Lust, Caution by Eileen Chang

Lust, Caution is a 55-page long story about a beautiful young Chinese student Wang Chia Chi who gets caught up in a web of deceit and conspiracy  during the second World War. As a central character, she plays a key part in an assassination plot against a Japanese conspirator, a certain Mr. Yee, whom she must seduce and lead to his demise.

The novella, which reportedly took the author 20 years to complete, is agonizingly short and should, by all means, fail to covey the complexity of the plot that it has set out to unravel. However, I was quite surprised to find myself engrossed in the story  for the entire while it took for me to read the book, which centers around a small radicalist group of students from Canton, displaced by the war and find refuge in Hong Kong . While there, they devise a way to put a spoke on the wheels of a deal to form collaborative government between China and their oppressor, Japan. The group resolves to stage the seduction of a government minister Mr. Yee by their star actress (Chia Chi), who poses as a young wife of a Hong Kong merchant, who is in fact one of her classmates. They succeed in making a connection with Mrs. Yee (Yee Tai Tai), but the first attempt fails to gain momentum, and fails. The group disbands but finds a new contact when they return to China. They regroup, setting to motion the second act of the play.

While most novels take their sweet time laying out the groundwork for stories of conspiracy such as this one, Lust, Caution manages to keep the frivolities to a minimum without having to compromise the storytelling aspect of the book. While it was short, the story managed to convey clearly the contrast between the lives of those in power and those who are part of the struggle in a simple but brusque manner. It also makes the dangers of the mission more imminent as Chia Chi is living directly under the roof of their target, but justifies the need to see it through.

In the telling of the story from a third person perspective, the story succeeds in highlighting the luxuries within the walls of the Yee household and describes the petty worries of the mahjong players (comprised of the wives of the rich and powerful) which revolve mostly around who is buying dinner for the lot, against the secrecy and dangers of the mission the radicalists are embarking. While the atmosphere inside the household was open and the concerns raised by the players are mostly insignificant,  the real life Chia Chi is betting more than money in the games, staking her life and her integrity as she becomes a pawn in a bigger cause that even she is not entirely aware of. It clearly depicts the underlying bitterness on her end, as she is forced to make sacrifices for the mission, but is the first to be shunned by her peers for doing her “duty.”

Lust, Caution is a love story of sorts, but in a bittersweet sense. Chia Chi and Mr. Yee make an emotional connection that Chia Chi was not able to realize until the last minute, when each is forced to make a monumental decision that would result in the end for one of them. While it was a work of fiction, it was inspired by the realities of life in the 1940s, and the voice of the author resounds with pain in her honest and gripping take on the time. Lust, Caution is a keeper. And with every re-reading (as I did with some parts already), I suspect that it will reveal its brilliance even more. It is a story that haunts its readers, nags at their conscience and pulls at their heartstrings for a great longer time that it takes to finish the story. Now, I can’t wait to see the movie directed by Ang Lee a few years back.

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