A Yi is a Chinese novelist with an unusual story. Born in 1976, he was a police officer until the age of 32, when he switched to writing full-time. Although he has published several story collections and novellas, A Yi is yet to break through into the mainsteam, partly due to his gritty themes. His first novel in English, A Perfect Crime, translated by Anna Holmwood, came out in June. Originally published in 2012 with the Chinese title “What Shall I Do Next?”, the story is of a provincial high school student who murders a female classmate. The narrator tells us dispassionately of his crime, flight, and trial, while everyone around him tries to make sense of what he did. It’s a short read that stays with you long after, and among the most thought-provoking new Chinese fiction I’ve read in a while. I asked A Yi a few questions to try and make sense of it myself.
ALEC ASH: Your novel A Perfect Crime is ostensibly a simple story about a criminal, but in the telling it raises much more complex social questions. What aspects of contemporary Chinese society did you want to reflect in particular?
A YI: Most importantly I wanted to reflect a kind of isolation. Solitude can be poetic in works of art, but in this novel it’s a more bestial kind of solitude, and hard to resist.
I started to collect material for the novel in 2006, when there was a criminal case in Xi’an: a high school student murdered a female classmate. While he was arrested and put on trial, he had a sangfroid that seemed beyond his young years. What he said was like he was talking in his sleep. No-one knew the true motive of his crime — not the police, the prosecutor, the judge, the journalists, the psychologists, or the public. Perhaps even he himself wasn’t clear about it. I tried to use a novel to answer that question: Why did he commit murder?
Did you arrive at an answer?
I think it’s because he wanted to break free of that solitude that is so hard to break free from. The ennui and the emptiness. He’s a student who left his hometown, a parasite living off his relatives in the provincial capital, without any way to fit into city life, or to return to where he came from. So how did he break free? He wanted to play a game of cat and mouse with the police. He runs, they chase. To bait the police into following him, he killed a victim whose death would bring about the outrage of society: a talented model female student.
And so the novel is indulging in an extreme kind of speculation. It can’t explain the true facts of the Xi’an case, but the detachment and solitude which the real criminal expressed is hard to forget. That isolation was embodied in his vacant and cool demeanor. He was indifferent to others around him, and indifferent to himself. I think that in China, even in the world, there are more and more people like that who are unfathomably banished from society and can’t find the sense of true existence that they seek.
What reader did you have in mind for this novel, and did you hope that reading it would change their view of society?
I wrote it for anyone who is willing to think about current Chinese society. I hope they will think about the world they live in, and their place in society. There’s no question that people’s place in their society is increasingly remote, low, and useless. And I hope that my readers can find a sense of heroism from ancient times, and not just be pitilessly manipulated by their society. To be creative. To be responsible. And not to become like the protagonist of the novel, a shameful reptile.
But in reality, more and more people are giving up their sense of self. I call this “passive transference.” In today’s society, so many people have mysteriously transferred their sense of self elsewhere, like they don’t need their own identity. My protagonist is a classic model of this.
In his indifference to his own fate, even his desire to get caught and prosecuted publicly, does he want to make a statement to the world?
He doesn’t want to express anything. His crazed behavior is also a kind of idleness. He’s too lazy to explain himself to others. That’s the most frightening of all. He doesn’t care about himself; he doesn’t care about others. He hastily finishes is own life, with no feeling or pity.
The novel strongly reminded me of The Stranger by Albert Camus. Was it an influence?
It was a huge influence. Before I started writing, I read Crime and Punishment by Dostoevsky and The Stranger by Camus. Meursault [the main character in The Stranger] was in turn influenced by the main character of The Postman Always Rings Twice by James M. Cain. And my own protagonist was influenced by Meursault. They are both indifferent to their fate, excessively cold and detached. But Meursault is fundamentally good and honest, or at least what emerges from his life is good and honest, while my protagonist is more malicious.
As I was working on the novel, I also deliberately re-watched the US film Taxi Driver. For a long time I’ve been obsessed about writing something with an existential timbre.
The last word the protagonist tells us in the novel is “Goodbye,” although the Chinese literally means “See you later.” Do you think this kind of character, or a repeat of the Xi’an case, could reoccur in Chinese society?
There’s a secret: I never gave the protagonist a name. I did that because I naively thought that if he didn’t have a name then he wouldn’t be easily copied. I was worried that this kind of story could spread widely. I came to write this novel through a real case — to sum it up, analyze it, conjecture about, and invent it like it was a new model of crime in China. He didn’t kill for money or sex, out of anger or hate, but only because of a kind of regret in his spirit.
Some people call me a prophet for this. After publication, every time a hard-to-explain murder case happened, some readers thought that I had prophesied it. One after another they @ed me on Weibo, calling to my attention every time there was a murder that reminded them of A Perfect Crime. But in reality I don’t understand this new type of murderer at all.
On a less moribund note, what are your thoughts on contemporary Chinese literature? Do you think mainland authors are capturing the true flavor of Chinese society?
Contemporary Chinese literature is in a stage of rapid development. In the last few years, writing alone still can’t guarantee an author can make a living, but they are getting more prestige. Because of that, there are at least no fewer Chinese writers. I’ve noticed there are more and more post-90s authors [born after 1990], and their writing is very good. Maybe the next great author will come from their ranks. If not, it will be from the generation born after 2000.
But Chinese contemporary literature at present is still breaking into its own society. I think there are some outstanding works, but so far none that have honestly reflected this society, or genuinely thought it through. The masterwork that will move a whole generation of Chinese, and express what they find painful to endure, has yet to be written.
This interview was conducted on email in Chinese and translated into English
You can read one of A Yi’s best short stories, The Curse, in English here, translated by Julia Lovell.