Qiu Xiaolong's Death of a Red Heroine (2000, Soho Press) is a massive book - 464 pages! - which I guess is appropriate given that it is not really about just one murder in China but really takes on aspects of the entire Chinese way of life - politics, society, education, personal lives. And you know, China is a big country with some big ideas so this is no small undertaking. Yet so many scenes are so small and personal that the story doesn't feel like a grand epic and retains a striking sense of intimacy.
Our Hero is a newly promoted Chief Inspector named Chen Cao, who throughout the story wrestles with the implications of his fast rise through the police and political bureaucracy - he's a bit of a golden boy - while trying first to identify the naked body found in a canal, and then find out who killed her. Despite the apparent lack of leads, it's not that hard a case for Chen and his sidekick/underling Yu Guanming to crack. The problem is that their best suspect is almost untouchable politically, given his status as the son of a very high ranking cadre who will make life extremely difficult for the police if they pursue their investigation. As Chen and Yu dig deeper, they find themselves on politically dangerous ground. It is not that they are ever physically threatened, but their prospects for future advancement could narrow and vanish. Both, but particularly Chen will have to go through a series of tests before emerging at the end of the book scarred but stronger - because yes, this is the first in a series.
But I think that the heart of this book lies not in the main plot, but in the evocation of working and living in Shanghai in 1990. The Cultural Revolution is a thing of the past, except that just about every major character was negatively affected by it, with family or themselves imprisoned or re-educated or dead. They have all recovered, and while they all - all, there is no subversion here - believe deeply in the strength of the Socialist state, they find themselves both drawn to and repelled by the economic reforms that are washing over China in this period. Sure, you can get more stuff now, but it's all more expensive. Yes, we are all comrades but why do some live in fancy houses, while most folks have a room crammed with an entire family? But we are also barely one year after the events at Tiananmen Square, and that event hangs over the proceedings, and any perceived threat to the government's stability is sure to meet with a harsh response.
Politics aside for a moment, Xialong is, according to the author notes, a published poet and literary critic, and there is a lyrical sensibility to some of the passages. Here's an example, as Chen goes to visit the place where the body was found:
"There was not a single cloud drifting overhead. The afternoon sun hung lonely in the blue sky, high over a most desolate scene, which was like a forgotten corner of the world. Not a soul was visible. The canal bank was overrun with tall weeds and scrubby growth. Chen stood still at the end of the stagnant water, amid a scattering of wild bushes. Not too far away, however, he thought he could hear the hubbub of Shanghai." (39)
Chen is constantly quoting poetry and considering literary criticism, which is really no surprise given Xialong's background. It is pretty obvious that Our Hero is channeling Our Author.
But you know, it works, and if you've never been to Shanghai or China, you will really feel that you are immersed in the intensely communal and vibrant life of the city.
"The early summer heat, with no air conditioning, dictated a sidewalk life. At the lane entrance, several retired old me were playing a game of mahjongg on a bamboo table. Kids were gathered around a small earth pot that contained two crickets fighting each other, the crickets chirping, the children cheering. Close to the dorm building, a middle-aged woman was leaning over a public sink, scrubbing a pan." (154)
Yes, living conditions are practically unimaginable for us - there would be 50 people living in my house if it was in Shanghai in 1990! But it's what they have. Yu, who lives with his wife and son in one room in a communal building, listens to the sounds of the building at night.
"Out in the lane, all sorts of vehicles could be heard moving along Jingling Road, but once in a while came a rare minute when all the traffic faded into the night. A blackbird twittered nostalgically in the maple tree. His neighbor's door slammed closed across the kitchen area. Somebody gargled at the concrete common sink, and he heard another indistinct sound like swatting a mosquito on the window screen." (219) But it is what they have, and they make do, without WHINING. "They were ordinary Chinese people, he and Peiqin, hard-working and easily contented." (219)
I found Xialong's prose hard to take at first. It is not badly written, but there is a choppiness that made me wonder if it was first written in another language, then translated? Sort of like Andrea Camilleri, or Henning Mankell. But maybe it is just Xialong's method to immerse the reader in this world. Consider this exchange:
"The telephone on the filing cabinet rang. He went over and picked up the receiver.
'Congratulations, Comrade Chief Inspector Chen!' Lu said. 'Ah, I can smell the wonderful smell in your new kitchen.'
'You'd better not be calling to say you're delayed, Overseas Chinese Lu. I'm counting on you.'
'Of course we are coming. It's only that the beggar's chicken needs a few more minutes in the oven. The best chicken in Shanghai, I guarantee. Nothing but Yellow Mountain pine needles used to cook it, so you'll savor its special flavor. Don't worry. We wouldn't miss your housewarming party for the world, you lucky fellow.'
'Don't forget to put some beer in your refrigerator. And glasses, too. It'll make a huge difference.'
'I've put in half a dozen bottles already. Qingdao and Bud. And the Shaoxing rice wine will not be warmed until the moment of your arrival, right?'
'Now you may count yourself as half a gourmet. More than half perhaps. You're certainly learning fast.'" (9)
See what I mean? It's kind of stilted and a little goofy. But you get used to it, and forget about it after while. And, the formality of any exchange with any superior or Party official just emphasizes the strained importance of those relationships. It occurs to me that this would be a good addition to The Totalitarians!
I'm having a hard time expressing just how much I enjoyed this book. The language, the setting, the food (oh yes, there is just enough to make you really want to go out for Chinese with a Chinese person who orders for you omelet with river clams, meatballs of four happiness, fried rice field eel, peeled shrimp in tomato containers, eight-treasure rice, shark's fin soup - OK I don't want that - a whole turtle with brown sauce, and bean curd stuffed with crabmeat (262) ), the confident evocation of how the political system permeates every aspect of Chinese life all combine to make for a terrific read. But all of this aside, I find myself coming back to the small scenes, and I'll leave you with this terrific one.
"The weather was splendid. The blue sky above seemed to transform the sordid look of the back street through which they were passing in silence. A middle-aged woman was preparing a bucket of rice field eels by a moss-covered public sink. Chen slowed his step, and Yu stopped to take a look too. Having slapped an eel hard like a whip against the concrete ground, the woman was fixing its head on a thick nail sticking out of a bench, pulling it tight, cutting through its belly, deboning it, pulling out its insides, chopping off its head, and slicing its body delicately. She might be an eel woman for some nearby market, making a little money. Her hands and arms were covered with eel blood, and her bare feet too. The chopped-off heads of the eels lay scattered at her bare feet, like scarlet-painted toes." (233)