Can you tell us a little bit about the evolution of the Pavilion narrative and what initiated its translation into English?
I literally wrote it; with a black-ink fine-liner on blank paper. I longed for the touch and feel of the act, after endless versions and revisions of a huge manuscript on a pc-screen; the more so while this fine-liner was my closest thing to the reed-pen, in use at the Chinese Imperial court during the 1790’s, which is Pavilion’s setting. And by doing so, I chanced on the notion that an epistolary form would be in place to conjure up a universe of ritual and seclusion, where things are chiefly set in motion through letters, missives, decrees… The formal traits of such prose somehow made it easier to render it in English. Yet I could never have brought it off without the fabulous help of Regal House’s senior editor, Ruth Feiertag. She asked some pertinent questions; as a result I inserted a much needed dialogue in the encounter of the Dutch ambassador and the Chinese emperor – which I could mercifully insert in the Dutch novel just before the presses went down.
What appeals to you particularly about this historical period? Set of characters?
It’s not the period so much; it’s the theme––a clash between East and West, seen through the eyes of one of its victims AND one who has been exposed to both spheres, by name of Lady Cao. As an interpreter, she is being punished for the rudeness, you might say, of the English ambassador, Sir George Macartney. A similar story––one person taking the brunt for another––is told in an anthology about the historical George Macartney; a collection of contemporaneous prints accompanied by explanations and quotes in prose. I loathe that anthology: those late 18th century prints display the most racist stereotyping conceivable of humans living in China at the time. By creating a Chinese protagonist, and a woman, I hope I made short shrift with all that, without yielding to an equally short-sighted idealizing of ‘otherness’. On the whole, I am quite taken by the characters as they emerge in my story. Lady Cao is witty, open-minded, and in many ways highly independent of mind, even if she derives her stance from the two men in her life (there is an unresolved conflict here): author Cao Xueqin, who gave his name to a great tragicomic novel-of-manners entitled The Dream of the red Chamber, comprising one million words; and the historical character Titsingh, who was governor of Deshima (the Dutch outpost in Nagasaki, Japan) during the 1780’s and who will soon be the next westerner to visit the Forbidden City. As such, he plays a major part in Pavilion. Also, I loved to introduce Heshen as a villain in the piece; he always is… What I cannot tell you, is how these threads coalesced into one thing. There’s no way of knowing: in hindsight the novel seems the cause of it all rather than the outcome of various ideas, themes and threads. Such is the magic of the craft.
The ‘magic of the craft’… You mean the techniques involved in writing?
Is there a difference? Techniques of writing are, or should be, part of the magic. Take repetition of motifs. A trick, you might say, to make a novel look coherent. But no amount of trickery will ever transform the unresolved chaos beneath a semblance of unity into an aesthetic whole – save by magic. The magic we resort to in our sweatshops; readers needn’t be bothered. Better keep our nonsense to ourselves, at least in my book: but then, I’m very old school!
Did you encounter any particular challenges in the writing of this novel, being a European writing about a very different cultural milieu?
Frankly, I find it harder to write about my own cultural milieu. Other milieus or timeframes allow the imagination to spread it wings, they allow me to experiment with styles – including out-cultured ones. Not that I like experimentation for its own sake; I am old school in that respect too. I believe the chief aim of the novelist – of me as a novelist – is mimesis, the imitation of life. The word ‘mimicry’ is close to that Latin term, which makes sense: it’s indeed a novelist’s calling to ape reality and parrot people in it, but in an imaginative way rather than realistically.
You don’t seem to like realism all that much.
It depends. I do like realism as a result of mimesis, I write about humans, not about creatures of fancy; besides, I want the historical coordinates to be in place. Such an angle will not only open doors to what actually happened in the past; also to what could have happened, or what contemporaneous characters hoped would happen – which is ‘realistic’ in the sense that they, entangled in time and place and bereft of any sort of hindsight, can’t possibly know the outcome of their endeavours. Old Lady Chun Xian rediscovers her zest for life after she joins White Lotus; she blithely anticipates the demise of the Empire she has been serving for so long. Only now do we know that the Chinese Empire didn’t die with a bang but a whimper, after a protracted, painful semi-colonization by the West that lasted for a century. Things that count in the lives of my characters are not facts so much, but hopes for the future and feelings about the past. Characters who cherish seditious sentiments idealize the previous dynasty, that of the Ming (1382-1644, 150 years prior to Pavilion’s 1790’s…) I regard ‘reality’ in my novel as inner zones laced with external facts overlaying the known world with webs of power – or of hope. In this connection, The Dream of the red Chamber, the classic Chinese novel by Cao Xueqin, a showcase almost of ‘facts turning fiction and fiction turning fact’, inspired me to part ways with realism in a strict sense. It’s not as if I spurn the external world; its sensual qualities enhance the feel of a bygone era – by dint of its etiquette, norms, habits of thought, quirks of speech, and indeed people’s most favourite novel in that era––most of which must remain untold. I prefer to catch ‘mimetic materials’ the moment they swim into my characters’ souls, or nets, or whatever image fits.
Are there any biographical elements in Pavilion?
My editor-in-chief, PJ (Jaynie) Royal, unwittingly introduced me to the English phrase ‘Spartacus moment’. I had never heard that phrase. Being a native speaker of Dutch, I don’t even know whether it is her catchy invention or a common expression; but it resonated with my own ‘Spartacus moments’, as well as those moments in which I wish I were Spartacus instead of some indecisive fool. So when old Chun Xian points her arthritic finger to Heshen and exposes his fraudulence, it was well-nigh a personal triumph for me. Does this matter to my readers? No. More important than ‘shreds of Pim’ one might unearth in the thick of oriental pavilions, are the adventures of Pim creating those pavilions and the people in it.
Speaking of which, do you anticipate writing another novel set in China?
I don’t know. As for Pavilion, I never wrote it to say something about China, if the ‘encounter between East and West’ in the 1790’s had intrigued me for a while. But I was chiefly inspired by The Dream of the Red Chamber. Fiction spawning fiction. The closest I ever came to a ‘scholarly hypothesis’ was the back-story of why Cao Xueqin never completed his huge classic; others did, and it was these others who prevented him from completing his huge masterpiece by setting up elaborate reading sessions where they’d discuss episodes at length. My guess is that his family, who fell from the emperor’s grace when Cao Xueqin was still very young, feared repercussions from the Imperial Censorate due to Xueqin’s prose, that had a markedly seditious––and ‘Ming-loyalist’––bent. The last parts of Dream essentially narrate the imperial confiscation such as the author had witnessed in his youth; a brutal affair, with people hanging themselves and so on. The extant version of Dream, however, is studded with deafening praises of the Emperor, after it was edited––or shall we say disfigured?––by one Gao E. What I did was, first, give a fictional face to the current Chief Censor, whose loyalty to the emperor is on the wane, and, second, make my heroine Cao Xueqin’s mistress when she was young.