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BOOK REVIEW

'Once on a Moonless Night'

Following a relic's irresistible pull

September 07, 2009|Janice P. Nimura

People confront art in two ways. Some crave context: the who, the how, the why, the when. They need to make sense of the object before them, to place it, to know what is known about it. For others the encounter is purely personal, perhaps even mystical, and explanation can only taint it.

Dai Sijie's new novel, "Once on a Moonless Night," seems at first glance to be written for the first group. His narrator, a nameless young French woman studying in Beijing in the late 1970s, falls in love with the young man who sells vegetables in her neighborhood. Through him she learns of an ancient silk scroll in a dead language called Tumchooq, which also happens to be the greengrocer's given name. Only half of the scroll survives, bearing the first part of an obscure Buddhist sutra.

This "mutilated relic" is a textual grail, exerting an irresistible pull on many, of which Tumchooq and his foreign girlfriend are only the most recent. Tumchooq's estranged father is an eminent French scholar who sacrificed his beloved for the scroll and is now imprisoned.

Everyone who has ever heard of the scroll seems to have a lot to say on the subject -- the novel is less a narrative than a succession of digressive monologues on Chinese history, politics, linguistics, Buddhism and art. That a venerable professor would be unlikely, upon meeting our narrator, to unleash an extemporaneous 30-page lecture on the last Qing emperor's obsession with the scroll doesn't trouble Dai. Plausible plot is beside the point; what matters is the power of a text.

And despite the torrents of information Dai delivers, what slowly becomes clear is that he is making art, not describing it -- writing for that second group, after all. This is not fiction grounded in documentary evidence but a freewheeling meditation on language as the divine current that buoys human experience. The Tumchooq language is Dai's fabrication. Puyi, that last emperor, may indeed have flown in a Japanese plane to his northern exile, but the fit of madness that has him rending the precious scroll with his teeth and flinging it from the plane, setting in motion the quest to rediscover it, is pure fantasy.

Fans of "Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress," Dai's bestselling debut, will recognize some oddly distracting allusions to it but will miss the earlier novel's winning mixture of winks and sighs, crude guffaws and rapture. That book was brilliant and wonderful storytelling; this one buries its story -- and its characters -- in layer upon layer of often baffling meaning. Language is more important than anything else: It is a tide, a sacred journey, a thread of cocooning silk; its pursuit a defense against madness, a salvation. This is a story in which polecat-hair writing brushes have their own graveyard, men leave the women they love for the sake of a text, and "[n]o one is left indifferent by the beauty of a printing plate." Plot recedes into the background, propelled only by coincidences so extreme that the brutal action of the book begins to seem more dreamlike than the carefully observed dream sequences.

The book leaves every narrative thread unresolved but one: the final words of the torn sutra, which offer the promise of a redemption none of the characters here can hope for. As a novel, "Once on a Moonless Night" is completely, perhaps deliberately unsatisfying; as a piece of art, encrusted with meaning and mystery, it is rich and strange.

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Nimura is a New York-based critic whose work has appeared in Newsday and the Washington Post.

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