I was delighted to receive a copy of this novel from Giramondo, because I am the first to admit that I haven’t read much contemporary Chinese fiction, and very little of that has been written by women. Sheng Keyi (b. 1973) came to my attention when Northern Girls (2012) was long-listed for the now defunct Man Asian Literary Prize and I have no doubt that Death Fugue would have been nominated too if the prize were still in place. (What a loss it is! It was such a good way of discovering Asian writing in all its complex diversity! If only there were some philanthropist out there who could see his/her way to resurrecting the award!)
Death Fugue is a more complex, more demanding book, (so much so that I read it twice before penning this) but it’s also more rewarding than Northern Girls. (See my review). Death Fugue is a sophisticated allegory for the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre and its aftermath. Given what we know of the suppression of literary critique in China, I’m surprised this novel hasn’t landed its author in major trouble. (It’s not published in China, of course, but it is available in Hong Kong and Taiwan).
Because it is so obvious that “The Tower Incident” is a metaphor for the massacre at Tiananmen Square. The author has set her story in a mythical state called Dayang, and the incident takes place at ‘Round Square’ – a contradiction in terms, yes, which alludes to Tiananmen Square being forever associated with the Chinese State using its liberation army to slaughter its own people in a place named after the Gate of Heavenly Peace. It’s also the site of the Monument to the People’s Heroes who liberated China.
Giramondo provides a taste of the hostile reception for Death Fugue with the back cover blurb:
Sheng Keyi stands out from the other writers born in the 1970s in that she is so vulgar, so filthy, shallow and shameless. Her presence ensures that the world will see her generation as incapable of speech and lacking in depth of ideology.
Feng Tang, (a Chinese author not very popular at Goodreads and
whose own latest novel is apparently a tad on the smutty side)
This nastiness is offset by praise from Mo Yan, winner of the 2012 Nobel Prize; Li Jingze, a Chinese literary critic; and the blurb from the Wall Street Journal:
Sheng Keyi is one of China’s upcoming star literary novelists, in part because the most powerful images in her fiction are rooted in reality.
At the end of the book, the character Suitang says that
The past should not be forgotten. Sometimes art is the only means by which we may find out the truth, and the only tool flexible enough for its communication. Some may think that freedom of expression depends upon one’s environment, but I want to say to all poets and writers and artists that the environment shouldn’t be the real issue. The real environment is in your mind. If you have a flame in your heart you can make any kind of water boil. If you have enough talent you can find the secret path to freedom. (p. 374-5)
What Sheng Keyi has done in this novel is to create a ‘secret path’ to tell the story of the lost generation born in the 1970s, damned by the authorities if they joined the pro-democracy movement; or damned by their own consciences if they didn’t. Her central character Mengliu didn’t share the same fate as his friends and fellow poets because he was indifferent to the protest and was only caught up in it because he was pursuing his girlfriend Qizi. He always feels guilty that he had not played the part of a hero at the crucial moment. (p.205) After he is released from arrest, he abandons his role as a poet to become a surgeon, an occupation that allows him to travel in search of Qizi who – like so many – has disappeared.
The role of the poet is central to this novel, and poetry has a public significance largely lost in the west. In some ways it reminded me of the role of poetry in The Mirror of Beauty by Shamsur Rahman Faruqi, (see my review) where Mughal salon poets duelled for social and political supremacy using sophisticated forms to express contemporary issues. Being obedient citizens under a tyrant’s reign is immoral says the young man from the Propaganda Unit at Round Square, but Mengliu failed to live up to the expectations people had of him as one of the trio of poets called the Three Musketeers. Now Mengliu can no longer write poetry because his conscience won’t let him: he has lost his moral authority. Which is why the corrupt characters of Swan Valley, a metaphor for modern day China, try so hard to get him to write poetry for them.
Reading this novel is a bit of a challenge, not least because the symbolism is unfamiliar. I puzzled over whether there were hidden meanings behind a boy being described as raccoon-like; flowers, foods and fog; the significance of the number seven; and the ‘Plum’ Party. But the novel also shifts backwards and forwards in time and place so that the reader must piece together the truth that Sheng Keyi is satirising, and sometimes things make no sense at all until a few pages later, which means it’s best to read without interruption if you can. The style is harsh and uncompromising, and there are ventures into speculative fiction which don’t always succeed. (There is, for example, a supreme spiritual leader who’s a robot, and since I simply could not imagine this, I chose to convince myself that this was a translation glitch in an otherwise competent translation, and that what was really meant was that the character had a robotic manner of speech and behaviour).
Characters are not always what they seem. At first Mengliu seems like a bit of a loser, with an unattractive habit of relating to women as sex objects. Like other Chinese authors I’ve read, Sheng Keyi has an ‘earthy’ style, but despite his dubious fantasies Mengliu is impotent with women the way that he is impotent in other aspects of his life. He finds himself trapped in Swan Valley, a terrible false Utopia where personal liberty is non-existent and genetic purity is enforced in shocking ways reminiscent of China’s One Child policy.
In his naïveté, Mengliu criticises his home country of Dayang. He deplores the urban/rural divide and occupational discrimination, and he despises the hypocrisy of the pretence that Dayang is an equal society. The extremes of rich and poor mean unequal access to medical care and the spoils of the economic boom are unevenly shared. At the same time there is a fear of challenging authority, and torture is used to deter crime. But Swan Valley for all its beauty and virtue is no paradise: genetic control is achieved through forced reproduction using artificial insemination, while human sexual intercourse is wholly prohibited. People are selected for their genetic compatibility but it’s all done in the lab and there is a gruesome death penalty for moral crimes such as adultery. There is forced retirement and segregation at 50 years of age and unwanted babies are dumped in a waste facility for vultures to prey on. Surveillance is ever-present, and control of thoughts and emotions are reminiscent of Orwell’s 1984. These are all aspects of life in China that we know about, but the power of Sheng Keyi’s fiction makes them more real and more shocking.
If you are interested in contemporary Chinese fiction, do read Nicholas Jose’s review of Death Fugue. He discusses the book in the context of other Chinese writing about Tiananmen Square, and is also familiar with Sheng Keyi’s other writing. There’s also an interesting interview with the author at A Magazine.
Author: Sheng Keyi
Title: Death Fugue
Translated from the Chinese by Shelly Bryant – funded by philanthropist William Chiu through the University of Western Sydney Foundation Trust
Publisher: Giramondo Publishing, 2014
Review copy courtesy of Giramondo