The novelist is spending a couple of days in France to present his tenth book “Once upon a time Inspector Chen” (1), accompanied by a small volume offered by the publishers, “Once upon a time Qiu Xiaolong” (2). A very attractive set, well served by the translation by Adelaide Pralon, which brings us into the intimacy of the author and his hero, inspector Chen Cao.
– Chen Cao, how to become an inspector:
Qiu Xiaolong tells us ” the learning years of Chen, the circumstances that led him to become a police officer when he was planning for a translation job. At the heart of the novel, his first real investigation will be analysed. It comes together with chapters describing different sequences of his career … Inspector Chen, as all of us, has built his identity throughout his encounters and experiences … but these multiple perspectives end up with a complete picture of his personality. This is quite a personal book, where the lines between the character and the author are intentionally blurred. “
This first investigation by Chen reminds us of some of the topics of previous novels: poetry and his relationship with Ling, a pretty librarian who unfortunately is the daughter of a major key figure of the regime; gastronomy will allow Chen to identify the victim of a murder. Residents of the City of Red Dust in Shanghai, where the author spent his childhood, will help Chen to discover the murderer with cigarette butts called “Double Happiness”!
– Gastronomy and poetry:
Dr. Xia is the forensic, who, by the analysis of the last dinner, will allow Chen to identify the victim. We always enjoy reading the descriptions of beautiful Chinese dishes but, in Paris, we cannot be frustrated, as Qiu Xiaolong in Saint Louis in the United States, because the quality of restaurants, specially with Sichuan or Hunan cuisine, made remarkable progress.
This first investigation, as often, sometimes ends with a very famous poem like “The Zither brocade” (p.154) by Li Shangyin (812-858), the favorite of Chen and his mentor but also of Mao Zedong. A poet of extreme concision, one of the four great poets of the Tang Dynasty with Du Fu, Li Bo and Wang Wei.
This poem is beautifully translated by Yves Hervouet (3), who will need several pages of comments to help us understand the complexity of the text and who will ask the help of the academician François Cheng (p.90 to 97) (4) because “the instrument creates a serie of metaphors about the love life of the poet and his entire life” (p.115).
– The man and the poet:
Qiu Xiaolong points out in “a poet inspector” that Chen “wants to separate the man suffering and the poet who writes. In this he follows the tradition of classical Chinese poetry where love poems are interpreted as political allegories through the figure of the rejected lover as in the “Untitled” poems by Li Shanyin (p.151)(6):
Oh, last night’s star, last night’s wind,
west of the painted chamber, east of the cassia hall.
Lacking the soaring wings of a colourful phoenix,
our hearts speak through the magic rhinoceros horn.
Here, the game of the palm-hidden hook
between the seats, the spring wine warm,
the candle light red, and the game
of the napkin-covered surprise in groups.
Alas,at the sound of the drum,
I have to ride to my office,
like a tumbleweed turning
and turning around the imperial library.
– Short stories from the Red Dust:
The last chapters of “Once upon a time Inspector Chen” are practically short stories, unrelated to the biography of Chen and that could be included in one of the two volumes of “The Red Dust” (5), one of his works I prefer.
This old Shanghai neighborhood is a vivid memory for the author: during the summer, people gather for the evening conversation, commenting the news, telling stories. At the entrance of the area, a blackboard summarizes the most significant events. One short story per year as from 1949 and the proclamation of the People’s Republic, and each year, the short story is accompanied by a newsletter on the blackboard.
The themes are varied: historical events, anecdotes and even texts that seem autobiographical, such as a set of three short stories “As with the river water” and the meeting with a girl studying English in the park of the Bund in Shanghai, as mentioned by the author (p.205) in his conclusion.
These are typical neighborhoods with their narrow lanes (Lilong) and the architecture of the Shikumen houses, built in series in the 1900 in pink brick with gray molded lintels.
– A lost friend, Lu Tonghao, “the overseas Chinese”:
Finally, Qiu Xiaolong tells the story of a friend that he lost; a true story that haunts him. Lu passed him the virus of books and the passion for gastronomy. We welcome the inventiveness of the two friends to find books or to use in the best way their small savings to taste a maximum of different dishes.
Lu leaves for Anhui as “educated youth” while a bronchitis crisis allows Qiu Xiaolong to stay in Shanghai. Lu wants to succeed and defy fate while at the time, “people should function as bolts, screwed to the large state machine. A life existing only by and for the Party “(p.205).
The text recounts the years of study of Qiu Xiaolong, his entry in 1977 at University in Shanghai and Beijing and his first years as a translator and poet. He continues to see Lu until he left for St. Louis in 1988. In 1996, he returned to Shanghai; the city has changed so much that he cannot find again the Lu who was his friend and has become a recurring character … in the investigations of Inspector Chen.
– The poems by inspector Chen:
In the small volume ” Once upon a time Qiu Xiaolong” we find both the author’s biography, an excellent interview and 28 poems by inspector Chen. These poems, introduced in details, are often unpublished; others are fully or partly included in the novels. Now we can read in French poems of Chen!
Qiu Xiaolong was already a famous poet, member of the Writers Union, before leaving Shanghai. He has published in English in 2009 a collection of his poems “Lines around China” (7) either new or much older and which had already been published in Chinese.
He has worked hard to publicize Chinese classical poetry with translations for the general public and illustrated with traditional paintings including a book (6) which was celebrated at the Shanghai World Expo in 2010. This book is not easily available but one can find on www.mountainsongs.net some of his English translations.
(1) Qiu Xiaolong, “Once upon a time Inspector Chen,” translated into French by Adelaide Pralon, Liana Levi, 2016, 240 pages.
(2) Qiu Xiaolong, ” Once upon a time Qiu Xiaolong” portrait of the author and 28 poems by inspector Chen. Offered by the publishers, 92 pages, 2016.
(3) Yves Hervouet, “Hundred Poems of Li Shangyin (812-858)” translated into French. Boccard Publishing, 1995. 260 pages.
(4) Francois Cheng, “The Chinese poetic writing.” Le Seuil, 1977 (new release 1996), 260 pages.
(5) Qiu Xiaolong, “City of Red Dust”, translated into French by Fonchita Gonzales Battle. Liana Levi, Piccolo, 2008, 220 pages and “Short stories from the Red Dust”, translated by Adelaide Pralon, Piccolo, 2013, 220 pages.
(6) 100 Classic Chinese Poems, translated by Qiu Xiaolong. East China Normal University Press, 2010, 240 pages.
(7) Qiu Xiaolong, “Lines around China,” Neshui Press 2008.