A concession to translated Chinese novels

An American fugitive fled to 1930s Shanghai, burned his fingerprints with acid, and made his first fortune by renting slot machines from the city’s many cafes.

If you keep asking, Xiao Bai could continue with the details of the law in the old French concession regarding how the fugitive was later captured, the possible charges he faced in the United States, type of acid he used to burn fingerprints. and the types of slot machines available in Shanghai at the time … and so on.

None of these details can be found in his spy thriller “French Concession”, available in multiple languages. The author only borrowed the fugitive’s name from one character in the novel – one of many Chinese, foreign, and mixed-race characters with hidden real-life stories.

It’s a little game that he enjoys for bringing some fun into the tiring daily writing process. Such hidden references remotely recreate 1930s Shanghai with historical precision, a familiar yet unique vibe, and the potential for curious readers to explore more on their own.

This could explain why many critics say that the real protagonist of the gripping story containing complicated relationships between the characters is the year 1931.

“Before writing some chapters, I reviewed many archival documents in English and French, all kinds of letters and memoirs, reports and police reports,” Xiao Bai said. “When I wrote other chapters, I revisited Chinese fiction written in the 1930s. The ‘French Concession’ is like a 3,000 piece jigsaw puzzle of 1930s China and the old concessions.”

Puzzles are one of Xiao Bai’s favorite games, and he’s already solved one with 1,000 pieces.

The author and the novel made headlines in 2013 when HarperCollins paid US $ 60,000 to purchase the copyright in English. It was right after Mo Yan received the Nobel Prize for Literature and before Liu Cixin won the Hugo Prizes and his science fiction novel “The Three Bodies Problem” toured the world.

Translated versions of Chinese novels were hard to sell, and the average copyright price was only a few thousand dollars, even for some prominent authors.

Xiao Bai was a relatively new name even to Chinese readers, and the novel had modest success nationally. However, few in the industry doubted the American publisher’s decision.

The American publisher of the book, HarperCollins editor-in-chief Terry Karten said he was impressed with the story as well as “the way it is told, the pace and pace of the storytelling, the setting , characters and historical details. I couldn’t think of another ‘black literary’ novel set in Shanghai at this particular time. “

Famous Chinese writer Li Jingze, among the first to champion the novel, called Xiao Bai a rare Chinese author with genuine international perspective and storytelling, rooted in his mastery of English and Western culture and literature.

The novel has since been translated into multiple languages ​​and reprinted with dozens of positive reviews. Many find the historical details and the recreated ambience particularly intriguing. Some have compared it to other works of fiction written in or about 1930s Shanghai, such as “Lust, Caution” by Eileen Chang.

Chang’s 1979 short story, set in the 1930s and 1940s in Shanghai and Hong Kong, was adapted for the big screen by Ang Lee, earning the famed director his second Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival on the heels of “Brokeback Mountain”.

Emmanuelle Pechenart, the French translator of “French Concession”, also translated “Lust, Caution”.

Since then, mysteries have surrounded Xiao Bai. Even his literary friends didn’t know much about his private life and he became “that author who never went abroad but mastered English”.

“To be more precise, I have never studied abroad, but of course I have traveled, and more in recent years like many Chinese,” said Xiao Bai.

He learned English on his own, drawing on years of researching subjects he found interesting, which is also why his career as a creative writer and his first book was born.

In 2005, the editor of a Chinese newspaper was drawn to a user on Tianya, China’s most popular online forum at the time. The same person wrote about art history from a very academic and erotic point of view.

The articles were then rewritten and titled “Hamlet Libertine” under the pseudonym Xiao Bai – a common internet name – and published in the newspaper. It has remained one of his flagship works, acclaimed by critics as “a cultural piece in depth shrouded in eroticism”.

Born in 1970s Shanghai, Xiao Bai’s youth coincided with the city’s rapid development, including significantly more symbols of a modern, cosmopolitan city like cafes.

“There were a lot of cafes in 1930s Shanghai, so common that if you look in the police records, all kinds of things happened in the cafes. But when I was a student in the late 1980s and early 1990s, they were only just starting to reappear in the city, ”he said.

“If you think about it, it’s such a common scene in the West that you can’t really think of literary masterpieces, even by coffee lovers, that have important storylines set in a cafe. C It’s similar to Shanghai today. It’s become so common that it’s easily overlooked. “

But not in the Shanghai of the 1990s, according to the writer.

“At that time, cafes had special significance – commercial and imported. Only certain types of people, like young students or white collar workers, went to cafes, and I can well imagine something strange and unique. took place in one of these cafes. “

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