BOOKS: ‘Once on a Moonless Night’

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ONCE ON A MOONLESS NIGHT
By Dai Sijie
Knopf, $24.95, 288 pages
REVIEWED BY MURIEL DOBBIN

This is the story of a “mutilated relic,” a sacred and lost text inscribed on an 800-year-old roll of silk reportedly torn in two by the teeth of an enraged and frustrated emperor.

More than that, this is a miniature and mystical history of China from the days of the Last Emperor in the 1930s through the senseless savagery of the Cultural Revolution in the 1970s to a modern China still inextricably tied to its past. It abounds in inventive mythology darkly threaded by a tragic love story.

Dai Sijie, who wrote the memorable “Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress,” has written a haunting and complex book about a world within a world where mysteries still cling to the centuries. The strange story of the scroll is told by a never identified narrator who is a Western student in China. She becomes the lover of a young man called Tumchooq, who is sentenced to three years of “reeducation” during the terrifying days of the Red Guards who inflicted the most severe punishment on intellectuals who were branded “thought criminals.”

This is a surreal book told with a spare elegance of prose that explores the tangled policies and complicated psychology that have defeated many who probed the secrets of the Middle Kingdom. What is inscribed on the lost scroll is attributed to Buddha, and it is typical of the author that the message it bears proves simple in its eloquence. But there is nothing simple about the language in which it is written or the effort involved in the kind of calligraphy that used a brush made of polecat hairs.

Tracing the “hazy and confused labyrinth” of her Chinese memories, the student relates what she learned from an elderly historian known as The Living Dictionary of the Forbidden City. The historian recalls how Puyi, the Last Emperor, who sought to practice the art of calligraphy in the style of an earlier emperor, took the remains of the scroll with him into exile in Manchuria. The torn scroll’s peripatetic history then moves to the ostensibly mundane setting of a greengrocer’s shop in old Peking.

That was a time when followers of Mao were so berserk they shot a “profane swallow” that laid a clutch of eggs on his statue and nobody was safe from the predators who rampaged the country. In that shop, the narrator meets Tumchooq, a young man whose name signified the language of Buddha. He tells of his estranged and imprisoned father, French linguist Paul d'Ampere, who has muted the miseries of his imprisonment in a labor camp by studying the ancient language of Tumchooq. He eventually dies a hideous death at the hands of fellow prisoners who reserve their deepest hatred for those who dare to think.

Tumchooq admits to his secret world the female student who becomes his lover by permitting her to see a photograph of the fragment of the mutilated scroll locked away in the Forbidden City. He reads to her the words his father had deciphered in the original, and they are forever engraved on her memory. The fragment reads:

“Once on a moonless night a lone man is traveling in the dark when he comes across a long path that merges into the mountain and the mountain into the sky, but half way along, at a turn in the path he stumbles.

“As he falls he clutches at a tuft of grass which briefly delays a fatal outcome but soon his hands can hold him no longer and like a condemned man in his final hour, he casts one last glance below where he can see only the darkness of those unfathomable depths.”

Where the fragment ends is where the search begins for the answer it is believed to hold. As part of his quest, the young man with the ancient name of Tumchooq begins to visit his father who teaches him the Tumchooq language during visits to the hellish mountain prison where hundreds work in gem mines in conditions so brutal that death comes as a relief. This part of the chronicle of the scroll is bleak, yet it is relieved by Tumchooq’s reunion with his father, because d'Ampere has succeeded in transcending what surrounds him. He emerges from a coma after his lynching by camp prisoners to tell his son that he wants no name or dates on his grave.

Tumchooq reasons that the world had been reduced to what was left of his father’s memory and by erasing it, he was “putting himself beyond the past and eventually beyond the order of time altogether.”

Ironically, while the woman narrator is still pursuing the relic, Tumchooq is arrested because of a forged passport and sentenced to imprisonment in Laos. Despairing, he seeks the sanctuary of a monastery. Yet his lover, who has had an abortion after realizing he will never return to her, is still convinced the sacred scroll can be found. She returns to present-day Beijing and finds her way back to the Forbidden City and its halls of ancient exhibits.

She remembers the “wavering image” of the mutilated scroll she had been shown in the greengrocer’s shop so many years ago and finds a museum worker who leads her to a small hall with rows of pink plastic chairs and a projector. When the projector lights up, the missing part of the precious scroll appears in close up.

As she joyfully touches the grain of the screen with her fingers, she remembers how Tumchooq had described “the song of the sand dunes” as it was described by his mother when he was a child.

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