How do you pronounce ‘Procuratorate’? I don’t think it’s a word that’s troubled my vocabulary before, but it’s central to In The Name Of The People. I settled on a nice bouncy PRO-cu-RAY-to-RAT, but I’m still none the wiser.
In The Name Of The People is best known as a 2017 TV series that was enough of a phenomenon in China to cause ripples in the Western press, which compared it to House of Cards amongst other things. I sought it out in vain at the time on the basis of what I’d read (although I find now that it is available in its entirety on YouTube), so I was excited then to see that the original book is now available in translation, thanks to Sinoist Books and Emily Hein. This also marks first published English translation of any work by Zhou Meisen, who has been a popular Chinese writer for decades.
It’s not a remotely original observation to say that crime fiction tells us much about the time and place in which it is written. Think of Agatha Christie, exploring English conventionality and social order with self-deprecation and humour. In The Name Of The People is very much a novel of 2010s China. We follow Hou Liangping as he investigates corruption amongst officials in fictional and rapidly developing Jingzhou in H Province. The scale and complexity might be similar to House of Cards, but thematically it feels closer to the BBC’s similarly titled The Line Of Duty about police corruption. I also found it somewhat similar to Hideo Yokoyama’s hit Six Four from a few years ago, which also featured significant bureaucratic struggles and an ambitious slow-burn scope.
Unfortunately it didn’t live up to the promise. I found it quite heavy going. The problem is inherent in the material: the book is entirely populated by Party officials and provincial level bureaucrats who talk like, well, Party officials and provincial level bureaucrats. It is full of standing committees and Administrative Bureaus and Municipal Party Committee Secretaries and Commissions for Disciplinary Inspection. This isn’t a specifically Chinese problem – I’m a bureaucrat, and a work of fiction set in my world accurately replicating our way of speaking would be deeply tedious. Every professional in-group has its own jargon; the challenge in genre fiction like crime is to open it up to those not in the group. You can ignore it, or tone it down, or even amplify it as a way of satirising it. In The Name Of The People plays it with a straight bat, and I found it quite alienating as a result.
“I hope you can get your act together! At the very least, you should be aware of the subordinate relationship between the Provincial Procuratorate and the Municipal Procuratorate! Hou Liangping is a member of the Provincial Procuratorate’s Party Leadership Group and is the Director of the Anti-Corruption Bureau after all!”
This is a problem with the text, not the translation, but while the translation is an impressive achievement it did lean a shade too faithful to the Chinese for me. I would have appreciated some sacrifice of accuracy for readability. Usually it’s just a slight unnaturalness to the English (“would it not be a joke for us to oppose him then?”). As a small example, there seemed to be an awful lot of exclamation marks in places that might be natural in Chinese, but where an English-language writer wouldn’t use one. For instance, “Qi Tongwei was steaming mad and ordered the staff to pull up Liberation Avenue’s surveillance video and go through it carefully!”; or at the dramatic denouement, the dialogue “the will of the people in the land under heaven is grandiose!”
I did wonder if all the bureaucratese was intended satirically, but the politics of In The Name Of The People makes that unlikely, as does Zhou Meisen’s stated adherence to literary realism and his experience in local government and business. Also translated here is a fascinating afterword by Zhou about his love for Balzac, in which he says that “In The Name Of The People is a tribute to old Balzac and his immortal ideology”. That politics on display in People is another aspect that might make it alienating for a Western audience looking for a gripping political or crime thriller. The hero here is not just Hou but the Party. Corruption is a stain on Chinese society, we are told, and only the Party can stop it.
“…fortunately, our Party has already woken up. Even now, it’s not too late to clean up the way of the world and the hearts of humans…”
It’s not all clear contrasts though. While the good guys are definitely Good, the bad guys – the corrupt officials – are nuanced and interesting. All the key characters are well fleshed out with memorable characteristics and descriptions – the corrupt official from farming stock for whom piles of bank notes are as spiritually satisfying as wheat; the vain, ambitious Qi Tongwei; the Deputy Secretary conducting illicit affairs under the pretext of studying Ray Huang’s 1587.
There are plenty of enjoyable set pieces, such as the central factory fire, an attempted murder, and the ingenious details of corrupt practices. The plot is well constructed, and while complex it was clear to follow – I was grateful for the regular status updates that Zhou uses. It’s full of intrigue, double-crossing and dirty tricks, and for all that I found the language alienating it is a fascinating insider’s account of a usually opaque part of Chinese society. But ultimately it felt too long (nearly 600 pages) and too dry to be the gripping thriller it nearly is.