The comic and the heroic have often been allied in literature, notably in the West by Cervantes and his English disciple Henry Fielding. Here the Francophile author of Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress (reviewed in Taipei Times Oct. 21, 2001) attempts a similar feat. The result is a far more ambitious effort than his bestselling debut, and a comic tour-de-force of some considerable standing.
Dai Sijie's formula is to take a Chinese devotee of Freudian psychotherapy, marinade him in Parisian intellectual life for a couple of decades, then have him return to China to conduct a series of "dream interpretations" on his compatriots. The result is a brilliant cultural hybrid, a novel that's simultaneously delightful, farcical, and almost endlessly inventive.
Awkward and uncoordinated, with his glasses constantly in danger of being knocked from his face, Mr Muo is a benign innocent in the tradition of Fielding's Parson Adams and Cervantes' Don Quixote. He has, for instance, such an innocent enthusiasm for his subject that he soon attracts whole crowds of willing punters. Though his attempts to embody the French chivalric spirit make him an almost grotesque incongruity, he is ultimately portrayed as a unique and heroic human figure.
On a journey through China, he finds himself pressed up against fellow passengers, some rich, some extremely poor, but all of them filled with curiosity about this Chinese man who's wearing French shoes and trying to keep together his extensive European luggage.
He's quickly captivated by a young girl whose job is sweeping the carriage floor while the other passengers play cards, snore and sweat. First attracted by the bergamot fragrance of her hair, he's soon moved by all her physical attributes and, on the verge of falling in love with her, offers to interpret her dreams.
Mr Muo's Travelling Couch
By Dai Sijie
His feelings recall a past attachment to an old classmate, known as "Volcano of the Old Moon." This woman now languishes in jail awaiting trial, accused of selling pictures of dissidents to the Wes-tern press. Muo's quest is to find the man who put her there, Judge Di (a figure worthy of William Burroughs). He has an ally in the mayor's son-in-law who arranges a deal between Volcano of the Old Moon and Judge Di in exchange for a night with a girl "whose red melon has not yet been slashed."
As he explains, "The female essence of a virgin -- you realise what that means, don't you? Her saliva is more fragrant than a married woman's; her vaginal secretions bestow an exquisite grace on the sexual act. That is the most precious source of vitality on Earth." Thus begins not only Muo's resolve to seek out such a specimen for the judge's pleasure but also because of his fixation on virgins in general.
He publicizes his services as a Freudian psychoanalyst and interpreter of dreams. In the Chinese cultural context, his divinatory powers seem like fortune telling rather than scientific analysis, yet his predictions often turn out to be accurate, and his dream interpretations have a way of insinuating themselves into his clients' minds so that what is apparently foretold soon occurs. One man's dream yields the prognosis of his wife's fatal cancer; another client her sprained ankle, and so on -- all of which earns this Chinese, French-speaking psychoanalist vigorous local acclaim.