The alliance between Chen and Yu put him in a disadvantageous position. But what really worried Zhang was Chief Inspector Chen’s ideological ambiguity. Chen appeared to be a bright young officer, Zhang admitted. Whether he would prove to be a reliable upholder of the cause the old cadres had fought for, however, Zhang was far from certain. He had attempted to read several of Chen’s poems. he did not understand a single line. He had heard people describing Chen as an avant-gardist–influenced by Western modernism.
I found Death of a Red Heroine pretty slow going at first. The prose is quite flat, almost plodding, and the slow pace was compounded by the amount of what seemed like a lot of extraneous detail. As I read on, though, I warmed to Chief Inspector Chen, who though a dedicated police officer also (like P. D. James’s Adam Dalgliesh) has the sensitive heart and whimsical eye of a poet. Then as his investigation began to quicken and complicate, other things got more interesting: the prime suspect is an HCC (“High Cadre Child”) and Chen’s inquiries become “politically incorrect,” his loyalty to the Party coming into question. As his career is threatened, he has to decide what is most important: justice, or what is good for the Party. He also has to come to terms with his own power, or at least his access to it: in the end, he figures out not how to stay out of politics but how to play them to win. Gradually, then, over the course of an otherwise fairly conventional murder mystery, the stakes go up, both politically and philosophically, as Chen and his little band of co-conspirators struggle to express their own freedom in a highly constricting society by holding one privileged perpetrator to account. The ending is not unequivocally triumphant, but the effort is very satisfying.
I didn’t start enjoying the novel more just because the plot became more engrossing, though it did–or because the prose became more pleasurable, because it really didn’t. The other thing that happened was I got used to the slow pace and came to appreciate all the cultural context I was getting through what initially seemed like digressions. It’s true that all the many (many!) descriptions of meals aren’t strictly necessary to the plot, but they certainly added to my sense of what life in Shanghai in the 1990s was like, as did the meticulous accounts of where and how people live:
They lived in an old-fashioned two storied shikumen house–an architectural style popular in the early thirties, when such a house had been built for one family. Now, sixty years later, it was inhabited by more than a dozen, with all the rooms subdivided to accommodate more and more people. Only the black-painted front door remained the same, opening into a small courtyard littered with odds and ends, a sort of common junk yard, which led to a high-ceilinged hall flaked by the eastern and western wings. This once spacious hall had long since been converted to a public kitchen and storage area. The two rows of coal stoves with piles of coal briquettes indicated that seven families lived on the first floor.
One of the more memorable bits of scene setting was this account of a woman prepping an eel for market:
Having slapped an eel hard like a whip against the concrete ground, the woman was fixing its head on a thick nail sticking out of a bench, pulling it tight, cutting through its belly, deboning it, pulling out its insides, chopping off its head, and slicing its body delicately … Her hands and arms were covered with eel blood, and her bare feet too. The chopped-off heads of the eels lay scattered at her bare feet, like scarlet-painted toes.
There are too many appreciative descriptions of noodles, soups, dumplings, and duck to keep track of: the book makes clear the importance of meals, not just for sustenance (though there is a lot of exuberance around eating for its own sake) but also as social and bonding rituals.
I also really enjoyed the role of Chen’s poetry in his life and in his case–and in the case against him. The idea that his elusive (and allusive) verses harbor subversive messages at once works with the intense suspicion shown by loyal Party members towards anything suggestive of a “Western bourgeois decadent lifestyle” and seemed to me a sly play on the literary difficulty of modernist poetry and the challenge of figuring out what it means. Poring over Chen’s poem “Night Talk,” Zhang wonders if the phrase “mind’s square” is a reference to Tiananmen Square:
“Deserted” on a summer night of 1989, with no “pennant” left there. If so, the poem was politically incorrect. And the issue about “history,” too. Chairman Mao had said that people, people alone make the history. How could Chen talk about history as the result of a rubric?
Zhang was not sure of his interpretation. So he started to read all over again. Before long, however, his eyesight grew bleary. He had to give up. There was nothing else for him to do. So he took a shower before going to bed. Standing under the shower head, he still thought that Chen had gone too far.
Who hasn’t felt that sometimes, reading poetry that seems full of significance you can’t quite grasp? I liked Chen’s habit of quoting poetry as well, and the general sense that in his world it matters–being a poet gets him respect and admiration! He also translates English mystery novels, so there’s another nice self-referential strand woven into the novel. Coincidentally, he is translating Ruth Rendell, a writer I was already thinking about this week because she came up in my Women & Detective Fiction class and I realized how little of her I had read. I read Death of a Red Heroine for my book club; maybe I should suggest Rendell as our follow-up–though crime fiction is not a typical choice for us.