Book review: A Perfect Crime by A Yi - aimless killer in a crowded world
"Here is the meaning of life: Boredom. Repetition. Order. Entrapment. Imprisonment." It wouldn't be a spoiler to say this sums up The Perfect Crime, the tale of an alienated teenaged boy in provincial China who stabs his classmate to death and stuffs her body upside down in his aunt's washing machine.
There's nothing boring about this novel, however, which opens with the teenager's meticulous, almost ceremonial, preparation for a crime even though he hasn't yet chosen his victim.
A loner at school, the student resents his mother for sending him to live with his arrogant, wealthier aunt when his father dies in a mine. His alienation allows him to set up the perfect escape: there's no emotional bond for police to follow. He's calm, cold and calculated.
He buys a plane ticket, then stuffs it down a drain; he also prepares his physical transformation, packing a bag with a suit, belt, cologne and a fake ID. He buys a switchblade, which gives him a secret feeling of empowerment, flicking it open and shut in his bag as he walks down the street.
Finally, he chooses a "worthy" victim: Kong Jie, ironically the only person at school he has feelings for, who shows compassion and affection for him.
Beijing-based author A Yi controls the pace of the story so perfectly that we experience the crime - and its aftermath - from the point of view of his nameless protagonist. The youth's emotions leap from gloom to excitement, from desire to wanting to warn, even protect, Kong Jie. He invites her to his house, and it all happens so suddenly that we feel almost as dull as he does as her soft flesh "swallows" his knife. The language is simultaneously graphic and anticlimactic, and he feels horrified, yet carries on methodically.
It's only when he's on the run that he realises with alarm that he's cutting himself off from his old life.
You could have a field day comparing this book to the works of Jean-Paul Sartre or Albert Camus - particularly the latter's The Stranger. There's the same sense of estrangement from society that Camus' Meursault feels, the lack of maternal connection, the impassivity of his crime and even the subplot of an old man and his dog.
In this case, Salamano is replaced by Mr He, whose pointless existence mirrors that of the central character. Following a routine with military precision to fill the endless lonely hours of old age, every day at the same time, Mr He walks his faithful old dog, kicking it in the stomach when it gets too tired.
When the teenager makes his escape, he leaves a poisoned cracker to "see to" the dog. It's hard to tell whether it's out of spite or pity, or he's just being practical.
Yet for all the parallels the backdrop is very different: a former police officer who writes from experience, A Yi excels in his vivid, sordid portrait of contemporary China. It's a heartbreaking tale of a rotten, alienated society fuelled by greed - a nation in moral crisis.
Time fascinates the youth. At his lowest, it stretches unbearably; he fears his self-inflicted loneliness more than imprisonment. During moments of adrenaline and chaos, it becomes momentarily suspended. Detached from reality, he finds poetry in the most mundane or ugly moments; he compares the blue sky outside the courtroom to a smashed porcelain vase.
In the end, the fact that he shows no sign of remorse infuriates his prosecutors more than the crime itself. This indifference confuses and scares them. The media and the "experts" insist on categorising him: is he a "fallen prince"? A sexual predator? Was it rage? No, he was just bored.
For this story and more, read The Review, published with the Sunday Morning Post on May 17