Sunday, December 8, 2013

A Loyal Character Dancer

Qiu Xiaolong is mad as hell and isn't going to take it anymore.  Well, mad as hell might be an overstatement for this more likely gentle Chinese poet and novelist who lives in St. Louis.  But it is true that, frustrated by official alterations to his first three Inspector Chen novels by the Chinese government, he has refused to let his fourth entry into this series be published at all in China.  It is a shame because while Qiu's novels are clear-eyed in their depiction of corruption within the Chinese political power structure and the extraordinary long-term damage wrought by the Cultural Revolution, they also demonstrate a deep affection and one might even say nostalgia for life in China in the late 20th c.  Capitalism is just beginning to make its mark, and Qiu deftly navigates between the few fabulous haves and the many more have-nots in this rapidly changing society.  Qiu writes almost reverently about Chinese landscape, city life, individuals, and cultural totems like traditional medicine, making these books as attractive for the armchair traveler as they are for the armchair detective. If you are both, like me, well, you had me at "Chief Inspector Chen Cao, of the Shanghai Police Bureau, found himself once again walking through the morning mist toward Bund Park." (1)

A Loyal Character Dancer (2002, Soho Crime) finds Inspector Chen Cao fulfilling a political duty - escorting a US Marshal around Shanghai - but wishing he could work on the case of the body he will very soon find in the Bund.  Politics guide all, as is always the case in these stories (which begs the question - how on earth could the story have made any sense if all of that was changed by the Chinese Man?), and since the Marshal, Inspector Catherine Rohn, is there to escort the wife of a star witness in an illegal immigration case to the US.  The witness is set to testify against some evil Asian gangs about their duplicitous human smuggling , and is in protective custody, but says he won't testify unless his wife is brought to the US.  Then she disappears a few days before she is to be collected by the Americans, and things go downhill from there.  There is a fair amount of travelling around China - overnight on hard-bench trains, splendidly atmospheric - and a movie-worthy fight scene complete with flying weaponry and masked bandits.  Did I mention the Chinese crime gangs and karaoke bars?  This isn't Martin Limon's gritty 1970s Seoul, but that bit with the snake at the glitzy club will catch your attention.

The plot of A Loyal Character Dancer is not that complex, but Western readers without a good understanding of Chinese names will inevitably find ourselves confused at points.  That said, this story was easier to follow than the previous one, perhaps because some of the recurring players make sense (Party Secretary Li, for example).  And while it retains that funny stilted quality of calling everyone by their full title - Chief Inspector Chen, Party Secretary Li, and so on - conversations between characters feel less awkward than in Death of a Red Heroine.  Perhaps it is the addition of an American, although her being an attractive woman manages to tie Chen up a little more than he expects.  As for the prose itself, given the author's own work writing poetry, it is no surprise that his protagonist does too, but it does give momentary pause when characters like Old Hunter (Chen's partner Yu's father, a retired cop) start sounding like Irishmen:
"Things are falling apart!  The beast of corruption is moving in all over the country.  Good people lack conviction."  (74)  And the worst are full of passionate intensity?  Western poetry references aside, it is not hard to be seduced by Qiu Xiaolong's particular mix of genres:
  "He gazed at her as she sipped her tea.  For a second, she was merging into another woman, one who had acompanied him to another teahouse, in Beijing.  She, too, had looked pale, with black circles under eyes revealed in a flood of sunligh, with a green tea leaf in her white teeth.
  The tenderness of the tea leaf between her lips. / Everything's possible, but not pardonable."  (346)

Of course the bits that always get me are discussions of dinner.  All of Qiu's characters take meals seriously, but if you are having an American guest, well . . .
  "'So what shall we have for tonight?'
  'An ordinary Chinese meal will be great,' Yu said.  'According to Chen, Inspector Rohn has a passion for everything Chinese.  What about a dumpling dinner?'
  'A good idea.  It's the season for spring bamboo shoots.  We will have dumplings with three fresh stuffings:  fresh bamboo shoots, fresh meat, and fresh shrimp.  I'll fry some dumplings, steam some, and serve the rest in an old duck soup with black tree ears.  I'll leave work early and bring some special dishes from the restaurant.  Our room may be as small as a piece of dried tofu, but we cannot lose face before an American guest.'
  Yu stretched.  'I don't have to go to the office today,' he said.  'So I'll go to the market to buy a basket of really fresh bamboo shoots.'
  'Choose the tender ones.  Not thicker than two fingers.  We'd better mince the meat ourselves; the ground pork you can buy is not fresh.  When will they arrive?'
  'Around four thirty.'
  'Let's start right now.  It takes time to make the dumpling skin.'"  (318)

Hungry yet?

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