Monday, September 21, 2015

E Zhong d’Ampere

Chinese Woman, 1950s, Marc Riboud
Dai Sijie’s Once on a Moonless Night [first published in France, 2007] purports to be about a mutilated manuscript, torn in two and thrown from a Japanese plane by China’s last emporer, PuYi. An unnamed French girl narrates the story about her love for Tumchooq, a greengrocer with whom she falls in love with in Peking in about 1978. In reality, their love mirrors the more disastrous meeting of Tumchooq’s parents, who are torn apart by the Chinese government’s desire for the manuscript which they own. For me, the most important character in the book is Tumchooq’s mother, E (the word for the silkworm moth) Zhong.

Tumchooq is put in reform school because he leaves for dead the friend who has just told him the standard gossip: “your father sold your pregnant mother to a poet for the mutiliated manuscript.” While in this school, his mother writes down his father’s name, sobbing so much she cannot say it: Paul d’Ampere, a famous French linguist and writer of notes on Marco Polo’s book about the wonders of the world.

For his crime, Paul d’Ampere was sent to the horrifying mines at Ya An near Chengdu before his son was born. Tumchooq first meets him in 1975 when he travels to the prison camp at Ya An, an area which had been the site of such famine that between 1959 and 1961 more than a million people died.

Tumchooq’s mother is the granddaughter of a promising favorite of Cixi, the dowager empress who ruled and controlled the succession of rulers of China for 47 years until her death in 1908. To Tumchooq, his mother is the most beautiful woman in Peking. She works as an assistant curator of a museum within the Forbidden City. Tumchooq tells the narrator about his background, about the pieces of his life he is struggling to put together. He remembers finding the pipa, or lute, which his mother or father had played, hidden among the roof trusses of his house. According to a story which Tumchooq’s mother would never tell him, she had fallen in love with his father when he played the pipa even more beautifully than she did.

Tumchooq also tells the narrator of the singing sands of Manchuria, where he was taken by this mother at four, dressed as a prince to greet his great-grandfather. And of the times his mother and he picked fruit from a fig tree near her office in the Forbidden City at the office of the Imperial Archives. Playing with him, she radiated a “volcanic youthfulness.”

Visiting his father, Tumchooq learns of his father’s friendship with the historical prisoner Hu Feng, a writer and intellectual condemned by Mao himself. Paul d’Ampere teaches Hu Feng, who has been losing his mind, an esoteric language. Wearing a sheepskin jerkin on the inside of which d’Ampere has copied the half of the sutra he knows, the two men play oral chess in the dark. D’Ampere tells Tumchooq that he too will probably pursue the other half of the mutilated manuscript. When d’Ampere is killed by a lynch mob at the camp, Tumchooq buries him and refuses to return to Peking or to ever speak Chinese again.

Abandoned, the narrator aborts the child she has conceived with Tumchooq and goes back to France. But she cannot forget Tumchooq. Eventually she goes to Pagan, Myanmar, where at one time there were 10,000 Buddhist temples, pagodas and monasteries. At a monastery she finds notes that Tumchooq has made. He had come to see whether he could find, among the texts of the Hinayana school of thought, the complete fable of the mutilated manuscript. When the narrator arrives, Tumchooq is in Japan, soon to return, except that he is arrested for having a false passport and deported to Laos.

The narrator must go to Peking to find Tumchooq’s mother and establish his correct identity. She overhears the mutilated manuscript being discussed and finds that the Chinese government has quietly purchased the lost half. She is able to see a slide of it and complete the fable. More importantly, she learns something regarding Tumchooq’s mother: “A beautiful woman, elegant and aristocratic-looking, who withdrew into a sort of perpetual widowhood out of guilt for her husband, whom the authorities had forced her to accuse. According to Mr. Xu, she was given the choice between charging him with a crime he’d never committed or losing the child she was carrying.”

Dai Sijie has become a master at telling the horrifying, yet utterly compelling stories of 20th century China. Here, in a shyly told narrative, we find at base the story of a family, knit together by its complex heritage. Dai Sijie leaves us to imagine what happens, but I am left with the feeling that, amid the sacrifices and pain, some preserved the lush, sensual life, in memory and language, from which China’s ancient culture developed.

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