Once on a Moonless Night
by Dai Sijie
Chatto & Windus, HK$200
This new novel by the author of the best-selling Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress occasionally recalls Umberto Eco's enigmatic The Name of the Rose. Rather than a whodunit, however, Dai's much shorter but ambitious tale can be seen more as a where-is-it, because it tracks the search for half of an ancient Buddhist scroll. Once on a Moonless Night is also a convoluted love story, and the object of more than a few of the book's characters' ardour is tumchooq, an antiquated - although invented - Silk Road language exquisite in its simplicity and refinement.
Charming at times, heavy-handed at others, the tale is narrated by a young Frenchwoman studying in Beijing during the late 1970s. There, she meets the 'Living Dictionary of the Forbidden City', a wizened, traditionally dressed man with incredible stories to tell.
And tell he does - of an ancient text, written in tumchooq, the words possibly taken directly from the Buddha's teachings and inscribed on a silk scroll. He relates how the last emperor, Puyi, in an act symbolising his self-loathing, ripped the scroll in two while being flown from his residence in Tianjin to Manchuria by the Japanese in 1932, there to be installed as figurehead ruler of the puppet state of Manchukuo. Puyi, so the tale goes, ejected the fragments from the plane and only one half was recovered. And so the search is on.
Like Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress, Once on a Moonless Night welds European and Chinese sensibilities to explore cross-cultural relations and illustrate a search for personal identity. (Born in China in 1954, Dai left for France in 1984 and is now permanently based in Paris. Both books, as well as his Mr Muo's Travelling Couch, were originally written in French.)
By chance, at the time of her instruction by the Living Dictionary, the young narrator meets the intriguingly named Tumchooq, who works in a Beijing greengrocer's shop and becomes her lover.
Once on a Moonless Night also incorporates - sometimes clumsily - fictionalised accounts of real-life historical figures to illustrate shifts in Chinese political history. As well as Puyi, the Empress Dowager Cixi and Marco Polo make appearances, as does Hu Feng, a renowned writer and literary theorist jailed by Mao Zedong for 24 years for not toeing the party line.
The book's first-person narrative, meanwhile, wherein the student informs the reader of what, for instance, Tumchooq told her in lengthy screeds of his own words, while he is informing her of what another party told him, in many of their own words, makes Once on a Moonless Night confusing at times. It is frequently difficult to keep abreast of who is speaking and to whom.
Many extended passages dwelling on the mystical nature of tumchooq (especially those detailing emotionally crushed Hu's discovery of its healing beauty when it has been introduced to him by Tumchooq's errant father, a French oriental languages specialist with whom Hu is incarcerated in a Sichuan prison camp) are painfully flowery.
And Dai's reverence for, and repetition in the explaining of, Buddhism, while recalling Herman Hesse's Siddhartha, mean the novel will sit as comfortably on new-age shelves as on those for other fiction.
Ultimately, however, Once on a Moonless Night is a beguiling and strangely haunting tale that, while twisting history for its own ends, brings the 20th-century mainland to life, placing it in the context of millennia of Eurasian cultural exchanges.