Xiaobai's new book is a dramatic novel in praise of Shanghai's concessions, dripping with historical details and vivid descriptions. Zhang Kun reports.
Shanghai in the 1930s has been a favorite setting for movies and novels at home and abroad. The latest endeavor to return attention to this city is Concessions by the Chinese author Xiaobai, about a half-French half-Chinese photographer who is entangled with a Jewish gunrunner, a terrorist group and the police.
This is the second full-length novel from Xiaobai, who writes under this penname and does not want to reveal his real identity. Since the story was published in the literary bi-monthly Harvest and later published as a book by People's Literature Publishing House, critics have been praising it. A domestic filmmaker has offered to adapt the novel for the big screen.
"Xiaobai has done something totally different," says Feng Tao, a book editor and critic in Shanghai. "He didn't write about the 1930s and the concessions as background for his story - they are the subjects of his writing. He's writing in the tradition of Honore de Balzac."
"Modern history studies have always wanted to break through the bottleneck of historical narration, trying to represent the sounds, smells, ambience, and feelings of the past. I think the novel might be a better instrument to deal with this," Xiaobai says.
From vegetable leaves floating in the harbor to the smell of horse dung on the racecourse, the author succeeds with vivid details and descriptions.
"I've always been concerned about placing an imaginary incident in a particular time and space. If I'm to write about an assassin, I'll have to imagine the density of population on the block, height of the buildings, control of the time and distance, and even how clear the air is," he says.
Xiaobai, 42, says most of the concessions remained unchanged until the late 1980s. Even now, Astor House (also known as Richard's Hotel, the first modern hotel in Shanghai, built in 1846) retains the old floor, reminding Xiaobai of his old shikumen house in Shanghai.
"Ever since Shanghai became an open harbor in the 1840s, there existed in the city a different lifestyle in the dark, completely different from that of the regular citizens' daily lives. You could describe it as heart throbbing, or legendary," he says.
Shanghai was known as an "adventurers' paradise" in the 1930s. "True adventurers always go for the risk itself, and all the other profit is supplementary. That's the very origin of the city's vitality. But now the quality is all gone - formatted and institutionalized," he says.
In his novel, the protagonist Weiss Xue finds his Russian jewel-dealer girlfriend Theresa is selling weapons to gangsters and assassins, and a woman he happened to take to the pictures is involved in murder. Hired by the French police, Xue becomes involved in the conspiracy and takes a key role in the hijacking of an armored car. What he later chooses to reveal or cover up will decide the future of the concessions.
The novel portrays a kaleidoscope of characters and scenes in the concessions. People from all kinds of backgrounds, from various parts of the world, come to try their luck in Shanghai: Expats bored of life at home, an American who tries to erase his fingerprints and thereby his criminal record, a Korean terrorist trained in Russia and much more.
The stories and characters are all fictional, but the historical background and details - from the names of the streets, to the shape of a table lantern - are factual. The author has also added copious footnotes, providing more related information.
The way Xiaobai tells the story it is possible to get bogged down in historical details and vivid descriptions, thereby losing track of the storyline, but the author insists this is because he doesn't want to sacrifice detail for a fast read.
Xiaobai started writing five years ago. His first novel Game Point (Ju Dian), published recently, tells about a group of marginalized people in Shanghai plotting against each other over a 1 million yuan ($151,920) check in the 1980-90s, in the early years of China's reform and opening-up.
That's also when Xiaobai worked for international corporations, founded his own companies, and joined China's first group of voluntary movie translators, providing Chinese subtitles for pirated Western movies.
"It was purely for fun. Nobody got a penny from the work," he says. "Now I'm a player who enjoys reading, observing and thinking. I can live without the royalties from my writing.
"I'm fascinated by narration - how we always hide some information while we tell our stories. Truth is transient - what's past is past. All we have is 'narration'. Once we realize this, narration enters a combat with various versions of the 'truth'."
Xiaobai also worked as a picture editor with the Shanghai Translation Publishing House, including on the latest Chinese edition of American author and literary theorist Susan Sontag's On Photography.
"Images show all kinds of information, lost or neglected by text recording," Xiaobai says.
File photos featuring the concessions of 1930s' Shanghai, like the one above, offer inspiration for Xiaobai in his new book.