It is a thriller about expatriates and suburban desperadoes in exotic locales—and at the same time, a study of moral ambiguity amid conflicting values. That combination was once the preserve of novelist Graham Greene, but now appears in The Next Best Thing by John Ralston Saul. In his third novel, the Paris-based Canadian undertakes the kind of parable of the damned in which Greene specialized. What the Saul variation may lack in subtlety and economy, it makes up for in sheer drive.
The Next Best Thing opens in Thailand, as James Spenser, former deputy keeper of London’s Victoria and Albert Museum, is recruiting guides, mule handlers and armed guards from a rich array of domestic and imported scoundrels in order to mount an expedition deep into Burma. His plan is to steal 20 glowingly beautiful statues depicting the life of Buddha from an abandoned temple. Spenser’s passion is so extreme that he becomes physically aroused while bestowing caresses on
his treasures with, Saul writes, “a warmth unexpected between a human and an object.” Yet he cannot remain indifferent to the beautiful refugee Marea, who has “the same effect on him as a wonderful sculpture”—but whose current lover is Spenser’s most important ally, Matthew Blake, and whose former lover, Spenser’s enemy
Author John Ralston Saul undertakes the kind of parable of the damned in which Graham Greene specialized
Khun Minh, retains a powerful hold on her. Still, for the hero, a woman is only a woman, while a good statue is a spiritual experience.
Central to the novel is the journey to and from the Ananda Pagoda on the Irrawaddy River. Outward bound, it is largely a matter of conquering physical obstacles and dealing with conflicts among opium smugglers and private border armies. Saul, who travelled
through the area as a journalist in 1980, describes those matters with great authenticity. But once Spenser accomplishes the theft, everything begins to unravel and his return becomes an allegorical journey. Not only is there retribution for plundering a sacred place, but Spenser must also—belatedly—confront the human factor. His associates and adversaries have their own obsessions and rationalizations, and Spenser must accept that he is powerless to control them.
Calamity-fatigue threatens to set in near the finish. Spenser seems doomed to perish from sheer excess of wretchedness, as disaster is piled upon indignity and he begins to imagine the statues “crying out for pity and protection.” He survives, physically at least, but as the journey ends and Spenser’s obsession loses its force, the reader is left to judge how much he has lost. The novel might have packed even more power had the author curbed his own obsessive devotion to his research. Scrapping a brace of rivers, a surplus mountain range or two and even a couple of lesser characters would have helped the reader to focus on John Ralston Saul’s impressive mastery of his real subject: the mysterious terrain of the human heart.
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