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'A Small Player' On The Brink Of Self-Destruction


Lawrence Osborne's new novel is about what happens to one man on the precipice of self-destruction. And honestly, if you pressed him about it, he'd probably admit that he actually enjoyed being there. The character's name is Lord Doyle - at least that's what the casino workers in Macau call him. Osborne uses Doyle to spin a captivating story about the nature of addiction, the power of the supernatural and the freedom that may come from throwing everything to chance. Lawrence Osborne joins me from the studios of the BBC in Bangkok, Thailand. Thanks so much for being with us.


MARTIN: Why don't you start by introducing us to Lord Doyle, who, we should say right off the bat, is not a lord at all, right?

OSBORNE: He is not a lord. He's not even Doyle. He's a corrupt and thieving lawyer who runs away from his home country, the United Kingdom. So, oddly enough, although this book is about Macau, it's also about this little corner of Sussex in England, where I grew up.

MARTIN: His game of choice is called baccarat. Can you give us a brief explanation of the game? What's the objective?

OSBORNE: Well, I'm not any kind of expert in gambling, I might add, nor am I a gambler myself. Gambling, to me, in this book is just a metaphor that I used to spin this story. But baccarat is the most popular - as I understand it, I may be wrong - is the most popular casino game in the world now. And there are various versions of it that are played. Punto banco is the one that's mostly played in the United States. But it's also the one that's played in China. The Chinese love this game because almost no skill is involved - in fact, no skill is involved. Therefore, the player is cast to the winds of chance, of pure chance, and that introduces a very interesting irrational element into the game. For the Chinese, I think, as I understand it, it means that the supernatural plays a role in the outcomes.

MARTIN: I'd love for you to just read that description of the game. You describe the game in chapter five of your book. Would you mind reading that bit?

OSBORNE: Of course. (Reading) Punto banco baccarat is a struggle with the pure lords of chance. When you play it, you are alone with your fate, and one is not often alone with one's fate. When you play it, your heart is in your mouth. Your pulse quickens to an unbearable pace. You feel that you are walking along the edge of a volcanic precipice made of sharp, hot rock, cut as fine as a razor and capable of breaking with all the drama of glass. It is a game surrounded by threatening possibilities - instant death, which comes even quicker than it does with poker or roulette. That's what I like about it. There's no lingering illusion. Death by guillotine.

MARTIN: Lord Doyle, though, your main character, seems conflicted on this whole idea of the supernatural. I mean, on the one hand, he dismisses this part of Chinese culture as rather irrational, that he somehow is above this. But at the same time, he himself is superstitious. He wears the same pair of gloves when he gambles. When he gets on a winning streak, he feels like there is some higher power affecting the situation.

OSBORNE: I think this is human nature. And this reflects my own experience living in Asia. Remember, I live in Thailand, which is an extremely ghost-obsessed and superstitious culture. Now, of course, as a typical educated Westerner - or semi-educated in my case - but, yeah, educated, to think in a rational way, I listen to Westerners living in Bangkok, who are continually sneering at the Thais because they believe in ghosts and it's all very childish and so on. I don't feel that way. When my maid comes to my apartment and whispers to me that I probably have a ghost living there, and she says it in this entirely matter-of-fact way, I used to dismiss it. But now I sort of think, well, you know, maybe...


MARTIN: Maybe.

OSBORNE: ...there is something. Now, it's not that I believe in ghosts per se, but I don't disbelieve in them either. I have a sort of suspended attitude about it these days. And so I think just as I have become more porous and more fluid about the idea of the supernatural, I wanted my character to do the same. I don't think you can live in that sort of environment. If you were a gambler living in Macau and working for years and years, you too would become susceptible to that idea. How could you not be?

MARTIN: I wonder also how it affects his emotional state. He's a very lonely person. Without giving too much way, though, there's a supernatural force that he is close with.

OSBORNE: You know, I've been - that's very, very true what you say. And I think one of the really - much more than gambling per se, I think the theme of the book is loneliness. A lot of my books are about loneliness, I think. I mean, I live a quite solitary life as well, although it's a solitary existence that I've chosen willingly, and I'm not afflicted by it. But I think loneliness is the great affliction of our age.

MARTIN: I know this isn't a book about gambling per se, but you do illustrate that phenomenon in a really captivating way. On the very first page of the novel, Doyle is describing his weekly gambling routine. He says - and I'm quoting here. "Everyone knows you're not a real player until you secretly prefer losing." You yourself, you say you're not a gambler, but did you meet people who illustrated this?

OSBORNE: Oh, yeah. I didn't say I haven't gambled.


OSBORNE: I guiltily admit it. I've gambled quite a lot in Macau. I'm clean now but I did used to play there quite a bit. I used to go to that same hotel, Lisboa. And very much like this character, I used to dress up in my suit and full-on go down and, you know, it's completely ridiculous.

MARTIN: Did you put pomade in your hair?

OSBORNE: Yeah, yeah, the whole thing. This is horrifyingly autobiographical. You wouldn't recognize me now.

MARTIN: Did you lose a lot of money?

OSBORNE: I lost a lot of money. I did. That's true. But, yeah, I used to live in California. And when I was living in L.A., I used to drive out to Las Vegas. In Vegas, I could talk to people and you meet these amazing characters who have wasted their entire lives in this demonic obsession. You know, how they can just carry on doing it. And I think it's the love of losing, you know. Because after all, you know, the house always wins. It's an extremely profitable business because the laws of mathematics are the laws of mathematics and you must lose.

MARTIN: The novel is called "The Ballad of a Small Player." Lawrence Osborne is the author. He joined us from the studios of the BBC in Bangkok, Thailand. Lawrence, thanks so much for talking with us.

OSBORNE: Thank you for talking to me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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