The Corpse Reader by Antonio Garrido (translated from the Spanish by Thomas Bunstead)

The Corpse Reader (another historical whodunnit in the same vein as The Hangman’s Daughter series) is published through Amazon Crossing, Amazon’s international/translation imprint.  I bought it because it was advertised on my Kindle as the “Daily Deal”.  Not so much for the low price – though I am surprised to admit that did play a small part – but mainly because it caught my eye as being something I’d actually enjoy reading (unlike say, Wedding Cakes and Big Mistakes which is currently polluting the screen of my device.  Porn would be less embarrassing). 

The hero of The Corpse Reader is Cí , a character based on Song Cí, the real life historical figure considered to be the father of forensic science.  He lived during the Tsong Dynasty (1206).  And so like The Mistress of the Art of Death series (do you see a pattern developing here?) by Ariana Franklin we have a Sherlock Holmes figure who pre-dates Doyles Sherlock and at the same time draws on the popular historic novel genre.  What gives The Corpse Reader an edge is that the author not only spent years researching the period, he also seems to have at knack for the tone/style of Chinese authors. When I compare The Corpse Reader to my (admittedly limited) experience with reading Chinese literature there are some cultural idiosyncracies that Garrido gets right.  The extreme deference to male authority figures, uncomfortable sexual relationships, the cut-throat political machinations of the Tsong Emperors Court.  And bad luck.  Chinese protagonists experience an inordinate amount of bad luck.  If it wasnt for bad luck, as the saying goes, theyd have no luck at all.

Cí shuddered at the sight of the City of Death.  In Wang’s view, to dock there was to engage in a dangerous game of chance.  The place was infested with outlaws, fugitives, traffickers, cardsharps – all of them ready to bleed dry any foreigner.  But as the barge approached, the wharf area, swathed in mist, looked abandoned, and the crews of the hundreds of docked boats were nowhere to be seen.  Even the water lapping against the boats’ sides seemed particularly gloomy.

“Be on your guard,” whispered Wang.

They glided toward the primary dock and began to see people running between the warehouses.  Cí looked down just as a dead body, surrounded by a bloody spew, floated past.  Other bodies floated nearby.

“The plague!” cried Ze.

Wang nodded, and Third and Peach Blossom came and huddled next to Cí.  He tried to discern the shore, but the mist was too thick.

“We’ll go downstream,” Wang said.  “You,” he added, addressing Peach Blossom, “grab a pole and help.”

Instead of doing as she was told, Peach Blossom grabbed Third and made to throw her into the water.  Third struggled hard and began to cry.  The prostitute’s face had become a wicked mask.

“The money!” she shouted.  “Give me the money or I swear I’ll throw her in!”

Cí is a lightning rod for bad luck.  But like a lightning rod all his bad luck and misfortune deflects onto those around him.  After tragedy strikes his family and forces him to become of fugitive from the law Ci journeys to the capital determined to find a way to resume his studies at University.  A series of misadventures occur  Eventually our young hero finds himself, and his extraordinary powers of observation, at the service of the Emperor.  He is commanded to solve a  series of murders connected to the Court .  In a situation he cannot win, surrounded by people he dare not trust, Cis struggles to attain his dreams.  You struggle with him.  Which makes The Corpse Reader hard to put down.  

Im providing only the barest of outlines because Antonio Garrido has crafted a plot that challenges and surprises.  One that deserves to be read spoiler free.  And the translator, Thomas Bunstead, was partly responsible for one of my favorite books of 2012:  The Polish Boxer.   The Corpse Reader is an entirely different kind of book, story and setting.  Bunstead seems to view that as a chance to show his versatility, and I’ve no doubt that the tone/style I tried to describe earlier can be in part attributed to his skills as a translator.

Engaging characters, a mystery that keeps you guessing, a translated crime novel from somewhere other than Sweden  – The Corpse Reader is something different to add to your Summer Reading List.  Available for a limited time on the Kindle for $3.99.*

Publisher:  Amazon Crossing, Las Vegas (2013)
ISBN:  978 1 6121 8436 4

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*Disclaimer:  I’m not being paid by Amazon.  I just think that’s funny.

Boat to Redemption by Su Tong (Howard Goldblatt, translator)

If you’re unfamiliar with Chinese culture, Boat to Redemption can be both an intriguing and baffling book.  Set in Maoist China, Ku Wenxuan is the son of a martyr of the Revolution.  As such he’s lived a life of privilege – a comfy government job, a beautiful wife and a position of honor in the community.  Until, one day, his status is revoked.  The reason is never stated but the implication is he slept with one married woman too many.  His beautiful wife, a staunch party member who reads government propaganda over the radio, leaves him.  He loses his comfy job and is banished to a barge in the Sunnyside Fleet.  With him goes his son, nicknamed Kongpi*, who is the book’s narrator and protagonist.

* People may not know that kongpi is a Milltown slang term that dates back hundreds of years.  It sounds vulgar and easy to understand, but in fact it has a profound meaning that incorporates both kong, or ’empty’, and pi, or ‘ass’.  Placed together, the term is emptier than empty and stinkier than ass.

Boat to Redemption reads like a confession as Kongpi describes life as his father’s son.  The narrative voice is stripped clean of all artifice – brutally, awkwardly, uncomfortably honest.  He hides absolutely nothing.  Obsession, social awkwardness, embarrassing family dramas, constant erections…whole sections of this book could be struck out with a black magic marker and the letters “T.M.I.”  The boy is a screw-up.  Su Tong, in choosing Kongpi as his narrator, guarantees readers a clear understanding of the boy’s inner life.  Simultaneously, Kongpi is completely cognizant of how others see him.  In both cases it’s not an attractive picture.

There are two key events on which the plot of Boat to Redemption hangs. The first is the father’s fall from honor.  The second is the discovery of a foundling girl named Huixian by the Sunnyside Fleet.  Huixian, who eventually reaches the level of D-list celebrity in their small town, is the star of Kongpi’s erotic and chivalric fantasies.  And that’s about it for plot.  There’s not a lot of joy in Boat to Redemption, and I didn’t find much redemption either.  It’s a story about a small group of people who are frequently their own worst enemies.  Despite the excellent writing, the majority of the novel plods along with not much action or forward momentum until the last one hundred pages. Then we’re invited to take a front row seat and watch Kongpi’s life unravel.

Boat to Redemption is both a tragicomedy and an absurdist cautionary tale.  Kongpi is a passive victim of his heritage, his circumstances, his society.  His father teaches him that his sexual urges, his erections, are something to be ashamed of and controlled.  Ku is on constant alert against his son’s libido.  He means well, hoping only to keep Kongpi from repeating his mistakes.  Still it is a twisted relationship in which Kongpi remains a dutiful son – caring for and obeying his father without any significant rebellions until the end of the book, by which point he’s well into his 20’s.  It’s easy to imagine the man he’d be in today’s world: unemployed, no friends, living in his parent’s basement and spending all his time on the internet.

Is it significant that the social positions of all the novel’s main characters are impacted positively and negatively by government whim?  The Wenxuan family’s rise in status occured when the orphaned infant Ku was identified as the son of the martyr Deng Shaoxing (whose background story reads like it was manufactured by the political propaganda machine) because of a birthmark.  When that status is revoked father and son are “hung out” in the Sunnyside Fleet.  Kongpi’s mother loses her radio job and ends her career “hung out” in a government acting troupe touring mining towns.  The girl, Huixian, ascends to celebrity when she is chosen to portray a revolutionary hero on a float, and then plummets after she offends a government official.  She is “hung out” in a local barbershop where she quickly becomes a big fish in a small pond.  Even Milltown, the Sunnyside Fleet’s home port, has a boom period with the building of some vague government project and a bust when the project becomes obsolete.  Fortunes are constantly being made and unmade at the inscrutable whim of the Maoist government.  Yet, despite this, Su Tong doesn’t seem to have a political agenda.  An argument can be made that the characters are at much at fault as the system in which they live.  In the end, there are no heroes in Boat to Redemption. Neither are there villains.

Overall, this is a sad novel.  It includes plenty of episodes which I assume were meant to be comic and to lighten the mood in a slapstick, Keystone Cops kind of way.  In most cases I didn’t get the humor or, at best, found it juvenile.  But tragedy apparently needs no cultural filter.  The pathos of Konpi’s life hits home.  And as frustrating, pathetic and ridiculous as I found him, his father Ku & the girl Huixian, I never doubted their sincerity.  Their motivations, however misguided, read as authentic.   Their behaviors never felt manufactured for the purpose of plot.  Su Tong’s characters live and breathe.

Boat to Redemption won the 2009 Man Asian Literary Reward.  It’s author, Su Tong, was nominated for the 2011 Man Booker International Prize.

Publisher:  Overlook Press, New York (2011)
ISBN: 978 1 59020 672 0

The Adventures of Master Li & Number Ten Ox

Hotei from Hokusai School (LoC)

Most fantasy novels are variations on a theme.  A young lad, seemingly doomed to a life of menial labor, discovers himself to be a great magician and/or warrior. He and his trusted companions go on a dangerous quest, at the end of which they face the powerful villain who they eventually defeat. The young hero gets the girl and claims his rightful place in the heroic pantheon. These stories are almost without exception set in a swords & sorcery universe loosely based on medieval Europe. Depending on the skill (and stamina) of the author they can be span as many as 13 books… or more. Think Robert Jordan, R.A. Salvatore and Raymond E. Feist.

Which is why the novels of Barry Hughart, set in “a China that never was”, are so refreshing. The series consists of just three books: Bridge of Birds (World Fantasy Award Winner), The Story of the Stone, and Eight Skilled Gentlemen.  Each book has a Chinese legend at its heart.  Each presents another chapter in the  ongoing adventures of the drunken sage Li Kao and his faithful peasant companion Number Ten Ox. Together the two wander the mythical landscape of 7th century China solving mysteries and cracking jokes. In real life, Hughart spent several years in China and often incorporates actual Chinese myths into his stories. (He also improvises a good deal, but does it with both skill and irreverence). The pages fly by, and it would take a stoic reader not to grin at the antics of characters that owe as much to The Princess Bride as they do to Sherlock Holmes.

Peking is not beautiful, the way big cities like Ch’ang-an or Loyang or Hangchow can be beautiful, but Fire Horse Park is lovely, particularly after a rain, when the air is filled with the scents of pine and poplars and willows and locust trees.  Master Li told me to head for the Eye of Tranquility, which is not my favorite place. It’s a small round lake set aside for old sinners who are grabbing for salvation at the last moment, and the conversation is not exactly inspiring.  For some reason the codgers confuse sanctity with senility, and the dialogue consists of  “goo-goo-goo,” accompanied by drooling and coy little glances toward Heaven.  I think they’re trying to prove how harmless they are.  They also follow the example of saintly Chiang Taikung and sit on the banks with fishing poles, carefully keeping the hooks three feet above the water.  (Chiang Taikung loved to fish but refused to take life, and he said that if a fish wanted to leap up and commit suicide, it was the fish’s business.)  Vendors do a brisk business in worms.  The old rogues buy bucketfuls and cast more coy glances toward Heaven as they ostentatiously set them free.  Frankly, the place gives me goose bumps.

Master Li had me circle the lake until he found what he wanted, and then he slid from my back and walked up beside an apprentice saint who strongly resembled a toad…  I politely picked up and moved a couple of codgers so Master Li and I could sit flanking the toad.

“Goo-goo-goo?” said the codgers.

“Goo-goo-goo,” I replied.

– from The Story of the Stone

These books aren’t always easy to find, so go in expecting a bit of a scavenger hunt.  I assure you, though, that it’s worth the effort.   I recently finished the final in the series – Eight Skilled Gentlemen – and am happy to say that it lives up the high standard of absurdity set by its predecessors.  When a flesh-eating zombie appears at an execution, Master Li and Number Ten Ox pay a visit to the Celestial Master in order to get to the bottom of things.  The story they are told far surpasses zombies in its strangeness and our two heroes are off on another investigation.  This time it will involve tea smugglers, malevolent mandarins, a pock-marked puppeteer, a lovely shamanka, and a psychotic epicurean… just to name a few in an exceedingly colorful cast of characters.   All leading to a dramatic final confrontation with the legend of the eight skilled gentlemen… and with their own destinies.  <cue cymbal crash!>

Books featuring Barry Hughart’s characters Master Li & Number Ten Ox (all published by Doubleday) include:
Bridge of Birds
The Story of The Stone
Eight Skilled Gentlemen

or

The Chronicles of Master Li & Number Ten Ox
Publisher:  Subterranean Press (2008)
ISBN:  978 1 596062 00 9

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