Thursday, February 28, 2008

A Conversation with Author Qiu Xiaolong, Part 2

IMGP0768 bb Qiu Xiaolong
Above, in this photograph I was able to take (creative commons license 3.0, James K. Bashkin), we see copies of Qiu Xiaolong's latest book, the fifth Inspector Chen novel, Red Mandarin Dress. Red Mandarin Dress was published by St. Martin's, to which Qiu moved from Soho Press prior to publication of the fourth Inspector Chen novel, A Case of Two Cities. The final Inspector Chen offering by Soho is When Red is Black, a particularly personal story, Qiu explained, because China now embraces capitalism though, before, The Party persecuted all businessmen, even small business owners like his father. Throughout the discussion and question session that Barnes & Noble hosted, Qiu was exceedingly patient, very kind, and quite thorough in his comments.

When I arrived for Qiu's commentary and Q&A session, he was discussing Western literature and the Cultural Revolution. Qiu said, "From 1966 to 1976, there was no translation of Western books and all existing books were destroyed. During that time, the only book we were allowed to have was Mao's Little Red Book. People would hide other books inside the cover of Mao's book, even though it was dangerous. I did this, and I was even caught by one of my teachers, but he said nothing. I think he actually approved... Even after 1976, very few Western books were translated... Modernism was taboo."

Qiu went on to discuss modernism and how the idea of "impersonal art (about) personal feelings" conflicted with Mao's beliefs. He also mentioned the complications of mixing art and politics for modernists even in the West, bringing up the treatment of Ezra Pound, who would have been considered counter-revolutionary in China and was also persecuted in the West. Qiu noted that "Though many of the early revolutionaries in China were (intellectuals, and some studied abroad), Mao was not a college student, though he worked in a college library in Beijing." (Mao had succeeded as) "an autodidact, and he must have felt that, since he rose so high" (in Chinese government, formal education was unnecessary and wasteful.)

Since Qiu first came to prominence in the literary world through his translation of T. S. Eliot into Chinese, I mentioned that Eliot's poem The Wasteland was very controversial and anti-establishment in its day, and I asked why a poem so unpalatable to Western Establishment Conservatives should be unpopular with Chinese authorities. Qiu responded very kindly to this question, and spoke at length; some of his remarks are paraphrased (noted by parentheses, as above).

Qiu said, "In the 1940's, Mao said that literature should exist to serve politics.... (part of what) he meant was that literature should be (easy for) farmers (to understand)... Even Dickens was banned during the Cultural Revolution (though he had been a popular author beforehand because he showed the corruption of the West.)"

Qiu explained further, "During the Cultural Revolution, Eight movies and model operas were performed. Only eight (over and over again). (These eight stories had) perfect characters, so devoted to The Party and the Government that they had no time for their families, or for love, or even to make love. The characters were one-dimensional. Dickens' complexity opposed these ideas." Clearly, The Wasteland didn't stand a chance.

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Wednesday, February 27, 2008

A Conversation With Qiu Xiaolong, Part 1

Qiu Xiaolong wrote one of the great novels of the past several years, Death of Red Heroine, which is an absolute masterpiece. This was the first Inspector Chen novel, and it introduced us to the Chinese police inspector with a penchant for poetry and Western fiction, including detective fiction, as well considerable skill at solving complex crimes. In fact, the author himself is an accomplished poet and translator of poetry, and his complete grasp of the most complex English, whether from T. S. Eliot or any other source, gives him a much heralded skill as a translator. Do not, however, worry that Qiu Xiaolong's novels are pedantic- their language is superlative without in any way being self-conscious, and they are filled with suspense, intrigue, puzzling clues and great mysteries.

Qiu used to teach Chinese literature at Washington University in St. Louis, but, at least for the moment, teaching has yielded to the busy travel schedule of a successful author. Sandwiched between Chinese New Year in London and a working visit to Hong Kong as a writer in residence, the author stopped by my local Barnes & Noble in St. Louis County, Missouri (at Ladue Crossing) for a book signing and discussion. There, I had a chance to catch up with him and listen to his presentation. I took the opportunity to pick up signed copies of his latest books, including Red Mandarin Dress: An Inspector Chen Novel, and have a number of questions answered.

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