Friday, November 20, 2015

Hungry Ghost: Ballad of a Small Player a novel by Lawrence Osborne

The Ballad of a Small Player (2014) is a novel of contemporary western China, in Macau’s gilded gambling casinos. “Lord” Doyle is an expatriate barrister from London. Doyle thinks of himself as a long term loser personality and an obsessive gambler against luck. The ironic title of Lord has been given to Doyle by the Chinese hotel and casinos staff because of his good suits, yellow gambling gloves, and “quai lo” (Caucasian) airs of royalty he maintains while losing more money than he wins. Wealth that Doyle embezzled and absconded with from London gives him immunity from overt scorn by the Chinese gamblers and staff. Doyle’s self-hatred is mitigated by his identification with Taoists’ concept of “preta” described in English as “Hungry Ghosts.” These poor souls are awaiting reincarnation to a better life existing indefinitely in the equivalent of Christian hell. The hungry ghosts are burdened by a tremendous appetite for food, drink, and other sensory pleasures that cannot be satisfied except during the seventh lunar month of the Chinese calendar. Doyle sees himself as a denizen of the casinos in his seventh month.

The novel is an interesting character study and maintains a consistently gloomy mood against a background of huge glitzy rooms. The depressive views of Doyle are symptomatic of what we call gambling “addiction” in the West. In the East, however, the Chinese call the predictable addictive behavior “luck,” that Doyle associates with the I Ching. Caught between two cultural views, Doyle plays a type of Baccarat that involves no player skill, only a turning of the cards and counting numbers. He casts his fate to the wind every night expecting to lose with no basis for his anticipation. Seeing himself as a loser, Doyle claims that once a loser always one. As an addict, Doyle is a hungry ghost who has selected specific self-destructive behaviors because of his immutable loser personality. Instead of the Western explanation that an addiction overcomes one, the Eastern description is that all past and present living factors (including guilt) have influenced one to pick his individual unreachable “pleasure.”

This is the second good novel of the Orient by Lawrence Osborne I have read. Hunters in the Dark will be published in January 2016.

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