Monday, July 28, 2014

A Quick Run Through Running through Beijing

Every now and then I read a book and want to dispense with blogging and write something quick like, “Just read the book, you’ll enjoy it.” That’s how I feel about Xu Zechen’s Running through Beijing, which I read in Eric Abrahamsen’s translation from the Chinese: the novel offers a wonderfully concise portrayal of purveyors of false identities and DVDs, all told with gentle humor and atmospheric details that feel real and precise rather than showoffy or gratuitous.

Running Through Beijing by Xu ZechenRunning through Beijing begins when a man, Dunhuang, is released from prison into the fine grit of a dust storm. He makes his way back to Beijing after serving three months for selling fake IDs and has little other than his resolve to earn money so he can set his partner, Bao Ding, who took the fall, free from a longer sentence. Soon after arriving in the city, Dunhuang meets a DVD seller, Kuang Xia, and they quickly fall into a romance of sorts—she’s separated (kind of) from her DVD supplier, Kuang Shan—that gets off to an auspicious start when Dunhuang scams the owners of a hotpot restaurant where they go to eat and drink.

On many levels, Running through Beijing doesn’t feel particularly remarkable: it simply tells the story of Dunhuang’s romances and business dealings, describing his trips around town on a bicycle (which is stolen in more ways than one) and, of course, running. What’s interesting is the texture of the novel, by which I mean more than just the elements—the basement bunk and backyard shed Dunhuang rents as housing, or the shadow economy and markets for various types of pirated goods—that are obviously foreign for an American reader like me who has never been to China. There is all that dust and blurriness, there is the feeling of “a year of bad omens” because everyone’s in jail, and there are all the movies Dunhuang sells and even begins to watch. Among them, of course, are The Bicycle Thief and Run, Lola, Run. It’s no wonder Two Lines Press made a movie card to send with the book. The online DVD playlist lacks a Bollywoodesque cover so isn’t as stylish but it does have links to video.

What appealed to me most in Running through Beijing, though, might be its most universal layer: continuums of fake and real. Is the love real or only for convenience? What about the friendships? The IDs are fake, and so are the DVDs, which all contain movies that imitate life (or maybe vice versa?). Then there are the porn DVDs, which show what, exactly? There are also loyalties, particularly Dunhuang’s for Bao Ding, who hardly seems to care. And we have the characters’ identities, too, the stuff not printed on official (or pirated) cards. Here’s a brief passage from when Dunhuang passes himself off as a doctoral student in film while he’s living in the basement. One of his roommates is a philosopher, and Dunhuang gets nervous:
It was all a big lie, for one thing. For another, of all the academic subjects that hinged on the Chinese language, philosophy was the one he respected the most. That instinctual reverence began while he was studying at his miserable vocational school. He had no idea how you did philosophy. It was mystery upon mystery; you couldn’t see it or touch it, and as far as he was concerned it was no different from witchcraft or sorcery.
Finally, I thought Eric Ambrahamsen’s translation read nicely, with crisp, clear dialogue, and that gentle humor I mentioned earlier. Best of all, he finds nice momentum in short sentences to keep the narrative running along, something that’s not always easy.

Disclaimers: I bought Running through Beijing under a Two Lines Press subscription plan. I published one of my first translations (a story by Margarita Khemlin) with Two Lines a few years ago, in the Counterfeits issue of their “World Writing in Translation” series. Two Lines subscriptions, by the way, are very affordable!

Up Next: My trip back to the Middle Ages begins with John L’Heureux’s art-heavy The Medici Boy and then, OMG, there’s Erika Johansen’s schlockily sociological The Queen of the Tearling, which attempts, not very successfully, to give dystopia a medieval feel with contemporary sensibilities.

Saturday, July 5, 2014

It’s a Mystery: Three to Keep Me Guessing

Hmm, three detective novels in a row is something of a record for me: it’s a mystery in and of itself that I pulled the books off the shelves that way. Here’s a post with all three, to get caught up…

I’ve had a soft spot for detective Hank Palace, the narrator of Ben H. Winters’s World of Trouble, ever since I read The Last Policeman (previous post), the first novel in a trilogy that ends with World of Trouble. Palace is a down-to-earth, loyal guy who continues investigating crimes despite the fact that an asteroid is hurtling toward earth and about to destroy everything. In World of Trouble, Palace and his ailing dog, Houdini, have come to Ohio to find Palace’s sister, who’s disappeared. Disappearances aren’t unusual in these fictional end days: people have been going “bucket list” for ages but Palace knows something bigger is amiss. There are lots of plot threads to pull in World of Trouble: an attempted murder, a search for a concrete worker, and, of course, Palace’s relationship with his family, ethics, and impending demise. Winters finds a near-perfect balance of humor, grieving, and realism, and he finishes the book in what I think must be the best possible way. Yes, I laughed and I cried, and [mild spoiler] I love the fact that Palace remains true to himself and the social compact ‘til the end. He doesn’t even yell “Police!” near the end of the book, “because I’m not a policeman anymore, I haven’t been for some time now.”

Commissioner Nicolas Le Floch, the investigator in Jean-François Parot’s The Man with the Lead Stomach, the second book in a series, isn’t quite as endearing or imperiled as Palace but this historical detective novel set in 1761 France made for worthy entertainment. I admit I was more interested in atmosphere than the mystery itself, which involves the rather grisly murder of a courtier’s son. That murder leads to another. Of course. But about that atmosphere: it’s a nice change of pace when there are no fingerprints taken, the investigator travels by horse-drawn carriage, and the detective drinks chocolate for breakfast and lots of wine with his meals, some of which are described in detail, this being a translation from the French. (I opened the book randomly to a page where a cook describes how to cut a rabbit for making pâté…) There are also smells in this early passage describing theatergoers: “There was a disconcerting contrast between their luxurious clothes, and the foul-smelling remnants of wax, earth and horse droppings with which they were soiled.” Michael Glencross’s translation from the French was particularly fun to read because it had some obscure words and terms in common with the book I was working on—this was a perfect way to see them in action in another setting and translated from another language.

Finally, a second book that originated in French: Joël Dicker’s The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair, which I read in Sam Taylor’s translation of La Vérité sur l’affaire Harry Quebert. The truth about The Truth is that it’s an unholy mess, a blend of a writer coming of age (well, in a sense, two writers coming of age), a satire of the publishing industry, and a murder mystery, with whiffs of Peyton Place and Lolita tossed in. In any case, Marcus (“The Magnificent”) Goldman, a blocked writer who was the toast of New York a year or so ago, comes to the aid of his former writing teacher, Harry Quebert, after Quebert, author of a much-praised novel, is accused of killing a teenage girl, Nola Kellergan, back in 1975; the accusation comes after Kellergan’s body is unearthed in Quebert’s seaside yard nearly twenty years after her disappearance. Quebert lives in Somerset, New Hampshire, so Goldman is dealing with all sorts of small-town relationships, oddballs, and secrets as he interviews townspeople in his quest to free Quebert. Dicker throws in everything from the 1998 ice storm that “paralyzed” lots of New England to the first Obama presidential campaign to lots of seagulls in what feel like attempts to create verisimilitude and capture a time but The Truth is just too filled with extraneous pages, clichéd dialogue, and bits and pieces of disparate genres to come together as a full-fledged novel. Even so, damn it, the book is moderately entertaining and I did read every page. Part of the reason was probably inordinate curiosity after hearing Dicker and his editor from Penguin, John Siciliano, speak at BookExpo America in late May… but I think I’m even more curious to see how writers—not just Dicker but also Winters and Parot—adapt and adjust the detective genre’s typical casts, aesthetics, and plot turns to fit their interests and readers. For a very detailed account of The Truth, check out The Complete Review, here.

Disclaimers: I received review copies of all three books, thank you to the publishers and/or publicists: Eric Smith of Quirk Books for World of Trouble, which will be officially released on July 15; Meryl Zegarek Public Relations for The Man with the Lead Stomach, which was published by Gallic Books; and the nice man at the Penguin booth at BEA, who pointed me to a finished copy of The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair masquerading as a galley. Thank you to all!

Up Next: Xu Zechen’s Running through Beijing.