Book Recommendations from Jack

Tuesday Jul 02 2013
by Jack

One of the most compelling of the current crop of crime fiction set in Asia is the series – now reaching book number 9 – featuring Inspector Chen (now Chief Inspector Chen) of the Shanghai Police Department. A native of Shanghai now living in the United States, Qiu Xiaolong treads a fine line in his treatment of the current Chinese political scene.  His detective is no dissident, but rather a rising star in the Communist Party, a poet who has mastered the art of survival in the modern Chinese state without totally descending to the level of party hack. This outing, Enigma of China, pits Chen against an amorphous collection of bureaucrats eager to cover up the death, probably by murder, of a high Shanghai official who has gotten into trouble with the Internet “netizens” of Shanghai. In the course of his investigation, Chen learns a good deal about the Internet in China, has a discreet flirtation with a beautiful journalist, and enjoys several classic Chinese meals, carefully described in considerable detail. Warning: the ending of this novel is unusually cryptic, even for the Chinese.

In 1995 the Bumsted family spent a summer in Berlin, while Jack taught Canadian history at the Frei University of Berlin. The visit was one of the high points of our lives. Berlin in 1995 had not yet rationalized the dual cultural system of the two Germanies, so there were three opera companies, four symphony orchestras, and innumerable chamber music ensembles in operation, with incredibly inexpensive tickets readily available.  This was also the summer of the Wrapped Reichstag.  Some rationalization was in progress in Germany that summer, talked about in hushed tones in academic circles in Berlin.  This involved the purging of the educational system (schools and universities) of the former German Democratic Republic, eliminating all those faculty members who had supported the regime and taught the party line in the classroom. The carnage was apparently considerable, especially among historians and political scientists, who had been required to teach a particularly warped version of German history and politics. Whether those dismissed included individuals who were guilty of nothing more than loyalty to the GDR in which they were born was an open question, with many in the former West Germany insisting that support of the regime by definition was suspect, and membership in the Communist Party, which was essential to hold a teaching position, was self-incriminating. Since 1995 I have heard little about this wholesale purge in the former East Germany, but was reminded of it by Kevin Brophy’s The Berlin Crossing. The protagonist in this book is a 30 year old teacher of English literature in a local gymnasium (high school) in 1993. He is an unreconstructed and unapologetic citizen of the former GDR – he still drives a Brabant, the people’s car of the Republic – and not surprisingly, loses his job. He also loses his mother, who, before her death, sends him on a quest to search for information about his father, who died before he was born. This quest takes us back to 1963 and into John Le Carré territory, where we spend most of the novel. I would have preferred more about how Michael Ritter is going to cope with the realities of the new Germany and less about espionage in 1963, especially with all the echoes of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold the book introduces. But this is a thoughtful read which certainly raises the question of what happens to people like Michael, whose lives are turned upside down by political circumstances beyond their control.

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