THE SINGING TREE
New York Times
By Frank Wilson
Kristian Hardy, an old man closing out his days in the Amazon jungle, was once Kurt Hellmann, the youngest railway stationmaster in Germany. One day as he was serving in that capacity, a phone call caused him to panic and precipitate the deaths of 123 Jews en route to the concentration camps. Josef Mengele's remains having been identified, Hardy now regards himself as "the last Nazi mass murderer." He teeters just this side of despair, thanks to his love for Eduardo, his housekeeper's small son, and to his losing battle to maintain in good repair the Bechstein grand piano left behind by the plantation's previous owner. Unexpectedly, Hardy finds himself in love -- with a young Jewish woman from New York, come to Brazil in search of butterflies, whom Hardy takes for his nemesis, the Nazi hunter of his recurring dreams. Hardy's youthful moment of panic had revealed to him the void at the center of what he had taken to be his values. He longs for punishment but has evaded it until now, when he openly courts an expiatory act. In his first novel, Peter Moss has Hardy tell his tale with economy and precision, leading us through a moral landscape as tangled as the Amazon wilderness. Even the touch of sentimentality toward the end tells us much about Hardy, and the unobtrusive ambiguity at the close provides just the right touch of muted dissonance. "The Singing Tree" is a little gem.
Set in Brazil's Amazon basin, this short, powerful first novel takes the form of a journal kept by aged rubber planter Kurt Hellmann, aka Kristian Hardy, who conceals his sordid past in Nazi Germany. As a young Bavarian railway stationmaster, Hellmann dutifully helped transport thousands of Jews to the gas chambers. Repentant, guilt-ridden, his secret continually gnawing at him, he seeks redemption through his devotion to Eduardo, his housekeeper's Indian son. When the body of a kidnapped Indian girl is found on Hellmann's property, the self-castigating emigre makes a ritual pact with the Indians, offering his own life if he fails to find her murderer. Enter Ruth Golding, a vibrant Jewish naturalist from New York. Is she on a butterfly-collecting mission in the ecologically threatened jungle? Or is she a Nazi-hunter after human prey? Suffice to say that their charged encounter blasts Hellmann out of his fatalism. Moss, a Hong Kong-based journalist of Anglo-Indian origins, crafts a mesmerizing story that points an accusatory finger at each of us, asking who we would have been in Nazi Germany, and what parts we play now as evil continues to stalk the world.
In the wilds of Brazil, ex-Nazi Kristian Hardy works his small, appropriated rubber plantation and lives with his guilt. He begins a journal and mingles past with present, summoning up memories of being a stationmaster in Germany, watching trains carrying victims to the camps, inciting an incident that kills scores, and so on. Into his present world comes Ruth, a naturalist, but in Kristian's mind she is his nemesis--someone who will expose and punish him. The two explore the wonders of the forest with a small Indian boy, finding almost mystical experiences. Kristian learns that Ruth did not come seeking a Nazi; instead, she finds a lover, a man whose guilt she cannot alleviate. The author's graceful prose succeeds in creating a powerful study of pain, failure, guilt, and the realization that the future may or may not be better. Mood and background are beautifully sustained in this first novel. Highly recommended.-- Robert H. Donahugh, formerly with Youngstown & Mahoning Cty. P.L., Ohio -Library Journal
The old Nazi sits in the jungle, remembering. Forty years ago, as the result of a hoax phone call, he was responsible for the massacre of 123 Jews. Now a young Jewish-Americam woman arrives in Brazil looking, so she says, for butterflies. Is she the nemesis he is waiting for? A stunning novella, wise and eloquent, whose theme - the limits and consequences of personal responsibility - is given a forceful ecological twist.
THE AGE OF ELEPHANTS
Moss has been a firsthand witness to the fading glory of the British diaspora in exotic locales like India, Hong Kong and the Philippines. Here, he draws heavily on a childhood spent in India to recreate the experiences of expatriates repatriated against their will, caught between a glorious spiritual home and the draw of Queen and country. Durbar Court, a rambling, colonnaded bungalow built on palatial proportions and set on a rise backed by a shallow valley, was built by the now-deceased Gwyn Jones as both a tribute to his beloved India and a refuge from the encroaching civilization of England. Run with both strength and self-doubt by his widow, Dolly, it has become home to a ragtag collection of extended family, Indian exiles and other odd characters. When Tom Swain, a copywriter with ghosts of his own, is driven into the estate by a couple of wild peacocks, it changes his life forever, forcing him to choose between a life lived in memory or in reality. Moss packs the narrative with far too many characters to follow: The vivacious Dolly, Tom’s paramour Clare Truscott and an intense Indian intellectual named Ravi Shapoor are among the most compelling of this motley crew, but gaggles of unruly children, lunatic relatives and quirky servants muddle the story. Despite the heavy character traffic, however, the author’s prose is classical, elegant and oddly moving in the manner of Isak Dinesen or E.M. Forster. Moss fosters a charming colonial memory that will speak clearly to anyone who has been away from home a long time.
A romanticized, tragic remembrance of well-loved experiences.
South China Morning Post
At first glance, the eccentric inhabitants of Durbar Court - a rambling home on the south coast of England - are mired in the past like flies in aspic. They're presided over by Dolly Hunter-Jones, who attempts to preserve the dream of her long-dead husband, Glyn: "a shrine to imperialism", the excesses of the Raj transplanted into a corner of East Sussex.
On the walls hang the mirrors of Rajputana, which reflect the bizarre anachronism of this microcosm, the rooms packed with relics of another era, and the retinue of ageing Indian factotums shuffling around with trays. "Age crept through the house like a parasitic growth. Any gesture of resistance was futile."
But Glyn Jones' dream will soon prove too heavy a burden for Durbar Court's inhabitants, most of whom, despite outward appearances, are hungry for change and a release from the past.
The Age of Elephants is richly peopled with an array of larger-than-life characters. Among them, the feisty Leila Chandra, slowly dying from a thwarted love; Ruth Chatterjee, a recent immigrant who, along with her intellectual nephew Ravi Shapoor, is a fierce warrior against anti-Indian prejudice; the colonel, Edward "Teddy" Reginald Gascoynge, whose tired air of nobility rests upon him "like a rumpled tiger skin"; and Kalil, the handsome architectural student who spends his summers working in the garden.
It's into this setting that the Anglo-Indian divorcee Tom Swain and his two young daughters stumble. Thrust back into a landscape resembling that of his Indian childhood, Tom is forced to face the demons of his past. Coaxing him through the memories of a fraught childhood is Clare Truscott, an anthropologist and young widow.
Tom's journey to peace will take him back to India, and will be embodied by a surprise gift from his father's former manservant, Kuti Lal.
The novel is rich in stories within stories. Who can resist the tale (with two endings) of Padmi Gupta's ill-fated motoring tour, where the sudden death of her Aunt Violet means the corpse must be conveyed on the roof of a Morris Minor through pre-monsoon Rajasthan.
Ravi Shapoor's comment on an ageing uncle - "At least I don't have to resort to vanity press" - is a delightful piece of self-parody by the self-published Hong Kong author. According to the book's jacket, author Peter Moss "witnessed the end of Empire in India, Malaya and Hong Kong", and drew "heavily upon childhood memories" to write The Age of Elephants. Perhaps the author has verbalised some reservations about doing so in the scene where Tom destroys his manuscripts.
The Age of Elephants speaks of the absurdity of selective memory and of the catharsis that comes from confronting the past head-on and using its lessons to move on. "Turning into the main road, he was half inclined to pause so he could memorise afresh the already familiar landmarks. As if he couldn't be entirely certain he would find that gate again."
- Solveig Bang
Bye Bye Blackbird
As a former newspaper reporter and now head of publicity for the Hong Kong Government, Moss has a professional's eye for detail and a gift for an apt turn of phrase. The result is that "Bye Bye Blackbird" joins a very circumscribed selection of books dealing with the perspective of the Anglo-Indian Community which, recently, has been given a boost by William Dalrymple's White Mughals and predated by Jamila Vavin's Out of India - An Anglo-Indian Childhood and Carl Muller's quasi-fictional memoirs of Eurasian railway families.
Now, we have "disappeared like the lost tribes of Egypt" writes Moss, "Like so many other civilizations that have left behind their tantalizing traces in fallen monoliths and jungle ruins. We Anglo-Indians have become an endangered species, our heritage steadily eroded until it must inevitable disappear into oblivion."
(Martyn J. Clark, Victoria Times Colonist)
Hong Kong - The Classic Age
It's been a decade since Britain handed Hong Kong over to Beijing, but in some ways the British influence is still going strong. From Stubbs Road to Victoria Peak, unlike in South Africa or India, the names of streets and buildings haven't been altered in a postcolonial fit of pique. Nor have the ideals that gave birth to this trading colony.
FormAsia's collection of photographs and commentary, "Hong Kong: The Classic Age," celebrates British rule in the territory. The black-and-white photographs range from ceremonial shots of the royal family visits throughout the last century to more spontaneous pictures of nineteenth century fishermen at Aberdeen. They capture the territory's "ever-changing panorama" that has "caused returning visitors to stare in bewilderment."
Editor Peter Moss's writing, effusive with admiration for the territory's growth in 156 years of colonial administration, turns a set of still photographs into a moving picture, taking the reader from the foundation of a 19th-century port on a "barren rock" to today's commercial center. Early British mariners and traders saw potential in a natural harbor, encouraged the development of shipping and finance, and nurtured it with the best of liberal traditions. Then there is the government's "positive nonintervention" laissez-faire economic policy -- a phrase coined by a former colonial governor. Thanks to a low-tax regime carried over from the Brits, commerce remains the lifeblood of a city where race and birth matter less than hard work. A century ago, even "the coolie commanded respect for his uncomplaining labor and his determination to succeed."
To Mr. Moss, the golden age of Hong Kong history was lost as London relinquished one of the last jewels in its imperial crown. Perhaps that's too pessimistic. Only the Queen's legal dominion over the territory has ended; Britannia lives on in spirit. As long as these British attitudes remain, the sun still shines on this corner of the former empire.
TIME MAGAZINE : Liam Fitzpatrick
Just when you thought that there was not one word left to be added to the vast canon of post-colonial literature—no more stern apologia from superannuated officials, no more sobbing memoirs of privileged childhood from the waifs and strays of empire—along comes a work that is neither a defense of colonialism nor a veiled lament for its passing. The glib assumption one first makes of Peter Moss’ No Babylon—coming as it does from British Hong Kong’s former propaganda chief—is that it will be the kind of memoir any undergraduate seminar could destroy in minutes, excoriating an Orientalist cliché here, seizing upon a political or gender bias there. In fact, the book is nothing of the kind. Moss has an acute sense of separateness from the colonial hierarchy of which he was officially a part, stemming, one soon reads, not only from his Anglo-Indian ethnicity but also his sexual orientation (he was gay during years when being so was not only socially unacceptable in the territory but illegal). This otherness means that he is just as comfortable, if not more so, in the company of the second-class citizens of empire—the maids, the drivers, the delivery boys, the rural poor—than he is with his establishment peers. He sends his servants’ children to costly international schools; he puts up an incessant parade of deserving cases at his government quarters (from a crippled Nigerian asylum seeker to the abandoned son of destitute Chinese refugees); and, despite warnings of treason on the eve of the 1982 Falklands War, insists on dining with the Argentine consul, who is about to be deported, “because he is a family friend.” Any erstwhile colleagues who suspected Moss of harboring anti-establishment sympathies beneath his M.B.E. need only skim through No Babylon to have their apprehensions resoundingly confirmed.
Moss’ book—the third volume in an autobiographical trilogy that began with Bye Bye Blackbird and Distant Archipelagos—is more than just an exhilarating confessional, however. The story begins with his arrival in Hong Kong in 1965 as a senior information officer in Government Information Services (the departmental initials were sarcastically said to mean “God Is Speaking”). A rich store of anecdotes spans what were, arguably, the most tumultuous periods of Hong Kong’s history—the civil unrest and refugee influx of the late 1960s, the social changes wrought by rapid industrialization of the 1970s, and the 1980s boom years (which were never fully enjoyed, owing to the deep anxieties surrounding Hong Kong’s return to China in 1997). The book nears conclusion with Moss’ eventual appointment as department head and it also—in a marvelous final twist—relates a fall of sorts. During his career, Moss kept his employer at arm’s length not only emotionally but contractually, turning down opportunities to join the government’s “permanent and pensionable establishment” in favor of remaining on ad hoc terms. This meant that he retired, at 58, without the comfortable pension an official with his length of service could expect. Neither had he saved the bonuses that were payable at the end of each of his contracts. “I had treated my gratuities as pocket money, and had continued to blow most of them,” he writes. “‘Live for the moment’ had been my motto, and the moments had been many and memorable.” Thus, at the end of it all, Moss is broke and living, astonishingly, among the masses in a blue-collar housing estate, dependent for a time on handouts from friends, of which he has deservedly many (the abandoned boy that Moss sheltered decades ago, now married and middleclass, returns to make his old benefactor a gift of almost $30,000). Far from being bitter about his circumstances, Moss merely notes that it was “especially pleasing” to realize that his neighbors on the estate were the descendants of squatters resettled in housing programs that he once extolled as the government’s spin supremo.
Spirits don’t come much more generous than this. These days, Moss is not short of remunerative assignments if his prolific output of books and articles is anything to go by, and he is living in a spacious new home on Ma Wan—one of Hong Kong’s outlying islands, described by Jan Morris as “Hong Kong in miniature” because of the juxtaposition of slick new apartment blocks and the largely abandoned fishing village that was once the island’s only settlement. From the highest colonial circles to a working class estate to an island home that encapsulates the new Hong Kong as it hovers between the past and future: Moss’ trajectory mirrors much of the territory’s own journey, these past forty years. And his delighted absorption into the people of Hong Kong—after decades spent inculcating their loyalty to a colonial regime—is, surely, among the happiest of post-colonial endings.