A Loyal Character Dancer by Qiu Xiaolong

I am not sure at which point enthusiasm becomes embarrassing, but I’m going to risk it anyway.

In Shanghai last week to visit my son who works there, I re-read all the Inspector Chen novels with great pleasure – as I have said before in other book reviews, there is nothing quite like being in the very place you are reading about.  It’s all the delightful, insider feeling of “Ah yes, I know exactly where that street/building/park is…”

And thus it was, when I found myself, early one misty April morning, in the little park on the Bund where Inspector Chen comes across a body, that I felt seriously excited.  I knew exactly where the action took place.  I, too, was there in the cool pre-dawn mist, listening to the clock tower chime, watching people practice tai-chi…yes, I should probably stop right here, before this all becomes too gushing.

For the record, the Bund Park is now way smaller than it was in the early 1990s, the time of the novel, but there I was at the Waibaidu end of the park

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I heard the music

FullSizeRender-1The colonial architecture along the Bund is even more impressive now than it (probably) was when Chen Cao saw it :

FullSizeRender-2And the tai chi still goes on…

4

Chief Inspector Chen is an eminently likeable man.  A bachelor, an intellectual, a man who does his duty as a policeman even though it might oftentimes run counter to the all-important political needs of The Party.  He is something of an enigma to his colleagues –  a quiet, low-key, almost-reluctant policeman, who would rather be writing poetry much of the time.  This air of impenetrability around Chief Inspector Chen means that it is all the more to the credit of his assistant Detective Yu, that the latter trusts him so instinctively, and watches his back at every twist and turn.

Inspector Yu is a wonderful character.  No jolly side-kick here, but an older, poorly paid man whose youth was wasted by the Cultural Revolution, leaving him stuck without an education in a low-paying job.  His initial resentment of his younger, intellectual, better-paid boss has all but evaporated now, and even though he cannot always fathom his boss, he admires him and is fiercely loyal.

There is a death and a missing person in this book, but neither we nor the Shanghai police are sure whether they are connected.

What is fascinating about the Chief Inspector Chen books is not simply the whodunnit aspects of the stories, but also their setting –  Shanghai in the early 1990s, with the memory of Tiananmen still fresh in everyone’s minds, and the gradual, tentative emergence of capitalism, despite the strong grip The Party, Internal Security and the all-powerful state holds over the country.

Chen Cao is a man caught in the midst of these changes.  Young enough to have escaped the ravages and the waste of the Cultural Revolution – a theme that is a leitmotif through Qiu Xiaolong’s writing – and a man seen by the party to have a future, and treated accordingly, he is nevertheless a government employee on a paltry salary, battling his way on and off hot, over-crowded buses and metros, and often amazed by the way the other half lives.

Chen Cao is deputed to accompany an American marshal, Catherine Rohn, who is coming to Shanghai to escort the wife of a Chinese man the Americans have in a witness protection programme.  Feng Dexiang is thought to be involved in human trafficking to the US, but has decided to cooperate with the Americans to save his skin –  but won’t talk unless his wife, Wen Liping joins him.  So Inspector Rohn, a pretty blonde Chinese speaking young woman, has been sent out to escort Wen to the US.

Except, Wen cannot be found.

And that is all I am going to tell you, otherwise it will spoil the plot for you.

There is travel to Fujian province in search of Wen, there are long train journeys, there is food galore, there is the barest hint of romance, and there is the totally fascinating, ever-evolving city of Shanghai, with its karaoke bars and banquets, its desperate housing shortage and traffic jams, with its tea houses and, as long as we have Chen Cao as our likeable hero, lots of poetry.

Lots and lots of poetry.

And food.

And tea.

 

Highly recommended.

Published originally by Soho Press, 01 Sep 2003

If this review has encouraged you to read the book for yourself (and I hope it has) you can buy it here and now:

BALZAC AND THE LITTLE CHINESE SEAMSTRESS by DAI SIJIE

This slim, charming novel about one of the darkest periods in recent Chinese history, the Cultural Revolution, manages to combine ugliness and brutishness with a life-saving thread of hope and young love and dreams.

It is 1971, and 2 young men, teenaged sons of then-reviled intellectuals, are sent off to be re-educated, in a remote corner of China.  Their new home, a dirt-poor village, is dominated by the poetically named “Phoenix of the Sky”.  In other words a forbidding slightly terrifying mountain, whose presence and moods dominate the novel.

The 2 youngsters survive in the village.

Just.

Their smuggled-in violin provides some moments of relief from the otherwise soul-destroying manual labour to which they are subjected.  When they chance upon a hidden trunk, filled with books –  books, forbidden books – of translations of 19th century French classics, they grasp at the chance to read, after months of privation.

Books and stories and weaving happiness through words and music is the leitmotiv of this book.  Luo (the narrator’s friend) is a natural story-teller, and once the trust of the suspicious village headman has been won, the 2 young men are occasionally dispatched to the neighbouring small town of Yong Jing to watch whatever film is showing.  They then return, and tell the story to the villagers over many sessions.

This power to tell stories wins Luo the heart of the Little Seamstress, the daughter of an itinerant tailor.  She is far and away the prettiest girl on the mountain, and Luo endures terrifying walks up and down the mountain to court her.

He reads to her, tells her stories, all in an attempt to “better” her, and their love develops under the wistful eye of the narrator and the spying eye of an old miller.

The end of the novel is dramatic and sad.

The Little Seamstress walks –  at times literally runs –  down the mountain, out of the book, and out of their lives.

And a heart-broken, drunken Luo burns the books that had kindled their love.

Charming, full of descriptions that bring to life the damp, cold, poor countryside of Mao’s Revolutionary China, “Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress” is published by Vintage Books.

The novel was originally published in French in 2000 and the English translation in 2001.  The paperback costs £7.99

 If you would like to buy the book now, just click on any of the links below :