Beyond Borders? What About Writers Who Cross Them?
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