Monday, April 14, 2008

Interview with Popular Author Qiu Xiaolong- Part 3

What a long over-due post... Of course, I had to read A Case of Two Cities and Red Mandarin Dress immediately, so that derailed my timing in the most enjoyable way, but, as will be clear to some, writing about the environment has occupied my spare time of late. Because of the delay in writing this down, I have had to paraphrase much more than I would have liked. Hence, the scarcity of quotation marks. The link for part 2 of this interview is given above (long overdue ...), and part 1 of the interview with Qiu Xiaolong is found here.

So, on to the wonderful Mr. Qiu Xiaolong and the end of our discussion. I asked him about how Russian cultural and literary influence had fared through the Cultural Revolution, and he related that this, too, had ultimately been rejected: the earlier importance of Tolstoy, Pushkin and Dostoevsky was wiped away by Mao's insistence on what I would characterize as nothing but the most trivial written language.

On the subject of language, we then addressed translation: the translation of Qiu's novels from English into his native Chinese. This turns out to have been a nightmare. When starting out, Qiu was shocked and powerless over what the official Chinese translators did to his work. First, the books were not allowed to take place in Shanghai, where they are set, "because such crimes could never take place in a real Chinese city." Apparently China has no murders, officially. It is a wonder that they need any police. So, the books are set in a fictional, anonymous city, H_, which is absurd for any number of reasons, not the least of which being that the details of Shanghai itself make the city another character in the novels.

The title of the second Inspector Chen novel, A Loyal Character Dancer, was also unacceptable to Chinese officials. Qiu explained their dilemma without irony: a loyal character dancer existed only during the Cultural Revolution. This combination of words and concept didn't exist before the period of upheaval, and didn't exist afterwards! How can words just disappear?* They can because the new National slogan is "Look forward to the future", which apparently sounds almost identical to "Look forward to the money." Nobody wants to think back to the Cultural Revolution, to dwell in the past. In addition to appearing and disappearing during the Cultural Revolution, loyal character dancers were the ONLY dancers allowed at that time, so the connotations of the language are disturbing, but they also communicate the truth, a commodity that lost its value long ago in China. Now, of course, Mr. Qiu is fully-established as an internationally successful, professional writer and in great demand. He has had to leave his teaching post, even though he loves teaching, because the time and travel demands of his writing career are simply too great. Now, Qiu is in a position to say "No" in no uncertain terms: his books will be translated, unaltered, into Chinese, or they will not be published in China at all.

I mentioned that one of my scientific collaborators gave an invited lecture in Beijing last fall, and I was appalled to see the brochure advertising a great site-seeing tour for all cheerful tourists to visit Tiananmen Square. I associate the Square with army tanks, student protesters and atrocities committed by the Chinese soldiers against their nation's children. Mr. Qiu pointed out my naiveté kindly but firmly, making it clear that my CNN-driven impression of the Square carried little of the even more-exceptionally serious resonance that native Chinese would feel: it is a place of much more history and significance than my memory had conjured up. Tiananmen Square is the location where Mao first announced the Cultural Revolution, accompanied by his Red Guard. It is also the location of Mao's memorial hall with its crystal coffin, and far more. It still wouldn't be my choice of a tourist destination.

As part of his general address to the group at Barnes and Noble, Qiu told the story of his father's humiliation and persecution under the Cultural Revolution, and how Qiu himself, as a young boy, had to write the confessions for his hospitalized, frail parent. This was his introduction to writing. I chose not to ask him any further about it. I must say that Qiu's composure, with a lack of irony or bitterness, while discussing these experiences was remarkable. I was in tears, listening.

After reading comments on the web this weekend by people who are determined to blame someone or something for problems that have no clear cause, it is hard to reconcile our attitudes of entitlement in the USA with the joy for life and ability to survive and flourish exhibited by Qiu under the most trying circumstances. The good news is that we have the freedom to feel that selfish entitlement, if we choose, and hire a lawyer to act accordingly, with no repercussions from a totalitarian State.

I think a cautionary note is in order, however. Anyone who has watched the erosion of civil liberties in the United States might wonder just how close to totalitarianism the current (2008) regime has brought us. It is hard to know much about the horrors of our torture program in the US or the real story of who is in Guantanamo Bay's Prison and why they are there, but the recent novel The Mission Song by John Le Carre', is a brilliant and chilling glimpse of how the totalitarian State is alive and well for many who live on the margins of citizenship in Britain. Don't forget what this could signify for the US, especially given the "special relationship" that we enjoy with Great Britain.

We also touched on the subject of freedom in China when discussing crime fiction. Apparently there is now a type of crime fiction springing up in China, along the lines of the Western noir genre, that serves a useful, political and anti-corruption role. However, in these Chinese stories, there is never any mystery, because the crimes are always solved by a Communist Party cadre who uncovers the problem without the need for investigation. In China, all crime is political. I would call this The Case of the Ghost in the Party Machine.

I haven't yet given myself the pleasure of reading Cara Black's interview of Qiu, but you may find pertinent information about Qiu's childhood and later life there. Qiu spoke of Cara Black's hospitality, which I too have enjoyed, if only by email, discussing her novels and crime fiction in general. Ms. Black has written some of my favorite detective fiction, all set in Paris.

In addition to adjusting to a new schedule of publication deadlines and countless public appearances, it was good to hear that Qiu still has some time for poetry. I was able to pick up a few signed copies of his original verse and translations of Chinese poetry, and I look forward to reading them. I can say for now that Red Mandarin Dress is an outstanding novel, and somewhat of a departure in style. It is a tighter, more compact tale than we have seen before from Qiu, in part because Detective Yu is able to keep the investigation charging hard even while Inspector Chen Cao is struggling with his love of literature, academics and poetry and the resulting conflict with his investigative responsibility. A full review of the book will appear on this site.

I am grateful to Mr. Qiu Xiaolong for his kindness and time, for permission to interview him and to take and publish photographs of him and his work, and for his wonderful work.

*If you want more examples of how politics affect language, I strongly recommend Rates of Exchange by Malcolm Bradbury. It is an uproariously hilarious book, but not funny at all on some levels.

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  1. I must say u have an expansive blog. do u remember my blog? yes, recently u exchanged links with it. And in the dark corner of ur blog was my little link snuggling taking up no big space whatever. In exchange u had a link from me, but I was a fool! how dare I think that you would retain my little blog link? NOt at all, dear. I have a little problem here, I check back all my exchanged links every day. Sorry to disappoint you, you lost that link love from me.

  2. You apparently did not read the second note I sent you. I said that after reading though your blog some more, I was not comfortable putting a link on my blog after all, but would use Technorati to favorite your blog. I won't go into the reasons here, but I did in my note to you. That is what I did. Your site was never linked to here, and I have never deleted any links from my blog roll. Whether you link to me or not is your business. Frankly, I prefer links exchanged by real interaction than for no reason other than cross promotion (and have never done the latter).

  3. Hmm jim . I like to exchange some links , where can i send you email ?