Back in 2013, when I was researching Reading the World: How I Read a Book from Every Country (new edition out in September), I was fortunate to speak to many translators and other literature experts about the way stories travel. A particularly fascinating conversation was with Nicky Harman, one of the driving forces behind Paper Republic, a charity that promotes Chinese literature in English translation.
Among the many things we talked about was crime fiction. English-language publishers, Harman said, were always expecting to find great crime novels in China, yet it was very rare for anything to get picked up. The reason for this involved a fundamental difference in approach to the genre.
Despite the Sherlock Holmes stories being so popular in China that the detective and his sidekick Watson are affectionately known there as Curly Fu and Peanut, Chinese crime fiction tends to have a strongly didactic streak. The page-turning suspense that is an essential ingredient of most anglophone thrillers is generally considered secondary to the message and information the story conveys.
Indeed, the early translations of the Holmes novels provide a neat illustration. As academic Eva Hung found, many had their titles changed to give away the ending. The plot was secondary to the ingenious detection skills the works showcased.
My latest Book of the month suggests that the tide may be beginning to turn. Although far from being a conventional crime novel in the anglophone sense, Rouge Street, a collection of three novellas by award-winning contemporary author Shuang Xuetao, translated by Jeremy Tiang, contains many of the elements of a pageturner. Hard-bitten characters dodge in and out of the underworld of one of Shenyang’s roughest neighbourhoods, mysteries abound and unfold, and a sense of the compromised, broken nature of human dealings in the scramble to survive pervades the narrative.
There is a directness to the prose that has invited comparisons to Hemingway. Sometimes this is very funny, as when one character observes, ‘If you have a big ass, you don’t need to take off your pants to prove it.’ At other times, it is satisfying in its precision, enabling Shuang to convey the essence of a character who might only appear for a handful of pages in a single sentence. For example, when he tells us that Mingqi is ‘the sort of man who’d never be willing to go for an easy win at mahjong but would insist on building elaborate hands to crush the other players’, we know precisely who we are dealing with.
Yet aspects of the collection veer sharply away from the conventions English-language crime thriller readers know so well. Murakami is another name that has been mentioned in relation to Shuang’s work and it’s not hard to see why: the narrative dives into the surreal and the fantastical with little warning. In particular, an extended sequence involving a battle with an interrogator-turned-fish beneath the surface of a frozen lake flies in the face of the gritty realism that suffuses much of the rest of the narrative.
The investigation at the heart of Rouge Street is much more introspective and psychological than the fact-based jigsaw puzzles of traditional anglophone mysteries. Rather than an excavation of events, this is an excavation of the self – a coming to understanding of individual characters’ motivations through the unspooling of seemingly tangential happenings.
This is achieved through a kaleidoscopic series of shifts between the perspectives of different parties involved in the stories so that we are constantly looking at the situation through fresh eyes. It is testament to Shuang and Tiang’s skill that, for the most part, characters are distinctive enough to carry us with them each time a new voice takes over (although the flurry of shifts in the final section teeters on the edge of bewildering).
I suspect Harman is right that anglophone publishers will continue to search in vain for a Chinese book that fits their brief for a great crime novel. Rouge Street is more interesting than that: inventive, irreverent, daring and fresh, it contains far more satisfying surprises than the familiar twist at the end.
Rouge Street by Shuang Xuetao, translated from the Chinese by Jeremy Tiang (Metropolitan Books, 2022)