Book review: Father Paul's War, by Mark Cheng

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 04 August, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 04 August, 2013, 2:40pm

Father Paul's War
by Mark Cheng
Alliance Publishing Press
3.5 star

Julian Ryall

In 1651, Thomas Hobbes described the life of mankind during war as "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short". In the early decades of the 20th century, little had improved - particularly, it seems, for the men and women of faith caught up first in the Japanese invasion and occupation of China, and then the vicious imposition of communism during and after the civil war.

Father Paul's War, the debut novel by Mark Cheng, tells the story of Paul Leung, an engineering student in Beijing in 1935 who gives up his ambitions and the woman he loves to take up the ascetic life of a Cistercian monk.

The Japanese make life tough for the monks and the villagers they minister to, but their existence becomes intolerable under the communist cadres.

The monks are the victims of show trials whose outcomes are pre-determined; they are worked to death or executed for refusing to recant their faith; their monasteries are set on fire or pulled down.

Separated from the survivors of his order, Father Paul is able to hold up - both physically and spiritually - against the persecution and sets out on a trek across China to the safety of Hong Kong.

On the way, he meets kindness and others who are in similar situations to his own. Not all are able to avoid the fierce control of the regime. He finally reaches his destination, but not before his faith and life choices are tested.

The book effectively captures the mainland and Hong Kong of the 1930s and '40s, in all likelihood because the author lived in the region through those turbulent days. He also apparently has a soft spot for the South China Morning Post as Leung finds work in the colony through the classified ads pages of the paper.

Born in Hong Kong in 1930, Cheng and his family fled to the mainland to avoid the Japanese invaders in 1942. Cheng went on to India with his former headmaster, Father Donnelly, but returned to Hong Kong in 1949 to become a Jesuit novitate.

Even though he stayed in the order for only two years, it gave him an insight into the life of monks in the region. Cheng - now a sprightly 84 - has confirmed that large parts of the book were inspired by his own experiences.

Cheng became a history teacher and married in 1957. In the run-up to Hong Kong being handed back to Chinese control, however, he decided to move again; today he lives in England with his family.

For a debut novel, Father Paul's War is an impressive work that roams through questions of politics, faith, love and commitment, among others. Another strength is the slightly old-fashioned turn of phrases that put the tale firmly in the period that Cheng is describing. And that just adds to the ring of authenticity.