Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Beyond Borders? What About Writers Who Cross Them?

What happens when writers explore places, cultures or times especially remote from their own?

Robert van Gulik introduced Western readers to a crime literature that was fully fledged centuries before Lupin burgled, Dupin purloined, or Sherlock Holmes shot up. Yet he acknowledged that he had to choose carefully to find and translate a Chinese detective novel he felt would be accessible to Western readers, the eighteenth-century Dee Goong An, or Celebrated Cases of Judge Dee. The book differs in several respects from most of the old Chinese detective novels, and it's delightful (less supernatural emphasis, criminal's identity not revealed at the beginning).

When Van Gulik went on to write his own Judge Dee stories, he made further alterations to the Chinese tradition. He showed a personal, private side to Judge Dee that the old stories never did, for instance. Would he have opened himself to charges of arrogance or cultural imperialism if he did the same today? I think not. Van Gulik was a scholar, a diplomat and a linguist, and the explanatory material he included with each book is almost as much fun as the stories themselves. If you want a painless and entertaining way to learn about Tang Dynasty China, this is it. Furthermore, he declared that he translated the Dee Goong An in order to give Western readers something more authentic than Fu Manchu or Charlie Chan.

Or what about Arthur W. Upfield? Upfield was a white Englishman who lived most of his life in Australia. His wonderful protagonist, Inspector Napoleon Bonaparte, was half white, half Australian aborigine. On the one hand, the books could express racial attitudes that would be unfashionable today, to say the least. On the other, Upfield was capable of an almost heartbreaking sympathy for his clever, talented half-caste in a white-dominated society. The "Bony" books appeared between 1929 and 1966. Did the times account for some of the questionable attitudes? Or was the cultural gap just too wide to be bridged fully?

And how about Lindsey Davis? The two of her Marcus Didius Falco short stories I've read were delightful. The "private informer" Falco wisecracks his way through the streets and houses of first-century Rome in stories that offer just enough detail to make for a superbly convincing and unobtrusive setting. And make no mistake: Davis knows her history and archaeology. That may have something to do with why I found the one novel that I tried less satisfying. As light a touch as Davis has, the book had so much period detail, so much interesting period detail, that either the detail detracted from the story, or the story detracted from the detail. I'm still not sure which.

© Peter Rozovsky 2006

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5 Comments:

Blogger Euro Crime said...

Lindsey Davis - I'm listening to my first and her first Falco book, The Silver Pigs. I am finding I'm rewinding* a lot to relisten to the descriptions and there are lots of names to remember! (*The benefit of tape over cd :-)) Apparently TSP is darker than the books that follow.

I've also enjoyed a couple of Marilyn Todd's books set in ancient Rome - which feature (what a friend called) a strumpet - Claudia Seferius - a widow who is broke. The language is very modern but they are quite fun. There are 13 in the series.

September 26, 2006  
Blogger Peter said...

On how The Silver Pigs stacks up against the other Falco books, I'd bet you could find out on the Lindsey Davis link I provided. It's her official Web site, and it's a fine site; lots there about the books, Davis and, I think, ancient Rome, too.

Davis' language is modern, from what I can tell, and that's good. One doesn't want the characters to use anachronistic slang, of course, but characters in a novel set in ancient Rome shouldn't walk around being noble all the time.

I will say that I have all the sympathy in the world for authors of historical novels. They have a hard job. They need to portray a strange world convincingly and, at the same time, avoid hitting the reader over the head with a history lesson. Maybe part of my problem is that I know something about Rome and its history (I read Gibbon a few years ago, and I lived in Rome). The details that Davis passes over lightly, with so much grace, I either wish they were not there to interfere with the story, or else I want to read more about them in a book of history or art.

I do like the idea of a strumpet protagonist, though.

September 26, 2006  
Blogger Peter said...

I just saw a reference to Marilyn Todd's I, Claudia in The Bloomsbury Good Reading Guide to Crime Fiction. That's a nice title. I bet the books are fun. And check out Davis's story "Something Spooky on Geophys" in The Best British Mysteries 2005.

September 26, 2006  
Blogger Stephen Hartshorne said...

Dear Peter,
I have enjoyed several of the Lindsey Davis books. Not only do you have to find the killer, you have to find a reason to find them. With the Romans you could say, so and so has been murdered and the reply would be, 'So?'
Ellis Peters has this problem too with her books in medieval England. 95 guys have been hanged and Brother Cadfael finds 96 bodies and he has to explain to the king why they have to find out who murdered number 96.
Both Peters and Davis write great reads.

April 02, 2007  
Blogger Peter said...

Thanks for the comment, Stephen. That's an observation on historical mysteries I had never seen before. Everyone always says writers of historical mysteries have more freedom because their protagonists don't have to conform to police procedures. But no one draws your obvious inference: that the detective had better have a damned good reason for looking into the killing.

I very much enjoyed the one Lindsey Davis short story I've read. I liked her sense of humor, and she conveyed a convincing flavor of first-century Rome, and flavor is the right word. The story is about the theft of a recipe for fish sauce.

April 02, 2007  

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