A dreamy, unreal quality pervades Grace Li's Portrait of a Thief – the story of five college students who meet with a Chinese executive who asks them to “take back what the West has stole,” namely team up to target five museums. The goal? Steal five zodiac sculptures that once adorned a fountain at the Old Summer Palace in Beijing and return them to China. In turn, China’s youngest billionaire will pay them $10 million each.
The planning is absurd – movies for research, bold encounters with museum staff? The students abandon classes at prestigious schools – flying to Europe and staying in the same hotel, breaking into museums in Copenhagen and Paris while ignoring a host of security and technology challenges and regularly congratulating themselves on their brilliance – to break into two museums.
The book relies on every possible definition of dream for an extended metaphor – odd, vague scenes experienced during sleep; lack of awareness and logic while awake; aspirations and achievements; products of imagination or history that might have been. And of course, opportunities associated with the American Dream. The novel’s writing style plays with meanings of “dream,” mixing precision language to describe mission goals with fast fragments to atmosphere and emotions.
The children of Chinese immigrants are talented, beautiful – adept at masking feelings and conditioned to believe they are special, risking comfortable lives to break the law in five countries, or as one says, “breaking everything he had been taught not to do.” The students – artist/art history major at Harvard, pre-med student at UCLA, driver and mechanical engineering student at Duke, a public policy student at Duke and a Google software engineer who dropped out of MIT – are also moody, fretful about the trajectory of their lives without the promised $10 million. They fear being mediocre, “anything less than exceptional,” as much as failure. Failure is not an option, not with “so many people who were counting on them to be more than they were.”
Ready to leave college, the students are conflicted about their place in the world and the appropriate target of their allegiance. All five are fascinated by Chinese culture and morose about family choices that disrupted connections with China. “All parents leave their own scars,” notes Irene. “We’re the ones who have to heal from them.” Nearing the end of college studies, the others remain uncertain about choices and place in society. “Hers was the story of every small town, every immigrant family trying to hold on to the American Dream,” muses Lily. “She had spent her whole life getting asked where she was from and trying to make sense of the answer…. She only knew that, growing up, neither China nor America felt like it was hers.”
Lily describes the struggle that many young adults feel. “It feels like home shouldn’t have to be this complicated. If you were missing something, but you could not even name what it was – did it count? Did it matter?”
The book takes liberties with the background of the zodiac heads. “The fountain heads, designed by the Italian Jesuit Giuseppe Castiglione (1688-1766) for the Qianlong emperor, have assumed a special, and highly sensitive, place in China’s cultural heritage,” reports Antiques Trade Gazette. “Although they amount to just 12 of the estimated million-plus items that were removed after French and British forces sacked the Yuanmingyuan in the final act of the Second Opium War (October 1860), they have become totemic of China’s century of humiliation at the hands of imperial Western powers.”
Five heads remain missing, whereabouts unknown.
The students chatter about power, history and righting past wrongs regarding the exchange of art among countries, but they are pawns. Their primary goal is collecting their share of the $50 million, a shortcut to the American Dream and hopes for lives more comfortable and free.