The narrator of this novel Fang Yan and his pals are about the closest thing we’re going
to get to Chinese beatniks. They spend most of their time playing poker,
trying to pick up girls, looking for thrills. How they survive remains
mysterious; by gambling, it’s hinted.
When Fang finds himself the chief suspect in a murder that took place ten
years ago, he tries not to let it prick his mood. The problem is that his
memory is so poor he can’t remember what he was doing in the week the cops
are so interested in. Who knows, he might even have killed his old sidekick
Gao Yang and forgotten about it.
As he careers round Beijing, having sex and drinking beer, he looks up the
rest of the gang he used to hang out with. Perhaps they can enlighten him on
his whereabouts, or which girl he was with. The trouble is, the more he
hears, the more he begins to wonder about himself. His own frazzled memories
are of innocent celebrations in the aftermath of demobilisation. But where
did they get their money from? And what’s all this stuff about robbing hotels?
Fang’s investigations lead him to a guesthouse where they stayed for two
weeks, and as he remembers what happened there day by day, the truth of a
lifestyle long lost from view begins to emerge.
Wang Shuo is a clever writer and, fittingly, what starts off as a crime
novel mutates into something else in the final pages: a sympathetic
portrayal of a bunch of Beijing misfits. The novel doesn’t tell us who
committed the murder, but we see that this is irrelevant: it’s obviously not
Fang, he’s far too nice. His old buddies turn out to have been a bunch of
petty criminals, stealing from rich tourists to ‘pay for thrills’, but they
are cast in a forgiving light: they were young at the time; how else could
they have got a taste of the good life when their demob pay would only have
lasted three days? From what Fang recalls, it seems he didn’t participate in
their activities, but even if he had (and the novel is keen to emphasise
that we are only hearing about part of the period) the implication is that
it would hardly have been a crime.
While this novel has a good deal going for it – great plot, witty narrator,
sometimes hilarious dialogue – the middle section lacks grip. The reader is
expected to keep far too many significant details in mind, and the narrative
becomes more fragmentary, less coherent. It becomes wearying. Overall then,
it’s a qualified success, disappointing given its promise, but by the same
token encouraging for the next one.
Reviewed by Jon Haynes