Sunday, February 04, 2007

China according to Chief Inspector Chen Cao

Qiu Xiaolong's new novel about crime in Shanghai, A Case of Two Cities is, on the one hand, open and straightforward almost to the point of callowness; on the other hand, it is completely ambiguous and unresolved. Those opposite reactions are a natural result, perhaps, of dealing honestly (as much as is possible) with contemporary China. The title is itself a bit misleading: the story begins in the city of Fujian, then moves to Shanghai, then on to Los Angeles and St. Louis (not coincidentally the city in which the author resides (he teaches at Washington University). As usual, there is a lot of poetry in the text, and a lot of reference by the characters to precedents in Chinese history, legend, and literature. Every decision, evidently, is referred back to the millennia of China's past, rather than to a direct analysis of the situation currently at hand. That constant referenceis added to a certain stiffness of language (perhaps an equivalent for a more formal "style" in Chinese language and culture, as compared to the West). Together, the history and the stiffness give these novels a texture completely different from the usual noir fiction, or even the typical mainstream mystery: neither the cops nor the Triad mobsters talk like Mike Hammer or th denizens of a Jim Thompson book: formality and indirection reign. There's also a good bit of flirtation between the sexes in the new book, though Inspector Chen remains almost without sex drive, so moral and careful is he. All of these comments might be taken as negative criticism, but the new book is almost as effective as a story as the first three in this series--and at least as effective as a portrait of today's socialist-capitalist-corrupt China. I found myself pulled along by the story, while at the same time frustrated by the brittle texture of the interrelationships among the characters (a number of whom are brought back from previous installments, including the U.S. marshall who was a sort-of love interest for Chen in an earlier book. A corrupt official who has fled to the U.S. has left behind a web of corrupt connections, and Chen is assigned by a high party official (still active though technically retired). Chen decides that those at the center of the group are too powerful to be approached directly, so he takes an indirect approach, interrogating those at the periphery--with disastrous results (his actions are revealed to those he is investigating, and a former friend of his is murdered). Then his investigation is seemingly derailed by another assignment, related to his career as a poet and translator--an assignment that will take him out fo the country, to the U.S., as the leader of a literary delegation. Int he process, mucch more is revealed about the state of business and politics in today's China, as well as the intricacies of relations between Chinese and American professionals.

1 comment:

Peter said...

I wonder if the stiffness in language might be due to a more prosaic factor: Editing. I liked Qiu's first novel, Death of a Red Heroine, better than his second, A Loyal Character Dancer, for a number of reasons. I mentioned this at the time to an acquaintance in the field who said that Qiu had a different editor on the second novel and speculated that that might account for the somewhat more awkward language and more conventional structure in the second book.

Qiu himself has said in interviews that he added more conventional crime-fiction elements at an editor's urging after the first book.
Detectives Beyond Borders
"Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home"