“It was the worst of times. It was the worst of times…”

Jack London’s short story, “The Chinago.”

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My short story reading project for 2012 is winding down, with just a few stories to go. The latest I read was The Chinago. It takes place on a plantation in Tahiti, which is worked by some 500 Chinese laborers, who are called by their French overseers “Chinagos.” A murder has been committed on this plantation, and the French have rounded up five suspects (I don’t know if they were the usual ones or not – I am hearing the voice of Casablanca’s Major Renault in the back of my head as I’m typing these words), none of whom are guilty. The story’s protagonist, named Ah Cho, on top of the fact that he and his fellow accused men know who really did commit the murder, marvels at how five men can be accused of murder when the victim was stabbed twice (“at most this was the work of two men”).

The story illustrates how the French colonists barely thought of the Chinese laborers as human, and we repeatedly hear the phrase “just a Chinago” as if they mattered less than other people. The story also involves a case of mistaken identity with tragic consequences, and yet another execution (so much of my reading this year has involved executions, not by design but rather coincidence) this time by guillotine. I don’t want to write any more about the detail of the plot – I want this post to remain spoiler-free. 🙂

A copy of the story may be read for free online

I do have a copy of this story “somewhere” in my library in one of my many short story anthologies, but when it came time to read it, I wasn’t home, but at one of my favorite coffee shops so I searched for it on line and found it. This set me thinking about how wonderful it is to live in such an age of easily accessible information as we do. I remember reading one of my all-time favorite books, The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin, and how, when Franklin was young, he was so desperate for books and reading material. How much easier it is for us today. Even if this story wasn’t available for free in the public domain, I could surely have bought and downloaded it in a couple minutes as well. I wonder what Franklin, with his hungry intellect, would think of that?

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Jack London.  What have you read by him?

(below: The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin.  This is the same cover as the edition I have.  Mine has nearly disintegrated from being read so many times)

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13 Comments

  1. Dee said,

    December 21, 2011 at 12:20 pm

    Hi Jay ..

    I carry around in my head all the time 2 themes/ from 2 particular stories and their deep and complex meanings to me: One is Jack London’s lesson about the behavior of animals – wolves – US – in a pack. Sorry for the inexactitude, but I read this so long ago, I’m not sure if it was the Call of the Wild or not – one sees pack behavior all the time – including on the news from Egypt last night.

    The second story I fit to so much of modern life is Vonnegut’s Harrison Bergeron. We are living in an atmosphere where brains are neutralized – as the character’s was by the sounds implanted in his ears. I appreciate your connecting me to these authors again.

    I don’t have time for many comments – and yours is the only blog I have gotten connected with – tho through yours, I have peeked at some others. It’s a pleasure – and thanks for reminding me of B. Franklin …
    I have an 11 yr old grand daughter in town upon whom I have some influence …. She wasn’t a Harry Potter girl … has liked mythologically based series lately …. Always looking for good reading for her …
    Just no time to be completely well written here ….
    Love your blog.

    Like

    • Jay said,

      December 21, 2011 at 2:50 pm

      Hi Dee,

      Thanks so much for the wonderful comment (I liked it so much I read it several times 🙂 )

      That “mob behavior thing” does sound like something from Call of the Wild, although White Fang would certainly also be a possibility. I experience the same feelings watching a sporting event where partisan fans for both sides are present. Kinda scary…

      Ah, Harrison Bergeron, I read that story last summer. How right you are about today’s world starting to feel a little too uncomfortably close to Bergeron’s. The company where I work is undergoing a ‘remodeling/reconstruction’ so that almost all of us are “forced” to work in identical work areas (cubicles). The alleged reason was to have a more ‘modern’ look and appeal to future job candidates, but I suspect it may have also been just “a thing to do” so that management feels like they are doing something constructive. I lost my office in the deal and am back in a cubicle. Much more distracting.

      Humorously, we were assured there would be “white noise” (sound familiar?) piped in that would equalize out the conversational noise, etc. I hasn’t for me. 🙂

      Again, thanks for being a regular reader and commenter. Hope all is well out there in “The Land of Enchantment!”

      -Jay

      Like

  2. HKatz said,

    December 21, 2011 at 12:34 pm

    “To Build a Fire” is my favorite London story so far. Visceral struggle between a man and the brutal impersonal cold closing in around him.

    I also recommend “In a Far Country.” Two men alone together in a cabin, in a land where there’s no sun in the winter. There are images from that one that have stuck in my mind.

    Like

    • Jay said,

      December 21, 2011 at 2:41 pm

      I’ve read “In a Far Country” but don’t think I’ve read “To Build a Fire” (which sounds tailor-made for London’s writing style).

      Earlier this year I read “A Piece of Steak” which I liked, and remember having to read as part of a high school literature/writing course. Very good stuff.

      Like

  3. December 21, 2011 at 4:23 pm

    I’ve just recently read the most well-known novels by Jack London: “The Call of the Wild”, “White Fang” and “The Sea-Wolf” and I was surprised that my favourite was the latter. Jay, since are interests seem to be very similar… I’d recommend you give it a go. If you wish, ignore my review and read the quotes I posted… I think you’ll find them up your alley.

    http://eclectic-indulgence.blogspot.com/2011/12/review-sea-wolf-by-jack-london.html

    Eclectic Indulgence

    Like

    • Jay said,

      December 23, 2011 at 10:45 am

      Hello EI,
      Thanks for your input, which as always I highly value. I’ve downloaded The Sea Wolf and have spent the morning of my first day off (of four in a row) reading it. Very impressive so far. I already knew the story (once again, via a Classics Illustrated comic book from my youth) but haven’t read the novel before, nor have I read White Fang.
      -Jay

      Like

  4. December 21, 2011 at 4:24 pm

    *our interests. sheesh.

    Like

  5. Dale said,

    December 21, 2011 at 9:22 pm

    The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin! It’s on my list for 2012! I think The Sea Wolf will be also.

    Like

    • Jay said,

      December 23, 2011 at 10:40 am

      Hi Dale,
      I just started The Sea Wolf this morning and am about ten percent in. I think you’d really love it, as I think I already do.
      -Jay

      Like

      • Dale said,

        December 23, 2011 at 9:28 pm

        I just started Captains Courageous by Rudyard Kipling today. Another “sea” book. I really like it so far.

        Like

  6. jerikavonalexandra said,

    December 22, 2011 at 10:35 am

    This short story sounds interesting. I’ve bookmarked it for reading.

    The only Jack London work I have read was “White Fang” when I was a kid. 🙂

    Like

    • Jay said,

      December 23, 2011 at 10:59 am

      Thanks for the comment, Jeri. I’d like to give White Fang a try at some point but will have to see how things go with The Sea Wolf first.
      -Jay

      Like

  7. December 31, 2011 at 1:47 am

    […] Jay […]

    Like


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