Monday, August 15, 2016

Books I have been reading: Qiu Xiaolong - Don't Cry Tai Lake

I first came across Qiu Xiaolong's Inspector Chen novels some years ago when the first six were published in the UK very soon after they had come out in the US. I read The Loyal Character Dancer and liked it for several reasons. The basic plot was good though at various times there was a definite collapse of logical development and it seemed to give a very good idea of what it was like to live and work in Shanghai in the late eighties or early nineties still oppressed with memories of such horrible events as the Cultural Revolution and the subsequent enforced exodus of young people to the villages.

Chen, the son of an intellectual, too young to have been affected directly by those events, a poet who had been directed into the police force after graduation and who then to his own surprise found that he was quite good at it, was an interesting character. After that I read the first of the series, Death of a Red Heroine, which was excellent with a shocking but entirely credible ending. To this day I think that is by far the best book of the series, with A Case of Two Cities close second.

Qiu Xiaolong left China in 1988 to take up a fellowship in St Louis, Missouri, where he was working on T. S. Eliot as well as writing his own poetry. Then came the events of Tiananmen Square [surely, no link required] and he, with his family, decided to stay in the US, where he has continued to write in English and Chinese. So the detective novels were written from outside the country, based on memory, knowledge of history and, one must assume, information from people who are still there. Only one of his novels has been translated into Chinese and it was severely bowdlerized with all references to Shanghai removed. Not surprisingly, it was not a success. The books are available in Beijing in English but only in the English language bookshop and one cannot help wondering who shops there. (I know this from someone who did go there and did buy one of the novels.)

The series continued but, in my opinion, began to lose steam, possibly because of the distance from the place about which the author was writing. The links with the Maoist past remained fascinating but the plots became far too convoluted and Chen's own character far too neurotic. He kept having nervous break-downs, not eating (though he is supposed to be a great expert on food and a gourmet), and generally being unable to decide what he wanted to do with himself.

In The Mao Case, a very promising plot collapses right at the end because of Chen's completely incredible actions. After that, no Chen book seemed to appear in the UK and I assumed that Qiu Xiaolong had decided that the series had come to a full stop and turned his attention to other writings.

How wrong one can be. Three more books were published not very long after The Mao Case but none of them came out in the UK until last year so it seemed as if there had been a longish gap. I have now read the first of that trio, Don't Cry Tai Lake, which also takes place in a real place on the shore of the eponymous lake and appears to deal with the horrific pollution problems there.

This book and, I assume, the two that follow it deal with present day China (well, late nineties so not quite present day) without any direct references to the Maoist past. Does Qiu Xiaolong intend to write six of these? An intriguing idea.

Chief Inspector Chen who, I am glad to say, is back to being a gourmet and addicted to good food, is now legendary in police circles and definitely a promising young cadre who is being pushed forward by an important Party boss in Beijing. Other party officials do not like him and hope to prevent his rise through the nomenclatura. This has been the situation more or less for several books and one cannot help thinking that it is time we moved on and saw him moving upward or definitively being pushed out of that track.

Here he is told to take up a holiday in a remarkably luxurious High Cadre Centre on the lake and, as a side issue, think of producing a report about local conditions, which would be very useful to his career. A little bemused he does as he is told and starts working on his report as well as on some poetry. Then he meets and falls in love with a young environmental activist and decides to use her information as part of the report, because he thinks that the truth of what is happening in and around the heavily polluted and infected lake should be known.

Discussions wobble. Someone points out that at least now people have enough to eat and are getting richer but, as Chen replies, at some cost to the environment (and themselves with many diseases and inedible food). There are many references to the new China where people just want to get rich without caring about anything or anyone around them but it is quite clear that the pollution goes back many decades. As ever, it started under the Communist system and it is the continuance of that system in one form or another that has allowed the situation to deteriorate so much.

Then the director of one of the most polluting factories that is about to become private is murdered and the Internal Security uses the event to arrest a young man who is an even better known environmental activist and have their eye on Shanshan, the girl Chen is in love with. Naturally, he becomes involved in the investigation with the sub rosa help of the local police sergeant who is thrilled to be working with the great Chief Inspector Chen.

In fact, that murder and detective plot is very good and follows a classic Golden Age pattern. Unfortunately, it turns out to have nothing to do with the pollution motif, so the chapters devoted to ranting about that become superfluous. The poetry Chen writes is rather good but his habit of endlessly quoting his own and others' lines and sayings becomes tedious. He solves the case but his own future remains undecided. Once again he loses the girl and his apparent status as a young promising cadre stays stationary. I cannot help hoping that somewhere in the novels after Don't Cry Tai Lake there is some resolution to at least one of Chief Inspector Chen's personal dilemmas.

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