Archive for March, 2018

Stories All Along the Line: The Inspector Chen Mysteries

March 25, 2018

I have just finished Shanghai Redemption, the latest book in Qiu Xiaolong’s Inspector Chen mysteries. The Chen books were a revelation to me, knowing nothing about China, but Xialong’s style, accessible and elegant, taught me a little about the country and its history and what it might feel like to live in one of its cities. True, the novels aren’t like most police procedurals. Chen Cao comes from an academic family, his father was a Confucian scholar who was persecuted in the Cultural Revolution. As a young man, Chen dreamed of becoming a poet or a scholar himself, but was allocated a career in the Shanghai police bureau in the arbitrary system used by the communist regime at the time. In part he still pursues the aspiration, publishing poetry in newspapers and journals, and supplementing his meagre police income by translating Western crime novels. The detective as artist shouldn’t work, but somehow it does. Chen punctuates his conversation with obscure dynastic poetry, and you completely buy it. As well as Chinese classics like Dream of a Red Chamber, Chen also has Western influences. Lines from Eliot recur throughout the books – culminating in a bizarre scene where Chen is lured to a fake T S Eliot themed book launch in a nightclub-cum-brothel and has to make a quick escape when the venue is raided by vice police.

Xiaolong began his mystery series at a time when China had moved beyond Maoism and started to become a world market power. This gives the books a weird and contingent atmosphere. Everyone is on the take because most professionals are paid at a derisory flat rate which has to be augmented with bribes. Generations of families are crowded into communal shikumen tenements with their washing hung out over rows of creaking shared ovens. Chen himself is seen as a high flyer because, unlike most single men, he actually has his own apartment. Shanghai is full of the great signifiers of late capitalism – Wi-fi, nightclubs, gigantic advertising hoardings, glossy housing developments – but we know that behind all this modernising glamour the strong, coercive state is still there. Even the literary world is fraught with furtive politics: when an American poet tells Chen that ‘I wish there was an institution here like your Writers’ Association. A sort of government salary for your writing. It’s fantastic. In the States, most of us can’t make a living on writing… We all envy you. I would love to go to Beijing and become a professional writer too’ Chen thinks – but naturally is too polite to say – that ‘The American poet would have to live in China for years… before learning what a ‘professional writer’ was like.’

Trying to keep ahead of the political games as well as work complex murder cases takes its toll on the detective, who is plagued by frequent headaches, and in one of the books has a quiet, caffeine-induced nervous breakdown. Chen is always trying to do the right thing – in a postmodern tip, he’s compared by friends to the classic archetypal hero cop in a Moaist serial. But Xialong plays the toll on Chen’s physical and mental health with subtle brilliance. Intellectually he can rationalise his complicity in a foul system, which life and fate give him no choice but to accept. But his body understands better. In a late book, Don’t Cry, Tai Lake, Chen is rewarded – or possibly sidelined – with a vacation at a gated Party luxury resort. Temporarily free from the commitments to the police bureau and Chinese socialism, the bold and rejuvenated Chen pursues a young woman who works at the local chemical plant. But it’s just a holiday and a reprieve: the book ends with the inspector heading back to the Shanghai grind. ‘He wondered whether he would be able to take a nap on the train, feeling the onslaught of a splitting headache.’ Chen is admired as a successful and connected cadre, who makes the Party happy by solving many difficult political cases. But his success is a house of cards. Xialong uses the Dream of a Red Chamber quotation to illustrate the transitory nature of fortune as well as the illusions of states and politics: Truth becomes fiction when the fiction’s true; Real becomes not-real when the unreal’s real.

This is what Xialong does so well – the impact of history upon the individual. The caprice of destiny and states. All the characters are casualties of the Cultural Revolution: Detective Yu, Chen’s sidekick, was sent at a young age hundreds of miles away to rural China as part of the ‘down to the countryside’ movement, where ‘educated youth’ of the cities were exiled to the back of beyond in the hope that they would absorb the spirit of agricultural socialism. Yu met his wife, fellow exile Peiqin in the shitshack farm village to which they’d been assigned. Much of the Yu and Peiqin chapters – their struggles with the housing bureau, and getting their son into college – is a testament of how people can establish happiness and solidarity despite having their lives disrupted by governmental fiat. This sense of warmth and community pervades the series: no matter what’s going on, there always seems to be time to share a drink or a fine meal with company and conversation. The people of Shanghai, Xialong tells us, will outlive their authoritarian rulers.

And through it all, the mystery remains. This is a poem Xialong includes as an epigram to A Case of Two Cities:

 

Out of the train window,

the gaping windows of the buildings

are telling stories all along the line,

about the past, the present and the future.

I am not the teller of the stories,

nor the audience,

simply passing through there,

then, full of ignorance,

so full of imagination.

 

The high tension cables

outline the score of the evening.

 

Simply passing there,

then – ‘Next stop is Halle.’

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A Postmodern Prometheus

March 17, 2018

You may have seen in the grown-up arts pages articles about the recent anniversary of Mary Shelley’s classic Frankenstein. Except perhaps it’s not such a classic: like many Regency novels Shelley’s book was far too long and suffered from many silly interludes where Victor Frankenstein pursued his wayward monster across the Arctic Circle. Only Shelley’s idea was good.

Ahmed Saadawi’s reimagining puts Frankenstein’s monster in Iraq a couple of years after the invasion. Hadi is a junk dealer and compulsive storyteller, who fools Western journalists by telling them extravagant lies about his life in the wartorn country. His other hobby is collecting body parts from various bomb sites, which he uses to construct a complete corpse: ‘I made it complete so it wouldn’t be treated as rubbish, so it would be respected like other dead people and given a proper burial’. And one day he finds that the corpse has gone missing.

Postwar Baghdad is so chaotic and corrupt that at first the appearance of a murderous monster – the Whatitsname, or the Criminal Who Has No Name – at first causes little comment in the city. Saadawi captures it all so well, the generals, journalists, lawyers and mystics fighting it out for influence in the post Baathist landscape. And just the people trying to get on with their lives: the journalist Mahmoud, lusting after the beautiful film director Nawal al-Wazir, who is going out with Mahmoud’s slippery boss, Ali al-Saidi. The elderly widow Elishva lives alone with her cat: across the street is the barbershop of Abu Zaidoun, who Elishva despises as she holds him responsible for sending her son to die in Saddam’s wars. Frankenstein in Baghdad is lively and fun, but there’s always the threat of violence in Saadawi’s world, and the tight knots of complicity and grief. Saadawi has a great para on the difficulties of truth and reconciliation:

So had the old woman really been telling the truth? Had her son really survived the slaughter of the 1980s? Over the last three years the local people had heard many stories that were no more believable. Dead people had emerged from the dungeons of the security services and non-existent people emerged from nowhere outside the doors of their relatives’ humble houses. There were people who had returned from long journeys with new names and new identities, women who had spent their childhoods in prison cells and had learned, before anything else in life, the rules and conventions for dealing with the warders. There were people who had survived many deaths in the time of the dictatorship only to find themselves face to face with a pointless death in the age of ‘democracy’.

The Criminal Who Has No Name causes increasing carnage and comes to the attention of the hack generals and administrators running the city. It kills suicide bombers, terrorists and mercenaries (‘I killed the al-Qaeda leader who lived in Abu Ghraib and was responsible for the massive truck bomb in Tayaran Square that killed many people, including the person whose nose Hadi picked up off the pavement and used to fix my face’) amasses followers and acolytes – the Sophist, the Magician, the Enemy – and even gives interviews to local media. Against the disaster backdrop though there is a hopeful, kind and uplifting element to the story, acts of kindness and companionship which take over the plot and add a poignancy to this splintered narrative. The monster remains at large – and it’s pleasant to think that the Frankenstein of Baghdad is still out there somewhere.