Sunday, April 22, 2012
According to the novel’s prologue, “this novel is based on the author’s first-hand interview with a group of bank robbers. The heroes and the heroine are not born ruthless or evil, nor do they have any particular hatred for society. However, they take a juvenile approach to life and recklessly commit crimes. What drives their destructive behavior?” (7)
To say that the three criminals in Li Er’s short crime story “take a juvenile approach to life” tells us only the most obvious quality of their decision-making; the novel itself gives a much more nuanced picture of how each, individually, comes to the disastrous decision to rob the truck that picks up money at several branches of a major Chinese bank. That it is a disastrous decision is probably what you could guess for yourself. Things will not turn out well. But I will try to write about the book without spoilers that give away major features of the drama. I also wish to acknowledge upfront that my interpretation may be on shaky ground because though I read the book in a bilingual Chinese-English Readers series (Better Link Press, NY and Shanghai, 2009) my limited command of Mandarin left me to rely solely on the English translation. I could do no comparison or analysis of how the translation rendered the original language.
The three robbers are the major characters: Ma En, the leader of this band of outsiders; Yang Hong, his girlfriend; and Erqing, Ma En’s not-very-bright side-kick. There are two minor though important characters: Chen Shuanbao, a corrupt policeman who has done some deals with Ma En, and the retired principal of Ma En’s Jizhou high school, Cheng Pu (“Mr. Cheng”), a teacher and mentor who encouraged Ma En to be more ambitious and to continue his studies.
Ma En is a man of contradictions. He is smart and could have gone to college, but he ends up repairing motorcycles. He took the exam but failed because he helped a friend cheat. He’s not ambitious enough to re-take the exam, which we are assured he would have passed. Of course, that friend’s father shows his gratitude by helping Ma En get a business license.
Ma En is tender and loving with his girlfriend; the novel opens with a scene of him waking up early next to Yang Hong with the melancholy feeling that he might not see her again after the day’s deeds. We also learn that though Yang Hong has had a morally questionable life since leaving the country for the city, she and Ma En met when he gallantly interceded to save her from a brutish client. On the other hand, we find later that in their time together, Ma En has “given” Yang Hong in various business transactions in which her love for him has made her an apparently willing participant. By recognizing the main chance, using Yang Hong as a commodity, and applying bribes in all the right places, Ma En has become a fairly successful businessman, a “rich boss with two graduates from the Transportation Vocational School working for him” (35).
What brings Ma En to plan a robbery? Here is the place where some of Li Er’s discrete social criticism slips in. While Chen Shuanbao has managed to get Ma En the motorcycle repair business generated by the local police, the government has not been good about paying its bills, so Ma En’s business has failed (113). When it comes to the motivations for the criminal life that Li Er means to explore, the push given to Ma En by this harsh realism, cannot be ignored.
Other possibly influential factors that are revealed by the robbers include their wide familiarity with American and Hong Kong crime movies and television and, at least in Yang Hong’s case, a fondness for the jokey infantile violence of American and Japanese cartoons. Indeed, the callousness with which the trio plan murders or discuss whether their cab driver should be killed, convey a sense of unreality, as if they are not talking about human beings but about cartoon characters, who may leap back to life after being penetrated by bullets or flattened by a big rock (99, 103).
Though the style is terse and direct, almost without affect, there are some comic moments in the treatment of Erqing who, having finally lost his virginity, in a pre-heist spending spree is convinced he is now married, and who allows himself to be so distracted by women and sex that he can hardly think about the robbery and his part in it. There are also moments of comedy that convey a kind of hard-edged cynicism, as when the widespread questioning by police after the robbery uncovers the fact that there are a lot of citizens out there who are planning robberies (133). Or when the local police can only be motivated to actually take an interest in solving the crime by being offered a cash incentive (131). And, finally, there is Ma En’s inability to keep his mouth shut. It turns out that he has talked about robbery to almost everyone he knows and encounters, so the question of premeditation does not have to be explored.
Ma En and Yang Hong can be added to the long list of gun crazy, criminal lovers on the run that includes Michel and Patricia in Breathless and our own Bonnie and Clyde. In fact, can it be that Bonnie’s vision that she and Clyde would “go down together” is echoed in the romantic and a little naïve Yang Hong’s immediately regretted wish that “We must die together” (11)?