SOMETHING LIKE A HOUSE
He was the only round-eye on board, but nobody noticed. Hugging his ankles like a peasant, he sat alone on the dented metal deck. He avoided faces, as always, watching the river from behind the funnel, quiet in the diesel stink where no one else would come.
First the concrete dock slipped away, then the steep valley sides came close, squeezing the great river. It began to grumble, hurrying them more swiftly out of the mountains. Flat-footed as a Chinaman, he sat on the good canvas rucksack that always reminded him of years before, when he’d been the only round-eye in the Red Guards.
The Guards had wanted to kill him, then disagreed. So they delayed their choice, marching away with the white man who walked like a peasant. On the second day they saw an old man in a field by the road. They poured down into the field and separated into three groups – the swordfish, the dragon and the swallow – competing for who could dig the deepest. Soon the old man was sinking to his knees as the leader slapped his face. They didn’t finish their digging. Where they had worked, the soil was buried under gritty subsoil, the field ruined for a thousand years.
Then he was sent to a Red Guard indoctrination camp. He met an old artilleryman who talked about his time firing ten shells a day across the Taiwan Straits. The Guards had chalked anti-capitalist slogans on the shells, but wrote them on the shell-cases so that the insults were spat at their feet. They had white-washed the murals in local temples and inoculated whole villages in an afternoon, their needles growing blunt on hundreds of arms and spreading Swine Tick Fever.
His rucksack came from a dead peasant. The Guards had changed a shrine into a pigsty, and then discovered that this was a countryside without pigs. With joyful revolutionary songs they dragged a sow from the railhead. Six weeks later they returned to the village. There was a ham in the storehouse roof and pig bones hidden under straw, ready to be burned for fertiliser. That afternoon, resting on a hillside, he watched the executions across the valley. He knew that in the hills there were no scraps for pigs: pigs were a rich man’s beast. But the peasants had only said ‘Please, please,’ as they were led away. He saw the men falling in silence and then the sound like doors closing.
Now he stood up, watching the other passengers from under his cap. He felt trapped again: sometimes there were police on the river boats. He went ashore at the next town and found it crowded with Westerners. They argued in front of tourist hotels, watched from cafes, loitered by racks of postcards – the first whites he had seen in thirty-five years.
‘Not like the brochures,’ someone said in English. It was a grey-haired man, about his own age, talking to a large woman in a floral dress.
‘The marvels of an ageless civilisation,’ said the woman.
‘And toilets to go with it.’
They drifted away as he watched from an alley. He was whispering to their retreating backs. ‘My name is Jim,’ he murmured, as they vanished round a corner. ‘Jim Fraser. Hello. Call me Jim. I have seen amazing things.’
Fraser had been eighteen when he first came east. ‘Hand grenades have these little squares on them,’ the sergeant had said, that night in Korea. ‘It’s like they make bars of chocolate, so that every bugger gets a bit.’
Fraser saw the flash of his first grenade. He forgot to duck and a pine tree lit up for a moment like a green army tent. Surely they would ignore him, the Chinese, if they overran the camp. All through the freezing night he was scared and incredulous: whatever he did the Communists would notice even him.
But nobody was killed, just a Chinese, and they tramped through the snow to search the body. It was frozen solid, with bits of blood in its clothes like stained glass, but they raised it with enormous effort and left it sitting on a tree stump, one eye open and a hand cupped by its ear like someone deaf.
They evacuated the camp, part of the general UN collapse, and fled south through the terrible Chinese ambush around Kunu-ri and on to a great Allied regrouping. The ice turned to mud, the rivers flooded and everyone thought they were going home.
Instead a dozen of them climbed into Bren carriers and went back to the war, or ‘back to front’ as they all said. Two units, one American and one Turkish, had been left behind in the general rout. They were never found. At least, not before Fraser deserted.
They were parked close to an empty village. The Chinese were coming, and the officer smoked hard as he studied their route back. Fraser was no longer the youngest, but still had to clean the sergeant’s boots. He had to lend money, too, which somehow he could never ask for, and before every meal he was sent with a jerrycan to the nearest stream, because there were reports of wells being poisoned.
Here it meant a long hike across a ploughed field. They had been issued with woollen cap-comforters against the bitter winds, but the sergeant insisted they wore them straight, which left their ears exposed: Fraser pulled his cap right down the moment he entered the woods where the Chinese had camped.
There were cigarette packets, a latrine stink, and what looked like a Chinese army newspaper. Its flimsy pages were melting to paste, but Fraser had a favourite picture. An ant raced across the page as he gazed at the broad face of a peasant girl, leaning on a shovel and gazing into the sun. This is what they’re fighting for, he thought.
He remembered a story that one of the veterans had told him. It had happened to a friend who was driving a tank in North Africa. Their CO was a bastard. He gave every crew a tarpaulin and made them paint the outline of all the tools they carried. On inspections they laid out this tarpaulin with each tool in its outline, and they’d twice had their pay docked for losing things.
Then the tank was on patrol and shed one of its tracks. This always took hours to fix, especially on sand, and when they got back they’d be nailed for not keeping it tensioned. They were packing up when they realized they’d lost a brass key the size of a thumb. They searched everywhere, blaming each other, but of course it was sunk somewhere under the sand. They couldn’t waste any more time so they set fire to the tank and walked back. It was only four or five miles, and quite pleasant in the evening cool. They had time to sort out a story about running over some kind of mine or unexploded shell.
Fraser tried to pick up the Chinese newspaper, but it fell to bits in his fingers. He threw the jerrycan into the bushes and walked into the woods, directly away from his unit.
He spent two nights amongst ravenous fleas in the deserted village and two days lying flat in the middle of the ploughed field, watching the road. It was very cold.
At last the Chinese came. He wouldn’t surrender to front-line troops, waiting instead for cooks and wagon drivers. Then a jeep pulled up. The driver unloaded camp stools, and two officers climbed out and sat drinking tea, a map on the ground between them.
Fraser stood up. He raised his hands and waited for a long minute until the officers grew still.
For three days he sat only on the floor: in guard rooms, outside in the cold, and wedged between the benches on a troop train. Then he was ill. He remembered being picked up by two soldiers and soiling himself and them. For a time he lay in a hospital tent that was crowded but silent.
He was getting better when they put him in an ambulance. He bounced over rough roads, guarded by a soldier in an antiseptic mask. Twice the ambulance stopped and his chamber pot was carried to the roadside. Fraser watched from the window as diesel was poured in and set alight.
At a large prison they took his army clothes and dressed him in thin cotton. He shivered for a week while a sneering young man wrote down everything he said about Korea. After that there was a kind of progress.
He rode a train for four days until it was warm like Hong Kong. In police vans or converted buses he followed a river upstream as the roads got worse and the air cooler. It was obvious when he reached the end of his journey.
James Tait Black Memorial Prize, 2001
Whitbread First Novel Award, 2001: ‘This is a gripping page-turner that takes the reader into another world containing both beautifully observed detail of the texture of the lives of Chinese peasants, and a range of big ideas about eugenics, biological warfare, politics and the nature of loneliness. As young Tao says in the course of the book, "Every pleasure equals its rarity". It's a rare pleasure to read such an extraordinary first novel’
‘I haven’t read a good novel about China by a Westerner since Andre Malraux’s masterpiece, Man’s Estate, written in 1928. Apart, that is, from Sid Smith’s wonderful Something Like a House. This book will be compared with Robinson Crusoe (the outsider building his own abode) and Lord of the Flies (the long-term effects of context on individual mortality). It is a profound and sophisticated work of fiction’ The Observer
‘This amazing, authoritative tale of a deserter in China - the only round-eye in the Red Guards - stains the mind indelibly, like a beautiful, harrowing dream’ Books of the Year, Daily Telegraph
‘Smith is a mercurial stylist, his prose by turns confounding and comforting, earth-bound and star-gazing... Phrase-making of breathtaking beauty jostles with stunted English, poetic finesse with language of purely functional use. And all the time you are spell-bound, mesmerised by a disturbing arrhythmia, the most enduringly unsettling aspect of this haunting and original novel’ The Independent
‘An impressively well-researched and sensitively imagined picture of an almost unknown society as it comes up against state politics, told in haunting, piercingly spare prose which never fails to make an impact’ The Times
‘Smith's real achievement is to have created a work that is dense with politics, history and science, but which has a ring of absolute truth about it. It reads not so much as a novel about an experience but as one that renders the experience itself - startling, strange, unmediated’ The Daily Telegraph
‘Smith's parable is haunting in its simplicity, and arrestingly told’ Scotland on Sunday
‘This story of a foreigner's long sojourn in an alien culture, under-scored with a sub-plot involving the development of germ warfare science, is truly extraordinary’ The Herald [Glasgow]
‘The beauty of the author's approach is the way in which he subverts our sensibilities through stealth, using language to tease wisps of mist across meaning, forcing us to look more carefully, forcing us to consider nuances that may ordinarily have passed us by. The result is a book that simultaneously eats away at your heart whilst challenging our very understanding of what a novel should be. It is an extraordinary debut’ The Birmingham Post
‘Smith's narrative is beautifully spare and lean without a trace of sententiousness; his unemotional tone contrasts pognantly with the sometimes lurid and horrific events that engulf Fraser and the 'medieval' villagers. Once you start reading this book, put everything else on hold. Definitely the bee's knees. Buy it’ Time Out
Unnerving yet strangely beautiful, it is the most interesting, carefully worded, and provocative novel featuring the Chinese world I've read for a very long time. Unusual, disturbing and absorbing, if you read only one book about China this year, make certain that it's this one’ Taipei Times
of ‘Something Like a House’