. If it were to be an extended stay on the desert island then I’d take a Greek-English edition so I could pretend to myself that I was gradually mastering the language.
Which authors inspired you to start writing?
No particular author inspired me to start writing but I did go through an extended William Golding phase while in the 6th Form at school. Then, when I was at university, I heard him give a talk during which he cracked the same joke twice. Somehow that made him seem more human and less forbidding an example to follow.
What is your current read?
Yan Lianke’s The Four Books is a novel set in a re-education camp during China’s so-called Great Leap Forward. It’s a book about books and reading, as well as being an unflinching political novel.
Do you have any hints or tips for people who want to start writing?
I used to think that if I had perfect writing conditions – a writing shed at the bottom of the garden, an immaculate study, peace and quiet – I would be able to produce great writing. I now think that snatching writing moments on trains, while the children are sleeping, when an idea strikes, is the best way to make progress. We all need moments when we can recollect in tranquillity – that’s what showers are for – but time spent writing, wherever and whenever, is even more important.
Extract from A Terrible Clarity
As the white devils celebrate the coming of their twentieth century, Wang Weijun is sitting upright in a doctor’s chair, scrunching two paper balls into his fists in anticipation of the horror to come. His mother and Third Aunt are holding his head firm.
“And now we shall irrigate the remains of the eye,” the doctor says. “Ah Qing has drawn fresh water from the well so that we can wash away any fatty substances that may have accumulated since …er, since your last visit.”
Wang squirms in his chair but his mother simply grips his neck more tightly.
“It is vital that the patient remain in a static position,” the doctor continues. “A movement during cool fixation of the eyeball will merely result in the spillage of water but a movement, even the slightest movement, during the operation itself could produce, er, unfortunate results.”
“Little Jun, you hear what the doctor says? You must stay still.”
The boy rolls his eyes upwards but his mother is out of sight, anonymous, only a felt presence at his neck. He looks back at the doctor who, after hawking onto the floor, glances at the window to check the light and then pushes his spectacles onto the bridge of his nose. Satisfied that everything is ready for the procedure, he sniffs twice, opens the boy’s right eye with the thumb and index finger of his left hand, and presses slightly backwards to prevent the eyeball from moving around. When his assistant hands him what appears to be a teacup, he carefully pours water into the eye socket. Wang’s feet bang involuntarily on the earthen floor but the doctor does not release his grip. Again and a third time he flushes the fatty substances from the eye socket, leans in close to check that the last of the viscous material has been washed away and then stands tall with a satisfied snort.
“Do you need to do anything else?” Third Aunt asks hopefully.
The doctor ignores her, beckons to his assistant and takes a golden needle from him. Murmuring a prayer to Guanyin, he leans back towards the boy whose left eye dilates in fear. The right eye remains as it has been for the last three days, pierced and swollen.
“Now the patient must take care to look to the right if the bridge of his nose is not to impede the progress of the operation. The head must be held in absolute stillness.”
The doctor clamps his knees over the child’s and examines the tip of the needle.
“I shall be swift. Once all extraneous matter has been removed, true healing can begin. When the needle has done its work, I shall take a piece of bamboo one fen wide and tie it so that it has the strength of a spring. I shall clip one end to the upper lid before threading the eyelid closed. The patient must then rest.”
Wang’s mother nods rapidly, hoping that the doctor will just get on with the operation.
“It is particularly important during this time that he does not eat fish, fried noodle, chicken, goose, donkey, horse, pork, dog, onions or garlic. He should eat congee, so as to avoid the use of teeth in chewing, and extreme care should be taken when evacuating the bowels. Do you understand?”
Wang’s mother nods again.
“I tell you now,” the doctor continues, “in case of distraction later. It is my experience that disturbed times sometimes follow operations like these.”
The boy thrashes around in the chair. He moans in terror and begins to drool.
“Ah Qing!” the doctor barks.
The assistant steps forward and thrusts a piece of wood between the patient’s teeth. Wang bites hard onto it and the soft moan of fear is thrust down into his throat.
“Now, maybe, we can begin,” the doctor says.
He lifts the needle to the light and then pushes it slowly through the lens. Observing where extraneous matter – small shards of bamboo and particles of dust – have entered the silver sea, he attempts to puncture the prolapsed iris. He withdraws the needle and probes again.
Dislodging the wood from his mouth, Wang screams. He screams for his father, the only protector he knows against such pain. Then, forcing his head out of his mother’s trembling hands, he screams again, begging for help, demanding release. As the doctor struggles to hold him in his place and his mother and aunt try to pinion his arms, he calls again for his father and, to everyone’s surprise, his father runs into the dingy room, the gold chain of his watch flying out of his top pocket as he does so, so that the expensive timepiece catches Ah Qing squarely on the side of his head.
“My son, my son,” he cries. “What are they doing to you?”
He grabs the doctor, who has ripped the boy’s already mutilated eyeball in his panic, and tosses him, big man though he is, into the display cabinet that Third Aunt has spent so long admiring, sending spectacles (made in Shanghai), opium (grown in Imperial India), and rhinoceros horn (smuggled from god knows where) across the filthy floor of this den of superstition, this torture chamber into which his son has been dragged.
“They told me that he’d got a bloody arrow in his eye. An arrow!” he shouts. “And then I find this dumb egg having another go.”
His wife and sister move as far back in the room as they can, while the boy throws himself into his father’s arms, something he cannot remember ever having done before.
“What have they done to you?” his father repeats, as he begins to sob, something he cannot remember ever having done before either. “We must get you to the hospital.”
Wiping the blood from his son’s eye with the sleeve of his suit, he hauls him onto his back. He runs to the door, then stops, steps back into the room and faces the doctor.
“Niaoren,” he says, “you have blinded my son.”