- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 27, 2004


By Margaret Drabble

Harcourt, $24, 334 pages


Margaret Drabble’s newest novel, “The Red Queen,” is two novels in one, ingeniously interrelated, of course. The first is the story of an 18th century Korean Crown Princess who lived through turbulent and dangerous times and recorded her experiences in a series of memoirs that are as well known in Korea as they are unknown to most of us in the West. The second introduces us to Babs Halliwell, a modern-day academic who happens to read the Crown Princess’s memoirs en route to a conference in Seoul and finds herself, to her surprise, utterly engrossed.

So, too, was Ms. Drabble, as she tells us in her Prologue: “What struck me most forcibly about the memoirs, when I first read them, was the sense of the clarity of the individual self, speaking clearly and directly and personally, across space, time and culture… . I believe she was a prescient woman who lived out of time. In this postmodern age of cultural relativism, that should be an untenable belief. Nevertheless, I have felt the need to investigate it, and this book is the result.”

Ms. Drabble gives us fair warning of what not to expect: “This is not a historical novel. The voice of the Crown Princess, which appears to speak in the first person in the first section of the novel, is not an attempt to reconstruct her real historical voice… . I have not attempted to … reconstruct ‘real life’ in the Korean court of the late eighteenth century. Instead, I have asked questions about the nature of survival, about the possibility of the existence of universal transcultural human characteristics.”

It is certainly welcome to hear a voice like the author’s challenging the nostrums of our “postmodern age of cultural relativism” and championing the Enlightenment notions of universals and a common humanity, or, as she puts it, “universal transcultural human characteristics.” For these basic qualities, transcending time and place, are what enable human beings to speak and listen to one another down through the centuries and across the globe: It’s why the classics of literature, whatever their provenance, have the power to reach us.

But, although Ms. Drabble has invoked the idea of universals on behalf of her plan to present a freewheeling, admittedly fictionalized version of the Korean princess and her history, the question remains: Whether or not it’s good history, is this novel good fiction?

“The Red Queen” is certainly very readable, both parts of it. First, we are ensnared by the voice of the Princess, born to a family of scholars in 1735, married off at the age of 10 to the heir to throne, a little boy her own age. The court society in which she finds herself is a strange, claustrophobic environment, fraught with rumors, rivalry, political intrigue, prohibitions, and unpredictable personalities. Prince Sado, her young husband, was extravagantly worshipped in his infancy: “Every sign and sound he made was interpreted as a sign of his princely genius… .There was no discipline in those early years. But as he got older…too much was demanded of him. As he grew out of the charmed estate of infancy and into boyhood, faults were constantly found in him.”

Although the Prince’s father, the powerful King Yongjo, is something of a reformer, he is also a very complicated man, capricious and difficult. The Princess watches anxiously as her young spouse, entering manhood, exhibits increasingly alarming symptoms of mental illness, including a nasty tendency to suddenly turn on people and murder them. His outbursts of violence, as he confides to her, give him a momentary sense of release from his inferiority complex, which he blames on his father for not having loved him. The Princess and almost everyone else at court, fearful though they are, cover up for him, but eventually the King is informed of his son’s crimes and has him put to death.

Herein lies the novel’s most glaring weakness, which seems a direct result of sheer wooly-mindedness on the author’s part. Having, as it were, “channeled” the Crown Princess’s transcultural soul, she wants us to know that the Princess (and presumably any decent person in whatever time or place) considers the king’s execution of his son a far more terrible thing than the multiple murders that the young man committed. Ms. Drabble may have endowed her Princess with a “transcultural” perspective beyond the grave and beyond time, but far from being an illuminating perspective, it’s a deeply muddled one:

“I repeat, the past of every country of the globe is barbarous. By telling this story, my story, I am not accusing my country of any special barbarity, of any unique cruelty. I have read of the unfortunate wives of Henry VIII. I have read about the Star Chamber and the Inquisition, and about the French Revolution. America today has its Death Row and its electric chair.”

Leaving aside the author’s dubious comparisons of the wholesale persecutions of the Inquisition with the current flaws of the American justice system, is it fair to place the Korean monarch’s decision in the same class with these other “barbarities”?

Given his son’s reign of terror, what choices did the King have? Surely in 18th century Korea murder was a capital offence. To have allowed his son to get away with, not just one, but many murders, when ordinary, non-royal Koreans were paying the full penalty for the crime, would have been grossly inequitable.

True, the Crown Prince seems to have been crazy, which would render him legally less culpable. But treatment for his illness was hardly an option back then (and furthermore, as the author herself shows us in the second part of her book, where Babs Halliwell’s mentally ill husband has been institutionalized for years without any progress, it’s not always effective even nowadays).

Exile to a fortress or island, where this unfortunate but dangerous lunatic might have served as the focus of plots by disaffected courtiers pushing for him to inherit the throne? Far from being the monstrous outrage she presents it as being, the King’s decision seems to have been both principled and pragmatic. Indeed, if anyone is to blame for not stopping the spree of violence and murder, it’s the Princess and her allies, who’ve engaged in the cover-up.

Arguably, the Princess’s sense of outrage stems from emotion rather than logic. Even so, one is not convinced. Ms. Drabble has presented the Princess as above all else a mother, whose deep love for her children far surpasses whatever sympathy she may have had for her dangerous husband: yet another reason why her horror at his fate seems excessive. One suspects somehow that all this outrage is less a product of the Princess’s feelings than an opportunity for the author to sound off with some vague and ill-considered notions about capital punishment.

The second part of the novel gives the adventures of British academician Babs Halliwell, narrated in the third-person present-tense in Ms. Drabble’s usual breezy manner, which has the virtue of moving things along briskly, but occasionally sounds a bit pat and complacent.

Still, the author clearly knows her international conferences, and she deftly evokes the jet-lag, the excitement, the disorientation, as well as the charms of Babs’ serendipitous friendship with a Korean physician and the satisfactions of her unexpected romantic fling with the Dutch social scientist who is the conference’s star participant.

What Ms. Drabble captures in this novel, for all its flaws, is that peculiarly modern (or perhaps postmodern?) sensation of commingled speed and inertia, frivolity and intensity, shallowness and depth that seems to come with globe-hopping conferences, rapid immersions in other cultures, and the sense of living in a shrinking world with growing problems. Babs fears she is only skimming life’s surfaces, yet she retains a commitment to plumbing its depths.

Like the Crown Princess, Babs is a woman of sorrows: her crazy husband, suicidal rather than homicidal, lives on in an asylum; her only child died in infancy of a rare genetic disorder unwittingly passed on by Babs herself. Yet both women are survivors. The parallels between the two heroines work well, because they are not overdone: what we get is a believable sense of connection, one of the capacities that makes us humans the lively and empathetic social creatures we are and should be.

Merle Rubin is a writer and critic in Pasadena, Calif.

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