Much Stranger Than Fiction

ONE CAN IMAGINE PLAYWRIGHT DAVID Henry Hwang's delight when he discovered the story of Bernard Boursicot, a French diplomatic functionary who discovered, on the eve of his trial for espionage, that the Chinese opera star he had loved for 18 years--and whom he thought was the mother of his child--was really a man. Sniffing out a rich cultural/political/sexual metaphor, Hwang concocted his highly theatrical Broadway meditation on East and West, "M. Butterfly," turning his French antihero into a symbol of Western imperialist self-delusion. But this ideological rumination on gender left one big pragmatic question hanging: how exactly did the faux femme fatale pull off her masquerade? Hwang also wrote the misguided movie version of "M. Butterfly" for director David Cronenberg, in which Jeremy Irons and an oddly sullen John Lone act out a straightforward love story devoid of heat or plausibility. The problem is not simply that Lone's drag wouldn't fool a baby. In the magnified intimacy of the camera's eye, it's clear Hwang doesn't really know who these unlikely lovers are. Metaphors can't carry a movie-flesh and blood is what's required.

To find that, you must turn to Joyce Wadler's riveting real-life story Liaison (321 pages. Bantam. $22.95). In Hwang's fiction, the beguiling seductress appears dressed as a woman. The truth is stranger still. In Wadler's reportage, we learn that when 20-year-old Bernard Boursicot first encountered the 26-year-old playwright and former opera performer Shi Pei Pu in Beijing in 1964, Pei Pu was dressed as a man, and no one presumed he was anything but. As the two became friends, the wily, ethereal Pei Pu revealed his deepest secret: he was really a woman, raised since birth as a boy. Only by having a son would his parents be able to stay together; otherwise, his father would be forced to take a second wife. Boursicot, a virgin at the time, swallowed the story whole. He recast himself as Pei Pu's savior and lover. When they made love-an act always controlled by Pei Puhe chalked up her sexual reticence to Oriental modesty. And, as the French doctors sent to examine Pei Pu discovered, he had the ability to make his testicles ascend into his body cavity and tuck his penis back, creating the illusion of female genitalia.

Boursicot, in Wadler's portrait, is a classic fool for love, the victim of a hyperactive romantic imagination. A working-class boy with a 10th-grade education, he lied his way into the Foreign Service, his head full of movie-inspired fantasies of adventure. Pei Pu was by no means his only lover. In the course of his travels, which took him to Saudi Arabia, New Orleans, the Amazon, Mongolia, Jerusalem, Belize and Paris, the swaggering, sexually ambivalent Boursicot had affairs with both men and women. The most lasting, begun when he was 29, was with a remarkably unpossessive young Frenchman named Thierry, to whom he confided his secret affair with Pei Pu. When Boursicot finally managed to get the opera star and her "son" out of Beijing in 1982, Thierty shared a Paris apartment with them, never questioning her gender. Boursicot's homosexuality may help explain his attraction to the androgynous Pei Pu, but there's no question that he always thought he was engaged in a heterosexual affair.

What Pei Pu thought--and what his role was in persuading Boursicot to spy for the Chinese--remains mysterious. He refused to talk. "Liaison" is Boursicot's wild, pitiable story. He is an infuriating mixture of romantic gallantry and self-serving egotism, a naive and sentimental lover who thought he was playing a role in "Doctor Zhivago" only to discover that he was the straight man in a boulevard farce.