A difficult, but enlightening read
More than three decades after Chinese soldiers killed student protesters, the Communist party is still sniffing out even the faintest references to the Tiananmen Square massacre. But Sheng Keyi made it easy for government censors to find her. Her novel Death Fugue opens in the capital city of Beijing on the day a nine-storey tower of poo appears in Round Square.
The story that follows is a kind of Chaucerian refraction of the vicious military assault that shocked the world in 1989. From that mound of scatological humour emerges a pungent political satire that has, predictably, been banned in China, even as Sheng's work continues to generate gasps and praise. Now, almost 10 years after it was written, Death Fugue is being released by a small American publisher in an English translation by Shelly Bryant. Sadly, given Beijing's continuing tyrannical behaviour, this outlandish novel has lost none of its original relevance.
The reluctant hero of Death Fugue is Yuan Mengliu, a poet working in the literature department of the National Youth Administration for Elite Wisdom. Comically oversexed, Mengliu runs around with two other poets, forming a trio known as “The Three Musketeers.” He's not particularly interested in the mysterious mountain of feces in Round Square, but because his poetic comrades are, he gets caught up in the demonstrations. During a police raid he's briefly detained with a beautiful woman named Qizi, one of the leaders of the Tower Incident protesters.
We learn of those heady days in retrospect, as Sheng presents moments of romance and violence in a scramble of youthful exuberance.
But in the novel's equally unstable present time, Qizi has long since vanished, and Mengliu has abandoned poetry to become a surgeon. He remains obsessed with Qizi. Early in the novel, Mengliu, searching for Qizi, enters an ideal city-state called Swan Valley. Here in this heavenly realm of undisturbed peace, the men and women are people of excellence, and their children are profoundly mature. “There is no desire, no greed, no selfishness or distraction, only good deeds.”
Death Fugue is a relentless deconstruction of the Communist party's insistence that society can be perfected through enlightened centralized control.
Mengliu discovers that marriages, sexual relations and pregnancies are all carefully engineered “according to scientific principles” to ensure the best possible progeny. The full horror of that program only becomes apparent as Mengliu realizes he cannot leave Swan Valley.
Something about the environment of Swan Valley is corrupting his mind. That mental confusion is effectively reflected in the structure of Death Fugue; time and place shift erratically. The tone is weirdly chaotic. It's not an easy read, but is enlightening in a wholly unique way.
“Sometimes art is the only means by which we may find out the truth,” Sheng writes, “and the only tool flexible enough for its communication.”