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Qiu Xiaolong's "Years of Red Dust: Stories of Shanghai"

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By Gaiutra Bahadur
Thursday, November 4, 2010

YEARS OF RED DUST

Stories of Shanghai

By Qiu Xiaolong

St. Martin's. 227 pp. $24.99

It just so happened that Qiu Xiaolong was in St. Louis when the Chinese government massacred pro-democracy demonstrators in Tiananmen Square in 1989. A T.S. Eliot translator, Qiu had won a grant to conduct research at Washington University, founded by Eliot's grandfather. Because of that chance timing, his life diverted dramatically. Publicly sympathetic to the protesters, Qiu never made it back to China, except as a visitor. Instead, he became a U.S. citizen and a novelist in English, the author of a popular mystery series about a Shanghai police detective named Inspector Chen.

Outcomes like his own, the accidental kind, befall many of the characters in "Years of Red Dust," Qiu's witty, evocative book of interrelated short stories just published in English. (The collection is already a bestseller in France and Germany.) The contingency of history threads through the tales, which Qiu presents as the evening talk among residents of a lane in Shanghai from the communist takeover in 1949 to 2005.

In one story, a political prisoner freed shortly after Mao's Cultural Revolution wanders into a bookstore to find copies of the tome that landed him in jail -- selling for 315 times the original cost. He sits under a poster of a girl in a bikini. It's a changed world, as Qiu's characters frequently observe: A counterrevolutionary has been restored to society and freedom, and socialist values have been revised to admit price markups and bikini girls.

This ex-prisoner, Jiang Xiaoming, had written about -- appropriately enough -- the contingency of history. His rehabilitated book gives an account of a Jing Dynasty emperor who had so many concubines that he let a goat decide which one he would sleep with each night. But the goat always stopped at the 311th concubine's door -- not because she was beautiful or because it was Heaven's will, as the emperor believed. The concubine had sprinkled saltwater on her doorstep, which the animal stooped to lick, altering bloodlines of succession and the course of history. Qiu's scholar concludes: "The moral is clear: a goat is a goat."

And so it would seem for the residents of Red Dust Lane, who meet with ironic reversals of fate as China evolves from communism to a curious accommodation with capitalism. An expensive, foreign cap wins a university professor both a girlfriend and tenure. A socialist stalwart who marches through the lane with a bullhorn, denouncing "class enemies," ends up working for petty cash at a privately run snack shop. A Korean War nurse, elevated to martyrdom when thought dead, returns to the lane, alive after all, to suspicion and loneliness. Qiu presents their turns of fortune dryly, with an appreciation for the absurd and a sense, too, for when the absurd is also truly tragic.

The author's Inspector Chen mysteries have been censored in China. No mere police procedurals, they wriggle inside and beneath Shanghai, observing the underground places where members of the Chinese mafia mingle with politicians. I can't say how "Years of Red Dust" will fare with the censors. The government's effort to silence Liu Xiaobo, the winner of this year's Nobel Peace Prize, doesn't give much reason for optimism.

Corrupt party cadres appear in the margins of "Years of Red Dust." And, as with the historian who got too clever with the Jing Dynasty goat, Qiu's sharp eye for the arbitrary could be interpreted as an indirect challenge to the regime. If fortune can be random in his stories, so can the government. An agent of the state elevates a factory worker into a bard of the common man, literally putting a poem in his mouth, after stumbling across him on his lunch break. A factory manager is forced to wear a blackboard with his name crossed out, a common way to shame class enemies during the Cultural Revolution. Blackboards featured as part of the landscape of state control, and they feature in Qiu's book too. Each story begins with a newsletter, chalked on a blackboard at the entrance to Red Dust Lane, giving the party line on events in the People's Republic during the year the story is set. These bits of propaganda serve as a foil for the honesty of Qiu's tales.

But once past his critique of the Cultural Revolution, which ended in 1976, Qiu focuses more on the moral compromises wrought by China's growing materialism than on the government's resistance to political change. He portrays -- without sentimentality -- the ordinary man adrift in a freer market, not the hero fighting for free expression.

Bahadur is at work on a nonfiction book, "Coolie Woman."


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