Death Fugue by Sheng Keyi. Giramondo 2016
Sheng Keyi’s Death Fugue is a novel which deals with political and social freedom in the face of government lies, control and violence. Despite this, it is a deeply compassionate and personal novel which focuses on the manner in which large, socially and personally traumatic events permeate lives over time leaving them, perchance, with little or nothing to say that can provide reprieve from past events and the life they now live. It is saved from being mere political rhetoric by focusing on one man, Yuan Mengliu, a surgeon in the capital city Beiping in the fictional country of Dayang, neighbouring China. Yuan is a good surgeon, but he is disconnected from his patients to the point that he usually doesn’t know or take any interest in the name of the people whose bodies he is cutting into. What he does take interest in are women: he is an unashamed womaniser who is “convinced that, once stripped of clothing, all women would go back to their true state. The body could not lie.” The opening of the book explains this, and sets the personal context for the story:
Those who have suffered the mental strain of life’s vicissitudes often end up by becoming withdrawn. Their earlier zeal has died; their beliefs wander off like stray dogs. They allow the heart to grow barren, and the mind to be overrun with weeds. They experience a sort of mental arthritis, like a dull ache on a cloudy day. There is no remedy. They hurt. They endure. They distract themselves in various ways, whether by making money, or by emigrating, or by womanising. Yuan Mengliu fell into the last group.
How and why Mengliu became the distant, almost uncaring surgeon and womaniser is the subject of this book, which places the purely personal in the context of a political story which begins with the appearance of a pile of shit in Round Square.
…it was a dark brown lump smelling of buckwheat, soft in texture, and standing nine stories high. It’s bottom layer was fifty metres in diameter. It’s structure was like that of a layered cake, narrowing to a relatively artistic spire at the top.
Needless to say, the appearance of the pile of shit in the centre of the capital, close to the Wisdom Bureau (the National Youth Administration for Elite Wisdom), where Mengliu worked in the Literature Department, caused a public uproar. The shit was removed quickly, and the government offered the completely irrelevant explanation that it had been gorilla shit, as proven by DNA tests. The Tower Incident, as it became known, lead to mass public demonstrations and to the violent crushing of the demonstrators with tanks, bullets and disappearances. Most of this information is offered in the opening two chapters, and sets the scene for Sheng’s aim of trying to talk about the after effects of the events in Tiananmen Square protests of 1989. Indeed, the protests in the book are an accurate recounting of the Tiananmen Square protests and their end in the massacre of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of people. With an opening and context such as this, it might be expected that the book would focus on the protests and have an explicitly political agenda, but this is not the case in any expected manner. Rather, the story focuses on how Mengliu met the love of his life (Qizi) in the very first protest march, then lost her, presumed dead, and ceased being a poet in order to become a surgeon. Most importantly, it deals with his inability and unwillingness to write in order to produce political propaganda. Much of the story occurs in a land known as Swan Valley, whose residents and spiritual leader attempt to coerce Mengliu into writing poetry again, to celebrate the beauty, the perfect society that has been created on scientific and political principles of equality, peace, prosperity and other lies. Mengliu’s trip to Swan Valley occurs twenty years after the Tower Incident and the suppression of the protests which followed. Every year Mengliu searches for Qizi—he is convinced that she is still alive, and his love for her haunts him. He is in a small sail boat, floating in the ocean, when a storm rises:
The maddened clouds surged together, twisting in a fury into one great pillar that towered over the lake and drew it up into a funnel, leaving a spinning whirlpool at its centre. The sail, caught in the winds, began to flap violently, and everything turned black before Mengliu’s eyes. Both his body and his consciousness were sucked into the great black hole.
When he wakes, he is in a forest through which he must struggle before encountering peaceful and friendly wild beasts, before arriving at Swan Valley, where he stays until he learns the truth of himself, and returns to the sail boat from which he is rescued by the local people he had been staying with. It is only at this time that it becomes apparent that his journey has been a psychological fugue, an hallucination which brought him back to himself as a poet and protester who refused to protest, even if he never writes again. There is much, so much that I haven’t mentioned, particularly about Qizi and her various incarnations in Mengliu’s life, but this is to be expected when reviewing a large book. Ultimately, it is a book about personal and social survival which, for Chinese and non-Chinese readers alike, encompasses much more than the fictional recounting of the Tiananmen Square protests. It would have been easy to make this a depressing or nihilistic book, but Sheng has avoided this course, to the great benefit of her message. It is, however, occasionally frightening, simply because it is quite easy to recognise many aspects of the contemporary West in the nanny state of Swan Valley—although, fortunately, sex is not illegal here, as it is in Swan Valley. It also is, unusually for a novel with such serious intent, easy to read and very entertaining, full of laughable situations, ideals, frustrations and very human compassion for those who have become dispossessed from themselves. Because this is the case, it is a book which should be, and deserves to be read widely. My one caveat is in respect of the symbolism that Sheng relies on. It is powerful and extensive, from the tower of shit and the inadequate government explanation, to Qizi, who ceased being Mengliu’s lover and became the leader of the protests, thus standing in place of the Styrofoam and plaster statue—the “Goddess of Democracy”—that was erected in the final days of of the Tiananmen Square protests. Many symbols and references are likely to escape an English reader, however. In Swan Valley (the name of which may be symbolic of something I am unaware of), for example, it is explained that a young chef
…holds in high esteem the chef who butchered oxen for King Hui of Liang…Everything is an art. Does its beauty match that of a good poem?
The reference here is to a passage in Zhuangzi, Chapter Three, and the teaching of following the course, or tao, in order to nourish one’s life. Whilst this reference is likely to be well understood in China, it is sheer happenstance that I am aware of it, its source and some of its meaning. That there are many other references and contexts which would expand the meaning and effect of the writing is obvious, and I fear that I have missed much of Sheng’s intent as a result, even though the most potent symbol—Mengliu’s silence, his refusal to write poetry again—cannot be missed. None the less, even if Western readers fail to grasp much of the cultural symbolism, Death Fugue is a book full of easily understood ideas and situations, focused around the Hero’s journey, which is the basic structure of the book and of Mengliu’s trip to and time in Swan Valley. A note at the back of the book informs us that the translation and publication was made possible by a philanthropic gift, from Mr William Chiu, to the University of Western Sydney Foundation Trust. This gift has been well repaid with this translation and publication, and I hope it is further repaid by the readership which the book deserves.
– Bruce Muirhead
BJ Muirhead is a writer and photographer living in rural Queensland. He has published online and in print journals, and was included in an anthology of Queensland poetry (1986). He has published art criticism and was photographic reviewer for the Courier-Mail newspaper in the 1980s. His writing and recent exhibitions, Primary Evidence (2011) andFlesh (2014), continue his lifetime interest in the human body and its relation to the inevitability of age and death. He can be found athttp://bjmuirhead.wordpress.com and http://inaforeigntown.wordpress.com.
Death Fugue is available from http://www.giramondopublishing.com/fiction/death-fugue/