Whether he is scouring the domestic worker’s market for virgins, helping an embalmer move a gigantic not-quite-dead body, or applying vicious-smelling lotions to a broken leg attached to a young woman who believes herself destined for a better life, Mr. Muo performs his chosen duties with grace, style, and an ever present slant of dream analysis, his favorite subject being himself. In Mr. Muo’s Travelling Couch, Mr. Muo returns from the streets of Paris with the specific purpose of securing his love’s release from prison, where she has been incarcerated for distributing pamphlets during the cultural war. All he needs to bribe Judge Di for her freedom is a virgin - which might have been easier to find twenty or so years ago. As with most quests, success beams always just ahead on the horizon, just around the next bend, just in the next train car over. Dai Sijie elegantly writes: “The spectre of futility hovers over everything Muo has done, from his peregrinations over the countryside on bike and by train, to his pursuits of love and of sex, to his dissimulations and fabulations, to every deed that followed from his idea of returning to China on a mission of salvation.”
Sijie’s second novel offers a subtle taste of magical realism, a dreamier version than the tradition found in the literature of Latin America. His writing reminds me of that of Kazuo Ishiguro, with a dash of W.G. Sebald. Tangents spring from every other paragraph, delightful asides the absence of which would steal a necessary complexity from the text and subtract weight from the underlying themes of love, faith, obsession. Sijie’s prose is deft and compact, unsparing in detail yet wasting of no words. He is easy to read even while layer upon layer of interconnected imagery sifts up and through his lines.
This is not a book for those seeking an adrenalin rush. Mr. Muo wants to be happy and finds contentment, even euphoria, in simple, immediate things, even when his quest isn’t going so well. “He rejoices in the vibrating echo of the train in the tunnel, exults in his restored tooth, relishes his boyhood reminiscences, and before he knows it the lights have come on again.” All while he is on the run from the police and experiencing a dental tragedy. This willingness towards joy is a refreshing vein in the novel. So often we revel in despair, which can be a valuable exercise, but sometimes happiness needs a little piece of stage to remind us of how pleasant it can be to simply appreciate the small, easy things. Even when our quests drag on and on and on.
What defines Mr. Muo most sharply is his love of books, Freud, Lacan, the French language. On his way to turn himself in to the authorities, a step he never does take, he stops at a bookshop to purchase what he believes will last him for the length of his sentence: ten heavy books. “‘If I ever become a millionaire,’ he vowed, ‘I’ll just buy books, books, and more books, and store them in different places, according to subject.’” A man after my own heart.