Saturday, March 15, 2008

Red for blood, red for China

Death of a Red Heroine by Qiu Xiaolong

In a country of a billion people, regimented and homogenised by a stern government, the death of one does not make even a speck in statistics. It is only duty and pity which make poet-policeman Chief Inspector Chen give the dead girl fished out of the canal a second thought, but it is the Communist party's warnings to Chen to desist which make him persevere with - at first sight - a hopeless case.

The girl was one of the Party's model workers, shining examples of probity and productivity for the nation, but her private life - when Chen finally manages to pry beneath the tightly-drawn surface of Communist devotion and a life bare of comfort - is a roiling mess. A Party official is implicated, and when the irresistible might of the government consequently bears down on Chen, he must decide whether to put Party and career before justice.

While the mystery is not especially compelling - the investigation is methodical and there are no sharp turns on the last page - what distinguishes Death of a Red Heroine is its involving and evocative creation of early nineties Shanghai, complete with the bald poverty of the masses, the reality of an omnipresent government and the imposing protocols which govern all behaviour.

The inner life of the city - just at the point of opening up to the world and its antithetical values - is brilliantly conveyed, such as the alleys where people are stuffed without name or distinction; all are poor alike and the details of this poverty - outdoor stoves, a single telephone for dozens - do not idealise it, as the government would wish. Instead of raucous openness, as represented by some visiting Americans, there is ceremony for all occasions, repression of the individual.

Life is as precise as Chen's poetry, full of dreamy imagery, contrasting with the mess of a policeman's work and the only place for creativity, although even this the government looks over. The forms for addressing a guest are long-established, there is a rule for talking to colleagues. People speak with the formalised, frozen respect which is alien to Britain and which makes frustrating reading until you are swallowed up by the culture.

Xiaolong certainly manages to swallow up the reader. The sounds and smells - even the sweating - of the city surround you, from gaudy bars for foreigners to quiet teahouses. Death of a Red Heroine so fully immerses you in its humidity and landscape that it is a shock to look up and find yourself at Kings Cross.

The oppression of poverty, tradition and government make the book claustrophobic but this does not seem inappropriate or detract from the intrigue: it is hard to imagine China was not, even if under all the strictures, human passions still ruled.

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