By Patrick Anderson,
whose e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org
Monday, December 29, 2008
By Simon Lewis
Scribner. 375 pp. $25
Simon Lewis's offbeat and delightful novel "Bad Traffic" tells of two men from China who make their separate ways to England, where they enter a world of hurt.
The first, Police Inspector Ma Jian, is a tough cop who keeps mistresses, takes bribes, served as a soldier and a Red Guard in his youth, and accidentally killed his wife while driving drunk. He has a daughter, a flighty girl named Wei Wei, with whom he doesn't get along. With his encouragement she's studying at Leeds University in England. One night, as Jian is seducing a young woman in his apartment, a frightened Wei Wei calls and cries, "Dad, help me, help me," before the line goes dead. Jian then does what a father must: He boards a plane for England the next day, despite knowing no one there and speaking not a word of English.
Our other hero, 19-year-old Ding Ming, is first seen lying "in a fetal position, inside a sealed box" in a container truck. His bride, Little Ye, is in another box nearby. They and others have survived a three-month trip from China to England. Ding Ming is a peasant but an ambitious one. He managed to learn some English and hoped to become a teacher, but the scholarship he sought went to someone with political connections. At that point, Ding Ming and Little Ye each agreed to pay $20,000 from future earnings to smugglers who would take them to England -- where, they were assured, lives of wealth and comfort awaited them. The possibility that he would be forced into slavery and his wife into prostitution never entered Ding Ming's innocent head.
Inspector Jian arrives at Leeds University, where he can communicate with only a few students who speak Mandarin Chinese. He learns that Wei Wei dropped out of school several months earlier and had been lying to him when she called and talked about classes and grades. He traces her to a Chinese restaurant where she worked as a waitress and learns that she had been dating a shady Chinese man called Black Fort. When Jian uncovers evidence that suggests Black Fort has murdered Wei Wei, he vows to have his revenge.
Ding Ming, meanwhile, has been separated from his wife, but he's told she will have a nice job picking flowers. The traffickers promise that he can call her, but the call never happens. It develops that Black Fort is the ringleader of the traffickers. Inevitably, the vengeful policeman and the naive peasant join forces. Ding Ming needs Jian because the policeman is a man of action, and Jian needs Ding Ming because the peasant speaks English. All the action of the novel takes place in two highly eventful, violent days.
Lewis's narrative is fast-moving and flawless. His story dances between the comedy of cultural confusion and the tragedy of broken lives and broken dreams. The cultural difficulties can be lighthearted when they concern the Chinese men's difficulties with Western food, toilets and rules ("You can't smoke in here." "What? This is a restaurant"); or they can be deadly serious, as when one of the English traffickers pressures Ding Ming for sexual favors. The young Chinese man is horrified but also fearful that he is showing his ignorance of Western ways: "It occurred to him that perhaps what had been asked for was a thing of no consequence in this country, something men did for each other often and with enthusiasm, something that was more than paid for by the gift of the cigarette. Perhaps it was a token of friendship and he had caused insult by refusing."
Both lead characters are beautifully drawn: Ding Ming in his perfect innocence; Jian as an all-too-knowing warrior, a modern samurai. Shortly before the novel's exciting climax, Jian tells Ding Ming: "Hide. When I'm sure I've killed them all, I'll come back to the car and shout your name." It has been Jian's habit, since his days as a Red Guard, to recite the sayings of Chairman Mao as he goes into battle. Thus: "He watched the peasant scuttle forlornly away. He rubbed earth on his face and over the hammer, so that they didn't shine, and put the hooded top over his football shirt and pulled the hood up. He mumbled 'surmount every difficulty to win victory,' and set off down the track."
Simon Lewis was born in Wales, raised in Scotland and first gained attention as a travel writer. He now divides his time between London and Asia, and his understanding of both East and West animates this highly original story. A number of exceptionally literate thrillers have arrived this year from abroad, including Stieg Larsson's "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo," Jonathan Barnes's "The Somnambulist," Frank Tallis's "Vienna Blood" and Michael Cox's "The Glass of Time." Lewis's "Bad Traffic" ranks with the best of them. It's said to be the first in a series about Inspector Jian. My advice is to get in on the ground floor.