Qiu Xiaolong, The Enigma of China (2012)

I am (always have been) very forgiving with Qiu Xiaolong, and perhaps too much so.

I enjoyed his mysteries because his focus is on the situation of contemporary China and its most recent social problems (here, corruption, while his previous one was on pollution) that I know firsthand to be true. I enjoyed his mysteries like you enjoy sweets you ate in another season of your life, with nostalgia: his plots are located in Shanghai, in places I know firsthand (I used to make frequent business trips to Shanghai back when I was based in Beijing in the early 2000s).

The situations he puts his characters in ring very true, and have dilemmas I used to wonder about while working in China. Because his heroes are decent people trying to make the right thing in a culture where money is king, graft is ubiquitous and those who don’t join in are just nostalgic losers, I tend to overlook poor dialogues, cardboard sidekick characters and confused plotting.

Qiu has a major excuse: he has a lot of exploding to do to introduce the context and the culture to his foreign readers. If we readers weren’t fed background and lengthy justifications about traditions and latest trends in China, many points of the story and many people’s behaviors or discussions would be hard to understand. But that slows the story down so much!

He tries to be subtle and balanced because paradoxes abound in China these days, so his characters are far from black and white in their behavior, but his writing is quite dull, or perhaps the translation from English to French didn’t help. I was irritated every time a person used the word “gros sous” as a noun synonym for loaded people. This sounds very clunky in French.

It’s too bad, I liked the idea of this mystery rather than its actual form. And something that keeps bothering me is that Qiu Xiaolong actually lives in the United States and has left China in the aftermath of Tiananmen in 1989, which is now quite a long time ago. So I at times wonder how much of his stories are based on hearsay, secondary sources about recent phenomenons, or his interpretations of them viewed through a rather Westernized filter, rather than first hand “experiences”. It’s weird to demand experience for the mystery genre, I’m actually talking about what it means to live in a country with corruption, and blogs who are trying to expose injustice.

So the jury’s out on this one. I’d like to have the opinion of someone who is or has been in China more recently than I have, but my own Chinese friends (or American friends who have married in China) don’t read his books. Is it because they are too close to home or on the contrary because they don’t measure up to the Chinese reality? I might never know.

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2 thoughts on “Qiu Xiaolong, The Enigma of China (2012)

  1. This prompted me to check out the reviews for this book on amazon.com. It’s always interesting to read the varying opinions of others, and as you might expect, there is no consensus. I guess that means I can’t take anyone’s word for it. I’ll have to read the book myself and see what I think. None of the reviewers I ran across were sophisticated enough to question whether Qiu’s status as an expat affected the legitimacy of his writing, though. One person pointed out that he must really miss the food. Maybe you should read the novel in English so you can compare it with the French version.

    Before I go, let me share a couple of quotes from the reviews.

    Patto says “…The Chief Inspector Chen novels are not remarkable for devious plots or action scenes. I love them for their ambience, their leisurely contemplative mood. In the midst of puzzling over a case, Chen is forever reciting lines of ancient poetry to himself, and occasionally to a pretty young woman. On a visit to his mother in the hospital, he’ll recall a Tang Dynasty poem. And urgent as this investigation is, Chen always finds time for tea, noodles and (when the pressure is really on) an exotic meal.

    I love the way Xiaolong weaves classical allusions and folk sayings into the texture of the story. This is literature, not a mere thriller – a subtle mix of exquisite writing, murder and political intrigue.”

    And Marie Lutz says “I’ve read all the Inspector Chen novels and this is one of the best. You don’t read the books in this series to find out who the murderer is, although that does add to the appeal of the novels. You also don’t read the books because you want a steamy love story. Or because you want insightful interactions between complex characters. You read them for the exquisite description of Chinese society and Chinese corruption. You read them to find out how ordinary Chinese people live and how elite Chinese live. You may even read them to savor the depictions of Chinese meals. You may also read them for the poetry interspersed throughout the novels, although this does not appeal to me. In this book Qui Xiaolong describes Chinese officials engaging in power struggles and intrigue while attempting to quash Internet exposés of corrupt leaders and businessmen. It is a dark and engrossing story.”

    One thing everyone agrees on, though, is that the ending is unsatisfying.

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