East uneasily meets West in both of Dai Sijie's fanciful novels. In his debut work, "Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress," two teenage boys sentenced to be "reeducated" in a remote mountain village during the Cultural Revolution discover and then delight in a suitcase full of banned European fiction.
In his second book, "Mr. Muo's Travelling Couch," the title character -- "a Chinese-born apprentice in psychoanalysis recently returned from France" -- himself has imported forbidden materials. And even though the objectionable texts and ideas are Freud's this time, not Balzac's, repression and romanticism once again do battle in a corrupt and controlling communist system reluctant to relinquish control over its citizens.
Sijie knows his characters' plight, having lived in both worlds. Born in China in 1954, he spent part of the 1970s at a reeducation camp. In 1984, he immigrated to France, where he has lived as a filmmaker and writer ever since.
As the new book opens, Muo is checking to make sure his suitcase is locked to the rack above his train seat. He slips off his shoes, then "more discreetly, he moves his hand to the back of his trousers and runs his fingertips over the bump produced by the stash in his underpants, where he has secreted the not-inconsiderable sum of ten thousand dollars, cash."
This money, he hopes, will bribe a certain Judge Di into pardoning Volcano of the Old Moon, Muo's college girlfriend and idealized love. Eleven years ago, she was thrown into a Chinese prison when authorities learned she had given European journalists her photographs of police torturing protesters during the 1989 Tiananmen uprising.
Meanwhile, Muo has been scrimping in Paris, completing doctoral studies on the interpretation of dreams. He arrives back in China determined to become "a healer of souls" and to rescue his sweetheart, who faces life imprisonment in the women's jail of Chengdu.
Muo is a deliciously unlikely knight errant. Forty years old, living with his parents, "sorely lacking in practical experience" in sexual matters and smelling like mildewed books, he is "bereft of charm." Such limitations make him an even juicier Quixote when sleazy Judge Di ups the ante. His new price for releasing Volcano of the Old Moon is a virgin that he can deflower.
Our hero sets off to find a pristine maiden he can coax into fulfilling the judge's desires, but Muo is so ill-suited to the task that his odyssey triggers a long string of misadventures. For one thing, no one believes the dream interpretations he offers as he peddles a bicycle on his journeys. Confidence undermined, he begins questioning Freud's theories on virginity, castration and impotence. Sleepless, "he looks for orthodox answers in his psychoanalytic texts, but ... they seem only more outlandish here, in his true home."
Muo's tragicomic travels raise several serious ideas -- about justice, mercy, integrity -- that fall victim to the far-fetched proceedings where cellphones and sorceresses rub shoulders. Clearly, Muo has become a stranger in a very strange land.
By basing the tale on a quest -- a dependable literary device -- Sijie gives his narrative the freedom to wander into many exotic settings and satirical situations. Some of these escapades are wonderful fun -- consulting an old medicine man in a panda preserve, escaping a mental institution after Muo is mistaken for a madman -- but other story lines lead nowhere.
Many reviewers praised the balance of humor and substance in Sijie's first book, which captured the boys' resilient spirits in the face of humiliating hard labor; few critics, however, mentioned the little seamstress' fate. Love and sex were not nearly as simple or amusing for her once she became pregnant in a country where, according to that story's narrator, abortion was illegal and marriage before age 25 was outlawed. The plot's serious turn forces change -- reeducation -- on everyone, but for the good.
By comparison, Sijie's new novel is uneven, its message less apparent. A hero as flawed and dogged as Muo, however, can't help but be endearing. His homecoming soon teaches him that greed thrives in a communist state. On that opening train ride, both his shoes and his suitcase are stolen. And the cash in his underpants? In 21st century China, just as in capitalist countries, money can't always guarantee living happily ever after. *