THE BLOK SAGA COMPLETED

BLOK 6: THE CHINESE SMILE

The Chinese Smile 30 years in the writing, the Blok Saga that began with THE THERAPY OF AVRAM BLOK spirals to its ending in a setting far in geography and conception from the split city of 1960’s Jerusalem in which its “anti-hero” first puzzled over the dilemmas of myth and reality, national violence and human compassion that clashed over the un-Holy Land…

Now in the 21st century, Avram Blok may be dead, but that cannot prevent the old mischief-maker from advancing to his final cycle. Resurrection, in the tunnels built beneath Beijing by Mao Zedong, China’s last emperor, is but a prelude for Blok greatest adventure, a journey across two parallel worlds: The present, in today’s Rising China, a nation recast in the contradiction of communist-capitalism, and the past that can never die: Blok’s alter-ego, ancestor and double, Ibrahim Bin-Lukka of medieval Palestine – born in the stormy days of the Mongol invasion and finding his Elixir of Life in Kublai Khan’s China, fated to advance and retreat through the ages from dynasty to dynasty, east to west and back, through Islamic Persia, Venice, Spain of refuge and exile, advancing on towards the modern world…

And will the two Bloks finally meet, the cheater of death and the cheater of Time?

 

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Segment from Chapter One:

 

The security centre was at the further end of the ground floor of a ramshackle office block that oozed concrete from its top sixth floor and leaned, as if the tip of a finger could bring the whole pile crashing down. Uniformed police stood ramrod straight on small concrete blocks at ten foot intervals at its entrance, barely able to see or respond to anyone who might duck under the white metal bar that stretched across the gap in its twelve foot high ochre wall. A pair of eyes looking through a slit in a pillbox blinked at Inspector Chang, as he drove up in his bubble car, and the bar swung up with a clang. Chang drove into a dusty car park and ushered Blok into the maze.

Corridors, rooms, corridors, rooms, little boxes with plain desks, folding chairs, filing cabinets and an occasional high window. Uniforms hung on coat hangers on doorknobs… Outside, some kind of generator ground away like a dentist’s drill. “We will have somewhere quiet to have our talk,” said Chang. “I will take care of everything. We will get you a permit to stay in the city and a proper form for your lost documents. Pickpockets, they are such a curse. Unfortunately we cannot get rid of them. For now, you are a welcome guest of Beijing Police, Department of Archive Records. There is a special hat we give out to visitors. But we can skip that.”

“Thank you. Xiexie.”

“Very good. Even a language of ten million words starts with one small sample. If you are ready, I will take you on the tour.”

Out, across a field in which new recruits were drilling, move by move. Turn, bend knees, rise, extend arm straight with clenched fist. “Haawaah!” And again. Clearly, precision was the alpha and omega. Into a one-storey, box like hangar. It was empty apart from an array of blue tunics that hung in a neat row along all four walls, a portrait of Mao Zedong presiding over the dismal display. “Before my time,” said Chang, “my father was police officer in Cultural Revolution. On spring holiday, he put a flower in his buttons-hole. They sent him off to re-education in Heilonjang province. They made him carry people shit twelve hours a day. Sometimes I think I can still smell it. But we have better times now.” He reached an elevator door at the far end. “Now we go down.”

They descended an unknown number of floors, as none were numbered. Then exited into a more modern, air-conditioned shaft. Here the police men and women were more smartly garbed, and marched about with briefcases and bundles of files.

“Department of Archive Records,” said Chang. “Is relatively new. We took a long time to collect materials from all over the country. From west, east, north and south. China is a big country. We have a long tradition of keeping records. Five thousand years.” He opened a door and ushered Blok into another box-like space, unlocking another door to a storeroom. Here too there were costumes neatly hung about the walls. Empty skins of the horned goblins, the three-eyed devils, the pig-faced demons, the club-wielding pug, the toad-face troglodytes, the hoofed human goats and taloned dragons.

“All our history,” said Chang, running his hand over the rubbery masks, “is struggle between order and chaos. You have a poet who says, Things fall apart, the centre cannot hold. For thousands years, we fight this problem. Many times we have been successful, for a short while, maybe some centuries, then collapse again. What is the secret, Chinese scholars ask, over and over. What is the Mandate of Heaven? Who is allowed to rule is the one who does the most good for the people. Thousands of years, we had the Emperor. Most of the time he was a weak scoundrel. If we are lucky, he is competent. Now and then he is exceptional. Then we discovered that we were not the whole universe. All under heaven. We were mistaken. Things fell apart. Then the Republic, very short life. Much chaos. Then the Party. Mao Zedong Thought. Back to Emperor again. What I am telling you, of course, it is not orthodox. We were saved because, in the end, we are a practical people. And you know what is the greatest enemy of the practical person?” He looked round at Blok, his eyes round as saucers in the dim light, as the goblin masks softly rustled. “His greatest enemy is his dreams.”

He sank back, appearing to squirm between the coat of a fork-tailed wart-hog and an eyeless salamander. “Can you do without your dreams, Mister Blok? Can we accept the misery of our daily existence only by a slogan on the television? Or do we pray daily to the rising figures of the stock exchange? The promise of Capitalism is the reality, is it not? But we are still weak. The more we are becoming individuals with new shoes and suits and mobile telephones and cars, the more we are seeking to cling to something else. Is it society? The State? The Party? The Ancestors? Old philosophies dragged out of our poor flesh? As a policeman, can I arrest a ghost? It is an old story – how do you kill an idea? Especially when you don’t know for sure what that idea is at all! We all know ideas can move mountains, destroy empires,  make even gods tremble.”

He moved through the demon costumes, obliging Blok to fend off their warts and bumps. “To stop everything that is not permitted by the Party. That is the old style. Market economy doesn’t work like that. Market creates its own chaos. You jump in, hope to come out a millionaire, not a bum. Should it still be Marxist class war? Or the Confucian social harmony? In history, everything is storm of events. Historian, like policeman, tries to make order out of mess. The better historian collects the greatest amount of evidence, then makes judgement. If the policeman did this, you would never reach justice… How far back should we go to explain a simple deed? So we ask you, Mister Blok, how did you get here, to Beijing?”

He pushed another door open, at the end of the row, towards a steel-grey chamber, with a metal desk and two chairs. As he moved aside, two plain-clothed men in grey shirts and slacks and rugged arms seized Blok’s arms and pulled them behind his back, bending him towards the floor. They dragged him towards the nearer chair.

“Beijing is far from so many places,” Chang continued, in the same conversational tone. “You can’t just walk over here from London, or from Jerusalem, or from Sydney or Adelaide. You can walk from Mongolia, across the Gobi desert, if you like. It will take you about fifteen days, if you are experienced and know the way. But you have to cross mountains as well, climb over the Great Wall maybe. No guards there any more, only tourists. Click click click with their cameras. Very pretty sight. Most educational. But we check your name, as you provide it. We check passenger manifests of flights. More difficult to check buses and trains. But you have to enter somewhere. Just don’t tell me that you died in the Australian desert and come up through a hole in the ground, chased by demons. As you can see, there are no demons here. Only policemen. We can be demons, that is true, when necessary. If order is threatened, we set it right. That is our job. Fifteen thousand yuan a year. Nearly two thousand dollars, after twenty-five years on the force. Do you think that is a fair wage?”

The two thugs were pressing Blok’s head to the metal desk, squashing his nose. His spectacles had fallen off on the floor.

“You are not answering my question,” said Chang. “Why? Because you lack the information that is relevant to the inquiry. But you have the information to tell me how you entered the country. Was it Weng who supplied you with documents? Did you come by air, sea or rail? Was it the Trans-Siberian railway? Why conceal the truth if it is all legitimate? Why make up this absurd ghost story?”

The thugs thumped Blok’s head twice on the desk, not very heavily, but sufficient to make their case. Then they hauled his head up by its remaining hairs. Chang gestured to them and one picked up Blok’s spectacles and placed them upon his nose. Luckily the lenses were a little scuffed but not cracked. “I can get you a new pair,” said Chang, “in less than half an hour. This is a can do country now. Do you want something to drink? Coffee, lemonade?”

Blok shook his head. The thugs released his arms, and he massaged them cautiously.

“Now I go back to being the bad cop,” said Chang. “You know we have no habeas corpus in this country. Police can detain anyone, charge anyone, convict anyone. You have no legitimate presence, you can just disappear. Twenty years, making soft toys for Gallerie Lafayette and Harrods. Learning respect for authority. Then if you fall ill and die they can sell your organs for Russian transplant brokers. Sometimes even ahead of time, if orders backed up. Very nasty business. Your kidney is in Khabarovsk, your lung is in New Delhi and your heart in some old lady in Des Moines. I read about it on the internet. Terrible things. Of course, there will be a proper trial. Espionage for foreign power.”

Blok was aware of pain, but, for some reason, no fear. I expected to go and nevertheless the dreams came. And now, back again. He closed his eyes. But, opening them again, found himself in the same place.

“The truth can be a real bugger,” he squeezed out, through a split lip. Nevertheless, blood was oozing, flecking the cold steel desk. Chang nodded to the thugs, who began striking him about the head with the thick palms of their hands. Fists thumped him in the back, arms, kidneys. Then the flurry stopped.

“I came in on a package tour,” said Blok, his words coming out like lumps. “On Voyages Jules Verne. We took a plane to Samarkand and then came down the silk route by Uzbek chemin-de-fer. I lost my document wallet in an open toilet at the Beijing Duck Restaurant. The one near Qiamen. Then I wandered about and got lost in the bunkers. Weng found me there. And your men in clown suits. You know the rest.”

Chang gestured, and the thugs retreated, closing the steel door behind them. Chang pulled out a box of tissues and unfolded a couple across the desk.

“You see, that wasn’t so difficult,” he said. “We use some mundane violence and you tell us the usual pack of lies. But you will forgive me, I have to make sure.” He leaned forward and examined the blood oozing from Blok’s forehead. “I am sorry, this seems to be excessive. You will need some treatment.” He pressed the side of the desk, and two orderlies in white coats entered swiftly, pushing a wheeled stretcher.

“I’m quite all right,” Blok mumbled. But the orderlies, who seemed to bear a distinct resemblance to the two thugs who had beaten him before, firmly laid him down on the stretcher. One held him down while the other pulled a syringe and plunged it in his arm.

“Some routine tests,” Chang said softly. Leaning over Blok, his face seemed to be subtly changing. The eyes becoming rounder, the nose lengthening, the slicked down hair knotting up, the ears extending into points, the smooth fat cheeks trembling with some inner infestation, palpating in a red rash. And was that a third eye opening in the policeman’s forehead?

“You are dreaming again,” said Chang. He seemed to be floating above Blok, his feet levitated, as the two stretcher bearers rushed him down the corridors at breakneck speed. “You must just relax. It will help you remember. The simple truth is all that we require.”

The goblins were back. They were lined up in the waiting room, on folding chairs, reading newspapers, fanning themselves with axes and clubs, cracking sunflower seeds and eating noisily from plastic trays of dumplings, their chopsticks clacking like knitting needles. They loomed over Blok, in crisp white uniforms, scratching on clipboards, adjusting the bed and the drips and feeds that led into Blok’s nose, mouth, arms and groin. As they raised the head of the bed, Chang’s face swam into Blok’s view, his head crowned with some flat antique cap that resembled a red mortarboard with hanging gauze. He was dressed in a flowing silk red robe festooned with bright yellow stars. A rod of office, clasped in his hand, ended in a gold ball. His other hand held, by its top, a thick paper scroll which unrolled down his waist onto the floor. A pig-faced demon lifted the other end and, stuffing it in his mouth, began to devour it. Chang barked out an order and the axe-bearing demon rose, came forward and promptly decapitated the hog, whose torso collapsed in a red gurgling froth. Two toad orderlies slapped mops on the floor.

A slim human girl, darting in the doorway, was motioned forward by Chang. She was a petite nurse, in a white jacket with a row of pens in its pocket.

“Interpret!” barked Chang. And he began to read from the scroll in a high singsong voice, which sounded like a saw on a violin.

“Judgement is given,” the girl called out, facing Blok, “in the Department of Wayward Souls and Wandering Spirits. The charge is Unauthorized Entering of the Underworld for purposes of Subverting Heaven and Impeding the Historical Flow. Obstructing the chi, defiling the chhii, debasing the sheng, impersonating the hsien. The defendant has been observed, by reliable and reputable witnesses, to have personally committed the following transgressions against the Universal Order and the Way:

 

“Practicing divination.

Urinating on plants.

Wantonly deceiving his Elders.

Poisoning lakes, rivers, reservoirs, pools and oceans.

Robbing bird’s nests.

Proffering ugly and harsh sounds, i.e. involuntary cries, belching and  farts.

Reading obscure books.

Fornicating with the Emperor against His will.

Eating alone.

Setting fire to fields, forests, army barracks, cities, homes, palaces.

Committing adultery.

Writing frequently and furtively.

Emitting unpleasant smells.”

 

“All these misdemeanours, treasons and crimes recorded by the Office for Confidential Matters of Supreme Importance and the Department of Investigations and Errors.” Chang lowered the scroll and barked out a question, which the petite nurse translated:

“Are you in the position of submitting a Petition in the proper manner? The said Petition to be phrased in simple language. To avoid flowery or complicated ideas. To be truthful and straight-forward, pure and good-hearted, comprehensive and absolutely sincere. Such a Petition must be presented to the Official facing the Gate of the Spirits, unless it is a Petition to Control the Movement of Tigers, which must be delivered in the tiger direction, or a Petition to Control the Movement of Snakes, which must be delivered facing the Gate of the Earth. All the proper cosmic meridians and auspicious moments must be meticulously observed to avoid rejection and the immediate penalty of Death by Strangulation or by the Infinite Cuts and a fine of no less than twenty-six ounces of jade.  For this purpose Petitions must only be submitted on the 7th, 10th, 12th or 17th day of the month, written on fresh paper prepared from mulberry pulp in a properly ordained and licensed kuan by monks who have diligently studied and mastered the Dao for at least forty-seven years and six months.”

Blok painfully moved his head, but his arms remained pinned by leather cords to the bed as Chang handed the girl a slim parchment, a pot of ink and a pen and said: “Sign appropriately in all four corners.” The girl pressed it at Blok, her eyes filling with tears. Chang motioned the demons, who carried the bed closer to his judging stool. The girl squeezed Blok’s arm in acute sympathy. The touch of her fingers was somewhat cold. Chang’s face swam nearer. He spoke to Blok directly:

“Think of the Way,” he said softly, “and the Way will appear before you. Think of the morning, and the day will immediately dawn. Think of beauty, and a myriad gongs and dulcimers will beckon you to the Garden of Earthly Delights. Think of wisdom, and your ancestors will rise from the ashes, holding the tablets of the eternal laws and offering the experience of eons. Think of knowledge, and the scholars of a thousand nations, extant or destroyed, will be at your door, pulling cartloads of exquisite manuscripts, treatises of sciences and arts, reams of inspired poetry and superlative prose, magnificent paintings, sculptures and decorative objects, exquisite instruments of observation of the furthermost stars and the smallest particles of existence. There is no yin without yang, and no yang without yin. All is perfect in the eternal flow of the Way. All is unified and self-sufficient in Nature. Nothing was created. All is at it ever was. Only our consciousness defiles and interrupts this perfection. Come with me…”

 

  And so the journey begins…