Saturday, April 17, 2010

Qiu Xiaolong/WHEN RED IS BLACK


Mid-1990s, Shanghai: an author of a famously controversial novel about the Cultural Revolution is found murdered in the room she lives in in a shared house. The Chinese government is very concerned about the possible political implications of this dissident's death, and puts a lot of pressure on Chief Inspector Chen to get his team to solve the murder in a hurry. But Chen is on vacation, working from home on a private literary translation project. Detective Yu, his man assigned to the case, is feeling a little disgruntled because the Party has taken away the apartment they promised him and his wife, Peiqin, and he vows to solve the case and prove himself.

But the death of a controversial (and, it turns out, not exactly beloved) writer stirs up lots of complicated feelings about China's past, individuals' political records, and the power of literature to affect, hurt, and heal. Every man and woman over 30 remembers Mao's Cultural Revolution--and many are still wearing the scars of loyal Party commitment that suddenly backfired, or of grueling years in "re-education" facilities, doing hard labor in the remote countryside. Detective Yu and his wife met in one such re-education camp. Luckily, Peiqin's love for literature wasn't beaten out of her after all that re-education, and she helps her husband and the literary Chief Chen get to the bottom of this literary figure's murder.

Definitely a worthwhile read, particularly if you have any interest in modern China. To be honest, this really isn't a very good mystery--the conclusion is totally unsatisfying and not very mysterious. However, I feel as if this book isn't intended to be a mystery--it's much more a snapshot of modern China and the way the Cultural Revolution continues to affect lives 30 and 40 years later. Fully half the narrative is about Inspector Chen, who isn't even working on the murder case, so it becomes clear that Qiu Xiaolong's agenda isn't just to tell a potboiler story.

I find it interesting that Qiu was born in China but chooses to write in English--literary translation is such an important aspect of When Red Is Black, but he is writing in a language other than his first.

5 comments:

Claire Dawn said...

I might take a look at this. Just because I'm in the East, and in the field of languages.

Thanks.

moonrat said...

Claire--it's interesting, and very interested in the social origins of modern Chinese communism. I knew about your Japanese background--are you also interested in China? (Like me? ;)

moonrat said...

Claire--it's interesting, and very interested in the social origins of modern Chinese communism. I knew about your Japanese background--are you also interested in China? (Like me? ;)

Jane Steen said...

Going on the list. The long, long list. Can someone send me away to a desert island for a month with the books?

Ever since I began learning Chinese (just because, I have no reason to learn it) my interest in China has shot up, so thanks for posting this.

moonrat said...

Jane--in case you haven't caught on, I'm obsessed with China. If you want to trade reading lists, let me know.