The Chinese claim to have invented many things. To paper and gunpowder, we should probably add historical novels. The English language only came into this genre with Walter Scott’s Waverly novels in 1814, while Chinese readers had been enjoying The Romance of the Three Kingdoms already for five centuries. Late Ming literatus Feng Menglong’s Chronicles of the States of the Eastern Zhou (東周 列國 志）brings to life another eventful period in Chinese history, that of the Warring States. Kings and courtiers, concubines and ministers dream, scheme, take counsel and spill blood in dizzying succession. Feng’s story did not, however, captivate generations of readers by offering nothing but sex and beheadings. Rather, readers concerned about the decline of the Ming, or even 21st-century America, can find compelling narratives of how empires fall. Two new translations, one by Seoul National University’s Olivia Milburn, the other by Erik Honobe from Japan’s Tama University, tackle this classic text for English readers.
Stradivarius violins are the most coveted in the world and for good reason. Four hundred years ago, Antonio Stradivari created violins and other string instruments in his studio in Cremona, Italy. It’s estimated that about half of the 960 violins he made still survive. Since this expert “luthier” lived during the Age of Enlightenment, could he have developed an even finer violin if he’d had the help of a scientist and mathematician like Isaac Newton? Todd Shimoda imagines such a collaboration in his new novel, Antonio & Isaac: The Annotated Account of Phillipe Wolf, Composer & Spy, a clever, creative and humorous story that takes place during the War of Spanish Succession in the early 1700s.
It’s 1951 and Jean-Luc Guéry, a perpetual ne’er-do-well, has arrived in Saigon from his native Côte d’Azur to look into the as yet unsolved murder of his brother. Guéry, a hack reporter for the regional Journal d’Antibes, has a fondness for alcohol and a weakness for gambling. His brother, on the other hand, was running a respectable business importing agricultural machinery but was found floating face down in the Arroyo Chinois with a bullet in his head.
Paris in the late 1940s was a time of rebuilding. It was also central to the nascent Communist party in Cambodia. Justin Clark’s new novel, The Zero Season, captures this period in a style reminiscent of Graham Greene with its political tension, complicated love story, and colorful settings.
Wesley Leon Aroozoo’s story of love and betrayal in late-19th century Singapore, alliteratively titled The Punkhawala and the Prostitute, centers around two characters at the lowest rungs of a society that has traditionally been portrayed, at least during the colonial period, from the perspective of privileged classes.
The conceit of Tulip of Istanbul is that it was “found” as an 18th-century handwritten Ottoman manuscript at a stamp and rare book auction. The arrival of the novel itself is almost as serendipitous: originally published in Turkish in 2009 and then in English in 2015 (also curiously published in Turkey), it is now available to a perhaps wider English-language audience via India’s Niyogi Books.
As India emerges into independence in 1947, Englishman Charlie Strongbow and 23 colleagues set about setting up a smuggling operation on the previously uninhabited Cross Island, just off Bombay’s Ferry Wharf. The aim is to supply the good and the great (and the not-so-good) with contraband cigarettes, cheese, booze, perfume and whatever other Western products the new Indian government is trying to tax.