BEIJING-BASED author A Yi’s new novella A Perfect Crime achieves something we haven’t seen in Chinese fiction for a while — a refreshingly non-verbose, verb-driven, first-person narrative of taut tension (reflected brilliantly in Anna Holmwood’s translation). It’s a great contrast to much current Chinese literature, which tends to be overlong and riddled with tangential ramblings and philosophical musings. A Yi has gone the other way: his writing is pared back, short, driven by pace, and very to the point.

The setting is a nameless provincial Chinese town. A teenager idles away his days with seemingly no goals or objectives until he decides to murder his one friend. He strangles her, stuffs her body into a washing machine, and then skips town. Throughout the ensuing chase the killer acts as the book’s nameless narrator. He offers no apology for the killing: “I killed her for the sake of killing.” He goes on the run largely for something to do, to while away the days before he is inevitably caught. If the police prove hapless and he isn’t caught then, he declares, he will give himself up and save them the bother of chasing him.

A Yi is a Chinese writer who draws from a wide variety of international sources for his literary style. Born in 1976, A Yi (real name Ai Guozhu) was a policeman in his home province of Jiangxi before becoming an editor — a professional combination which perhaps explains his staccato, no-words-wasted literary technique. As a reader A Yi was able, in the relative openness of 1990s China, to access a far wider range of foreign literature in translation than his predecessors. When talking about the instigation and crafting of A Perfect Crime, he claims a wide range of influence, from classics long available in China — such as Kafka, Camus’ The Outsider, and Dostoyevsky’s more existential works — to more recently available translations of Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange and Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho. However, there is precedent in modern Chinese literature, too. Lu Xun’s 1918 short story A Madman’s Diary (itself inspired by Gogol’s 1835 Diary of a Madman) is a first-person account of a man driven by a persecution complex. Lu Xun’s “mad man,” like Gogol’s, ultimately sees reality more clearly than those around him, something A Yi’s nameless narrator also believes. Lu Xun’s story has been interpreted as an early rejection of the increasingly outdated literary tradition of classical Chinese writing, and the adoption of a more accessible and vernacular language that was to become the hallmark of the New Culture Movement writers of the 1920s, who sought to portray China realistically and critically.

 

Given these antecedents then, how are we to view A Yi’s novella? It is contemporary and portrays modern China as a place of feckless and bored youth, “Little Emperors” of the one-child era, the “Me Generation,” who feel unable to express themselves in a stifling one-party state where money, achievement, and status are elevated above all else. This is a familiar refrain about 21st-century urban China. When he is dragged into court, A Yi’s protagonist is pigeonholed by the system as a lone, disaffected youth, but the truth is more terrifying: there is no agenda, there is no great plan; he’s simply bored with society and so rejects its rules and norms. The prospect of punishment is unimportant apart from the fact that its exercise — his inevitable execution — is at least something different, something outside the normal routine.

Just as an earlier generation of Chinese writers, inspired by Lu Xun, produced harsh criticisms of society in the 1930s — poverty, corruption, the ineffectiveness of government — A Yi in A Perfect Crime is asking similar questions of contemporary China. Today’s China is no longer mired in poverty but controlled by a one-party state encouraging conspicuous consumption, a meaningless if easier life. By deciding upon murder, A Yi’s narrator seems to be asking, “Is this all there is?” His world needs shaking up, disturbing… and murder is a major disturbance.

China’s criminal justice system is steeply tilted in favor of the police and prosecutors. The vast majority of cases turn on “confessions” by suspects. Defense lawyers are largely powerless to do anything except argue for a lesser sentence. Convictions are all but assured. But even with China’s conviction rate of 98 percent, courts will generally look for a reason why the accused has killed. If insanity cannot be proved, then what is to blame? In Camus’s The Outsider, set in French-colonial Algeria, the prosecutor claims he has looked into Meursault’s soul and found nothing. Such a statement is impossible in an agnostic Chinese court. Instead, the killer’s defense must offer reasons. But, if accepted, those reasons necessarily condemn the wider society… as the killer’s lawyer tries to argue:

You are all guilty […] You gave him pressure to do well in his exams. You look down on him because of where he’s from. You roll your eyes, you ignore him, you treat him like an outsider, call him a peasant. To you, he is a slave. You make him part of an underclass […]

The only problem with this argument, as the prosecutor is swift to point out, is that if the court accepts it, then everyone but the accused should be executed — the government, the majority of the people, the justice system are all guilty. Only the killer is innocent. Rejecting insanity, the court is unable to explain such callousness in terms other than those that would criticize the system. The police officer who detains him is called before the court and asked if the killer had offered any explanation for the murder when apprehended. The officer replies: “His only request was for a McDonald’s.”

The killer’s only response: “It was a KFC.”

Driving the narrative forward is a tricky job for A Yi. We know from the start that the nameless youth has committed a murder and, although on the run for much of the book, will soon be caught. He wants his day in court (even if he opts to say nothing), and he wants his punishment. The challenge for A Yi is how to maintain the tension when the end is inevitable? How to make the reader interested in a character who is a moral vacuum as well as thoroughly repugnant? The answer is never to slow down, to drive the first-person narrative ahead at breakneck speed. It is indeed that old cliché — a rollercoaster read, so grip the seat, hang on, and be prepared only to relax when you’ve got to the end of the ride. And, ultimately, it’s a troubling ending. We cannot, in any political system, accept callous and casual murder. We cannot sympathize with the accused: he is guilty and must be punished. We accept the criticisms of modern Chinese society while deploring the killer’s reaction to it.

A Yi knows well Lu Xun’s The True Story of Ah Q, written in the early 1920s and considered a masterpiece. In looking back to this story, perhaps we can better understand where the author is coming from with A Perfect Crime. Marxists then, and the Communist Party now, have long struggled with Lu Xun’s story of a put-upon but sycophantic bully who refuses to accept the omnipotence of those in power and stubbornly insists that he is morally superior to them. Ah Q is eventually executed. In the novella, Lu Xun exposes Ah Q’s moral failings as symptomatic of the Chinese national character of his time. The True Story of Ah Q had a realism that undermined the promised Communist utopia. Though the Communists sought to present Ah Q as a victim of a pre-communist social order, it is impossible to ignore the society that creates him. So, too, A Yi’s story shows that despite the hyper-nationalist rhetoric of China now, there is a much darker undercurrent to the society. There are two sides to China’s current story of economic growth and overweening obsession with social stability, and A Yi gives us the one we officially don’t hear about. As his killer declares, “If I hadn’t committed a murder so intolerable to our hypocritical society, what would have been the point?”

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Paul French is a widely published analyst and commentator on China who has lived and worked in Shanghai for many years.

*Editor’s note: This article has been updated since its original publication.