Tuesday, April 14, 2009

The World Beyond Our Borders: Mysteries set in Gaza and Shanghai

I read two mystery novels this past week which opened a window onto the people and the politics of Gaza and Shanghai. I’ll let the writers speak for themselves.

A Grave in Gaza
Matt Beynon Rees says in his blog that he cried as he wrote A Grave in Gaza: “I used to think that meant I was a damned good writer. Now I know it was my trauma, collected over a decade of monthly visits to Gaza, seeping onto the page. I hope that makes it a better novel. I know it saved me from the creeping depression and sudden fear that sometimes gripped me when my mind would return to memories of burned bodies, scattered body parts, angry people who wanted to hurt me, the sound of bullets nearby from an unseen gun. It helped me understand what kind of man I really was.”

Rees has retired from journalism to write mystery novels, but he has remained in Jerusalem. He explains why: “News blots out real life. It makes Israelis and Palestinians seem like incomprehensible, bloodthirsty lunatics, ripping each other apart without cease. Living amongst them makes it clear that it’s the news that’s unreal, fashioned to quicken the pulse and shoot you up with adrenaline. By staying here, living a happy life among normal Palestinians and Israelis, I’ve beaten the bad dreams and the sudden rages. They exist only in a decade of dog-eared notebooks on my bottom shelf.

Fiction is able to put across the true characteristics of my Palestinian friends--like Zakaria’s courtly hospitality--in a way that’s largely beyond journalism, with its headline focus on the literally explosive. I’ve filled my novels with those characteristics, because they remind me that the times when I felt threatened by violence were unnatural. They belong only to nightmares and they aren’t real any more.I want to give my readers the true emotional experience of being among people who live in extreme situations, with all its traumas, but mostly its pleasures. For entertainment--sure, these are novels, not non-fiction tomes to be crammed down like cod-liver oil because they’re good for you. But also because if there’s a point to knowing about the world beyond our borders, it’s to see into the minds of other men and thus to better understand ourselves. Sometimes it might even save us from ourselves.”

The Mao Case
When Qiu Xiaolong was a child, he was moved by Mao’s romantic poetry. However, his research as an adult showed that Mao was a bigamist who did nothing to rescue his wife during a siege that ended in her execution. “Mao was cold-blooded—not merely to his women. With his approval, Liu Shaoqi, Chairman of the People’s Republic of China, was killed like a naked, nameless rat in secret prison without trial or medical treatment. Liu was one of millions and millions of victims in the Party struggles and political movements launched by Mao.”

In the past few years, he notes revived interest in Mao with the opening of Mao restaurants, the distribution of Mao knick-knacks and souvenirs and tourists waiting in long lines to view Mao’s mummy in its glass coffin.

Qiu Xiaolong dedicates The Mao Case to “the people who suffered under Mao." He says, “Like me, Chen makes no claim to being a historian, but for his job, he has to look into something sealed in official Chinese history archives—into the closet of horror: Mao.”

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