Three books set in Chengdu: Death Notice and Fate, by Zhao Haohui; and Leave Me Alone, by Murong Xuecun

I will be in Chengdu next week for the 81st World Science Fiction Convention, and have looked for some contemporary Chinese fiction set there. (Having been deeply unimpressed by a couple of American memoirs.) There’s not a lot available in English, but there is more than nothing.

Death Notice and Fate, by Zhao Haohui, are the first two volumes in a trilogy, featuring the Chengdu Criminal Police and a ruthless serial killer (or killers). The second paragraph of the third chapter (in the original Chinese) of Death Notice is:

郑郝明两年前在市里买了一套商品房,把家人都搬入新房之后,原来公安局分给他的住宿楼便空了下来。不过这老屋子也没有完全闲置,有时候办案晚了,郑郝明便会回到这里休息过夜,一是周围的同事多,联络啊、行动啊都方便;同时也免得打搅到早已熟睡的妻女。后来久而久之,这老屋子就有点儿成为他的“第二办公室”了。Two years prior, Zheng had moved his family out of police housing to a quiet new apartment far from the tumult of downtown Chengdu. Rather than let the aging police apartment lie idle and unused, Zheng still spent nights there whenever he worked overtime. It allowed him to keep in touch with colleagues, and helped to avoid disturbing his sleeping wife and daughter. He called it his second office.
translated by Zac Haluza

Here’s the second paragraph of the third chapter of Fate. To my surprise, I found that the original text has a bit more characterisation in it, which did not make it into the published translation.

罗飞神色淡定,从他脸上很难看出心中的情绪,只是那双眼睛微微有些发红,显然这是因为熬夜而造成的疲惫效果。他将一份档案袋推到了宋局长面前,在后者拆取档案的同时汇报道:“昨天下午,一名陌生男子伪装身份闯入了刑侦档案室,在他复印带走的十多份档案资料中,这一份正是他真正的目的所在。从他的行为方式以及留下的仿宋体签名来看,我们相信这个男子就是Eumenides。”Captain Pei passed a folder to the commissioner.
‘An unidentified man gained access to our PSB archives yesterday afternoon while masquerading as an officer. He made copies of thirteen files, but this was the one he wanted. From his behaviour and his signature, I’m confident that this man is Eumenides.’
Captain Pei’s expression was calm, and it was difficult to see the emotions in his heart from his face, except that his eyes were slightly red, which was obviously the effect of fatigue caused by staying up late. He pushed a folder in front of Commissioner Song, and while the latter was unpacking the file, he reported: “Yesterday afternoon, a strange man disguised his identity and broke into the criminal investigation archives room. He copied and took away more than ten files, but this one was his real purpose. Judging from his behavior and his signature, we believe that this man is Eumenides.”
OriginalZac Haluza translationMy translation

I have to be honest; I didn’t get a strong sense of Chengdu from these two. There is a certain genre about killers who are superbly able to outwit the forces of law and order – The Silence of the Lambs is the most obvious, but I also recently read Thirteen by Steve Cavanaugh – and there were several scenes where I found it very difficult to suspend my disbelief – though a couple of these are in fact fairly well grounded in local scenery, a murder carried out in full view of the police in front of the Deye Building in Citizens’ Square, and another historical gruesome death at Mount Twin Deer Park, none of which are locations that I have been able to identify on the map. The series is a good enough example of its kind, the tensions between cops from the city and periphery, university graduates and non-graduates, and men and women, all well portrayed against a somewhat implausible backdrop; the means and motivation of their opposition remaining unclear. The situation is sufficiently generic that the first book was adapted without difficulty into a film made and set in Hong Kong, released (after much delay) earlier this year. You can get the two books here and here.

Leave Me Alone, by Murong Xuecun, is a different matter. The second paragraph of its third chapter is:

听得我一阵腻歪,知道这都是董胖子的把戏,这厮肯定跑到太监面前装乖孙子,笔记本摊在腿上,脖子九十度向前梗起,一脸肥胖的微笑,汇报完思想动态,再顺便踢我个撩阴腿,“陈重嘛,业务能力强,但和同事工作配合不太好。”我扭头看看他,这厮很风骚地穿一条背带裤,正伏在桌上记笔记。我暗暗骂了一句,王八蛋,心想这也值得你往本子上记?I had an ominous hunch that this was Fatty Dong’s trickery.
That prat had naturally rushed to sit at the front with the eunuch from Head Office. He looked like an attentive grandson with his notebook spread on his knee, his fat face one big smile. When the time came to make his own report, he gave me another subtle jab in passing: ‘Manager Chen, your skills are great, but you’re not such a good team player.’ I looked at him: the arsehole was wearing an elegant pair of braces, and was bent over writing something in his notebook. I cursed him silently: Are those farts really worth writing down?
translated by Harvey Thomlinson

The novel’s title in Chinese is “Chengdu, Forget Me Tonight“. It is a dark and steamy story of a car salesman who is cheating on his wife with his best friend’s fiancee, among others, and viciously jockeying for position with his colleagues. It was originally published on the online bulletin board of the company where the author worked as, er, a car salesman. Edited to add: The author read this review and contacted me to say that actually he was in HR, not sales, but also that the protagonist was based on a real colleague.

It’s brutally honest self-observation by the main character; not quite Joyce or Salinger, but a gripping window into a society which is not really so very different from ours. Although I suppose a lot of the action could happen anywhere, the setting feels firmly rooted in the sordid suburbs and old-fashioned rural periphery of Chengdu, and the couple of locations that I checked out did seem to really exist. It’s a shame that the protagonist is such an asshole, but of course that is really the point. You can get it here.

The author has since been exiled from China for writing about state corruption and the mishandling of the COVID-19 pandemic. I think we’ll hear more of him in the future.

An interesting feature of all three of these books is the ubiquitous internet bulletin-board, which can be either public or internal to a company or organisation. Zhao Haohui’s Captain Pei reflects on the impact on public discourse:

After all, China was changing. Citizens had more options for obtaining information and were more open-minded than ever. The best way to steer public opinion would be to provide people with more information and let them draw their own conclusions.

Fate, Chapter 13

Radical stuff.