Friday, 21 April 2017

The Borrowed - Chan Ho-Kei

As a detective novel this is pretty unusual. It documents the life and work of Hong Kong detective Inspector Kwan through five decades. Nothing so unusual about that but what sets this apart from other such works is the structure of the book which is unusual.

The book is a translation from its original Chinese. And the chapters start in 2013 and end in 1967. I will bravely confess that initially I felt a dreadful error had occurred on the part of the editor and publisher. They had failed to recognise that the Chinese read and write from top to bottom, right to left so, to us, their books are being read backwards. I thought the chapters had been wrongly ordered. They should run from 1967 to 2013 and the book would enjoy a greater cohesion. However when I got to the afterword I found that this reverse chronology was intentional on the author’s part. Boy, did I feel stupid!!

But I still think I would have enjoyed the book better had it begun in 1967 and concluded in 2013. I found it a little frustrating to read about what had happened before it had happened if that makes sense! If I were to reread it I’d like to start at the end and read backwards!

To appraise it as a crime novel though is straightforward enough. Some intricate crimes minutely dissected by the intrepid Inspector Kwan, who is something of an oriental Sherlock Holmes, were detailed and cleverly thought out but the dissemination of them and some of the questioning leading to the solving of the crime, although fascinating, did get tedious. I can see some readers being put off by that. I also found myself getting confused by many of the Chinese names. There were so many characters throughout the book all with similar but different monikers!

But the book is elevated beyond just a collection of crime stories with the backdrop of Hong Kong. I learnt a great deal and found the descriptive passages very evocative creating a palpable atmosphere. But also the politics and the socio-economic divisions were developed throughout the book offering an historical perspective also. And I suppose the reverse chronology worked better within that context.

So all in all an extremely interesting, absorbing read. And well written as far as I can tell. As far as I can tell? Well, this is a translation and I always feel that if you aren’t reading a work in its native language there has to be some loss along the way - idioms, nuances of language, but all credit to Jeremy Tiang who has rendered this work accessible to those of us confined to the English language.

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