Powerful and Extensive: B. J. Muirhead Reviews ‘Death Fugue’ by Sheng Keyi

Death Fugue by Sheng Keyi. Giramondo 2016

DeathFugueSheng 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Those who have suffered the mental strain of life’s vicissitudes often end up by becoming withdrawn.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/

Sydney Writers Festival: Ye Xin discusses ‘Educated Youth’

Educated Youth by Ye Xin was originally published in China in 1991. The first English translation has just been published by Giramondo Publishing (translated by Jin Han). Ye Xin spoke at Chatswood Library on 19 May as part of the Sydney Writers Festival.


Ye Xin with translator Jing Han discussing Educated Youth at Chatswood Library as part of the 2016 Sydney Writers Festival

It was an interesting experience to attend a literary event in Sydney where over half of the audience was non-European and where non-Chinese speakers had to rely on a translator to follow what was going on.

In retrospect, however, the real surprise was just how rare this experience is. Australia is a linguistically diverse continent – in the late nineteenth century there were approximately 250 indigenous languages or dialects in use around the country (and despite the best efforts of Australian governments over the last 116 years many of these languages are still spoken) – and to our north there are millions of people whose native language is not English. Yet our literature is still predominately an English language literature – work written in or by Australians, even in other European languages, still ranks as curiosity rather than part of the mainstream.

This maybe slowly changing Owl Press, which has been around since the 1990s, publishes writing by Greek Australians and Spinifex Press, is celebrating 25 years of publishing this year, has also been active in publishing and translating the works of women writers from around the world and has an Indian publishing program that stretches back 24 years. We have also seen publishers like Vagabond Press embrace writing from around Asia and the Pacific over recent years as it attempts to include Australian writing in a wider local literary context. Giramondo have also been active in expanding their publishing program beyond the English centric borders of Australian culture and their latest publication, a translation of Ye Xin’s 1991 novel Educated Youth, is further evidence of this.

Ye Xin spoke about his novel at Chatswood Library last Thursday as part of the 2016 Sydney Writers Festival. Through his interrupter he described the main themes of the novel, the “educated youths” or zhiqing, high school graduates who found themselves separated from their families and sent into the country side as part of the Cultural Revolution. Ye Xin, who was one of the zhiging, explained that many of them embraced the change with revolutionary zeal as they felt that they needed to be “re-educated”, others simply “went with the flow”. As the years passed many married, had children and settled down. Then when Mao died they were suddenly free to return to the city under certain circumstances. Only unmarried zhiging were allowed to move back. Many simply abandoned their families, or found means to quickly divorce and flee. Years later, however, the children they left behind began travelling to the cities to look for their parents, many of whom who had married and started new families.

Considering it is now 50 years since the beginning of the Cultural Revolution the publication of the English translation of Educated Youth is a timely one and Ye Xin’s author’s talk raised a number of issues for both the Chinese and non-Chinese members of the audience.

 – Mark Roberts


Mark Roberts is a Sydney based writer, critic and publisher. He is the founding editor of Rochford Street Review and his own work has ben published in numerous journals both in Australia and overseas. His latest collection, Concrete Flamingos, was published by Island Press in February.

Educated Youth is available from http://www.giramondopublishing.com/fiction/educated-youth/

Edging Towards a Rendezvous: Mike Coppin Reviews ‘From Now On Everything Will Be Different’ by Eliza Vitri Handayani

From Now On Everything Will Be Different by Eliza Vitri Handayani  Vagabond Press, 2015

from now onJulita, a feisty photo-journalist, strains against mainstream society’s strictures, occasionally using her tee-shirt as the page on which she expresses her revolt. Eliza Handayani, creator of the character Julita, felt impelled six months ago to have her own tee-shirt printed with text from her recent novel, in order to protest the official blocking of its launch at a writers festival in Indonesia. The authorities’ action alone would make this book of interest, but it is well worth reading on its own merits as an engaging novel from a new talent.

From Now On Everything Will Be Different traces the relationship between two young spirits yearning to be free. We are introduced to Rizky as a thirty-something doctor as he prepares to catch up with Julita for the first time after a period of years; he has just received at letter from her, asking to meet. The twin threads of Rizky preparing/travelling to meet Julita and vice versa comprise a core strand of the novel.

We next see them as high-schoolers in Jakarta, Indonesia’s capital, getting into strife because of their unconventional values. Their story is picked up again in 1998, a time of groundswell unrest against the government and the established order – and the last year I lived there, as it happened. Here the themes of their resistance to social and political norms, together with their individual struggles to find freedom and identity in their personal lives, are more firmly established, forming the double motif that provides the book’s focus. The novel progressively delves back into different periods of the pair’s lives, so that we gradually learn more about them and their evolving relationship.

The characters of Julita and Rizky are well drawn, both being likeable but with flaws and foibles. Their efforts to achieve workable lifestyles, ones that somehow reconcile their Bohemian beliefs with mundane realities, are for the most part pursued separately, and circumstances dictate that their relationship is expressed mainly through phone calls, text messages and letters. Rizky is the comparatively less assertive of the two in terms of breaking free and wears the cost of that, while Julita takes a more non-conformist route, with its own attendant price. She is far more adventurous in her love life than middle-class Javanese women are expected to be.

Perhaps reflective of the pair’s personalities are the boxes each keeps. Rizky keeps a ‘Box of Essential Memories’ (backward-looking), whereas Julita maintains her ‘Box of Unfinished Projects’ (forward-looking, to an extent). Whatever, their pains are palpable and one aches for them. Julita, especially, suffers from a sense of enduring disappointment in life until achieving a degree of perspective.

Their personal struggles take place against the backdrop of the Indonesian nation’s own struggle to forge a reformed society after the easing out of the quasi-dictator, Suharto, and the social order that went with him. This process was accompanied by acts of mass violence that could break out at any time; these occur ‘off-stage’ in From Now On, but add an element of edginess to the story. This backcloth is in no way intrusive, and it won’t harm your enjoyment of the novel if you have no knowledge of the politics or culture of the place.

This leads us to the blocking of the book-launch at the Ubud Writers & Readers Festival in Bali. It wasn’t literally a banning: the local police simply told the festival organiser that the whole show would be shut down if she didn’t cancel any functions that mentioned the government-sanctioned mass killings of 1965 (which had over a million allegedly communist victims). The organizer put up a brave resistance before complying, but then publicised the incident to draw attention to the very thing the authorities didn’t want in the limelight.

What exactly had Eliza written in From Now On Everything Will Be Different to incur official displeasure? Here’s the relevant extract: “The actors asked him what new plays he wanted them to mount, now they could perform whatever they want – perhaps something about the ’65 mass murders…” And that’s it; there’s not another mention in the whole novel. Maybe Eliza is correct in suggesting that her book was “dragged into the 1965 paranoia wave”. Undaunted, she continues to promote her book, saying that it’s important to never be afraid.

Back to the novel as literary work. It is longer than the Indonesian-language version published in two years ago, as Eliza added more background to aid the understanding of foreign readers, plus modifications based on feedback from the earlier version. This is not the author’s first novel. As a teenager she wrote a book, but was so unhappy with it she didn’t tackle another novel for a decade. What we have now is the work of a more mature talent.

There are two minor issues I’d raise about the book. First, there are a few slips of grammar, but not to any distracting extent. More of a bother is occasional lack of clarity about exactly where we are time-wise, as the jumps forward or back in time are not always clearly indicated. Editorial guidance could have easily fixed this, using double-line breaks or centred asterisks.

That said, From Now On Everything Will Be Different is an intriguing novel with two endearing main characters, even when you feel like giving them a slap to wake up to themselves. Though they are probably not people I’d want to be besties with, as they edged slowly closer to their rendezvous, I couldn’t help feeling the tension and had to resist flipping to the end to see what happens. You should resist, too.

I recommend this novel to anyone who likes a well-written read about characters you can care about, and especially commend it to those with an interest in new writing coming out of Southeast Asia. Whether, as Manneke Budiman suggests, it represents “a new dawn of the Indonesian novel” is – I suspect – too early to call. It is, however, a real advance on a lot of literature from that country in that it enters deeply inside the hearts and minds of its protagonists, and in that it explores moral issues more fearlessly than her compatriot writers usually do. Perhaps that was another reason Eliza incurred the wrath of the authorities.

Now just short of thirty, Eliza is married to a Norwegian and divides her time between Oslo and Jakarta, where she is involved with InterSastra, an organisation she set up to promote literary translation. She’s definitely one to watch and I look forward to her next offering.


Postscript: I have followed the Indonesian custom of referring to a person by their first name rather than their last.

 – Mike Coppin.


Mike Coppin is the author of Shadow Chase, a novel set in Java, where he taught English for five years. He has had articles and book reviews printed in Inside Indonesia, Rural Society and other publications. He can be found at www.mikecoppin.wordpress.com

From Now On Everything Will Be Different is available from  http://vagabondpress.net/products/eliza-vitri-handayani-from-now-on-everything-will-be-different