Expat writer gambles with Macau and HK cards

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 03 August, 2014, 11:28am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 05 August, 2014, 8:16pm

British novelist and journalist Lawrence Osborne is no stranger to the thrilling complexities of expatriate life, having lived and worked in Paris, New York City, Mexico, Istanbul and now Bangkok. Following on from the critical and commercial success of The Forgiven, which was named one of the best books of 2012 by The Economist , Library Journal and The Guardian , his latest novel, Ballad of a Small Player , is a bleak and beautiful exploration of a pathological gambler's escape from London to Hong Kong and Macau, a morality tale like no other. Osborne spoke to Jingan Young.

What inspired?

I believe novels, as Nabokov used to say, begin as a pulse, an image, an "obscure emotion". I never start with a plot, but I've always been intrigued by the aura of the supernatural in Chinese casinos. I began writing Ballad in a hotel in Phnom Penh several years ago. During my visa runs from Bangkok, I visited Macau and although I am not a gambler I felt the tone should be autobiographical in part. I don't know why, but it was tricky to write. I felt it out gradually though until I had the shape of a fable. Of course, it mimics in some way my own life, since I have lived in Asia for a while now. The draw of the East for the Westerner is itself a venerable subject, but here we are dealing with those who wish to disappear or reinvent themselves. My character is a sociopath rather than a genteel Jan Morris type bemusedly observing "the locals". He is here to stay, and die.

What do you think of the "expat fiction" label?

I don't really think of myself [writing in] that way. I don't make a big fuss about being an expat or gweilo because I've lived almost my whole life outside Britain. In fact, I think the term is a bit parochial now. The world's not that big any more. I think writers, in particular, should be supreme cosmopolitans - surely this is the way things are moving? Well, I hope they are anyway.

Why Macau, why Hong Kong?

A story like this would never work in Basingstoke. Certain places make certain stories possible. This is, I suppose, a fable about money so it could only take root in a city devoted to money in a spectacular and visceral way. I think subconsciously Hong Kong and Macau have always raised my adrenalin in certain ways that are obscurely connected to the chaos of money. But also to the seduction of money, its charm if you like. Its luxury and deception and inventiveness. To moralise against money is simple-minded; it's a more mysterious force than one realises.

Was there a particular motivation, being of British stock, to have your protagonist Lord Doyle escape from London to Asia?

[The British] are a race of nomads, mariners, wanderers and itinerants. Our history bears this characteristic. It must be the Viking blood in us - my surname is Viking, as it happens.

The gweilo takes centre stage in the novel. How does his existence in Hong Kong and Macau differ in comparison to the rest of Asia?

I have the feeling we are a curious commodity here: in Thailand, where I live, I feel a turn away from the West and towards China on the political level. This has a great bearing on how one is seen. In China itself, though, I feel more a bemused incomprehension and also a forbearance - even in tiny villages in the interior of the mainland. In Hong Kong, because of its colonial history, it's a different story. It's a hybrid city and that's its glory. Of course, it's my fervent wish to be as hybrid as possible. I live in Thailand, I could say, because it was never a colony. As a white person, I am a ghost of a different kind - by simple virtue of not figuring much in the country's history. That's rather liberating for me. I am very aware how this changes from country to country, however subtly. In Vietnam, for instance, the oblivious arrogance of the Thais can't pertain in any way - it was a colony.

How has living abroad, if at all, changed your writing and your view on the world?

It's changed fundamentally. However, I am not one of these who "go native" and repudiates everything occidental. Cultures have much in common but their variability is a precious thing.