It starts with a literal pile of shit. A dazzling, creepy allegory that is both profoundly intelligent and gripping on a basic human level, Sheng Keyi’s Death Fugue is a masterpiece crafted with obvious care. Banned in China for its political implications relating to Tiannamen Square, Death Fugue manages to encompass art, philosophy, and love in an eerie story that sucked me in like quicksand. Keyi weaves beautiful, incessant metaphor and simile with Murukami-like magical realism.
Published for the first time in English by Giramondo, Death Fugue is the bold attempt by a prominent Chinese novelist to confront the legacy of protest and suppression which haunts her generation.
Sheng Keyi was born in Hunan province in 1973 and lives in Beijing. Death Fugue is her sixth novel, and the second to be published in English translation, after Northern Girls (2012). It is a brave work of speculative fiction, a cross between Cloud Atlas and 1984, scathing in its irony, ingenious in its use of allegory, and acute in its understanding of the power of writing. The imagination that drives it is exuberant and unconstrained.
In a large square in the centre of Beiping, the capital of Dayang, a huge tower of excrement appears one day, causing unease in the population, and ultimately widespread civil unrest. The protest, in which poets play an important part, is put down violently.
Haunted by the violence, and by his failure to support his girlfriend Qizi, who is one of the protest leaders, Yuan Mengliu gives up poetry in favour of medicine, and the antiseptic environment of the operating theatre.
But every year he travels in search of Qizi, and on one of these trips, caught in a storm, he wakes to find himself in a perfect society called Swan Valley. In this utopia, as he soon discovers, impulse and feeling are completely controlled, and every aspect of life regulated for the good of the nation, with terrible consequences.
LET’S TALK WRITING
The past should not be forgotten. Sometimes art is the only means by which we may find out the truth, and the only tool flexible enough for its communication.
Death Fugue possesses a heady concoction I usually associate with the old masters—the old white men we’re taught in school—the Fitzgeralds, the Hemmingways, the Orwells. I don’t know where Keyi finds these refreshing, stunning ways to describe both nature and people, but her descriptions make both the novel’s settings jump crisply out of the page. Keyi sees the world in textures, smells, and shapes. She molds these things into feelings.
The concoction also involves some amount of philosophical depth. This book buzzes with one-liners you return to thinking about in the shower. I quickly realized that this was one worth annotating.
However, there is still a certain grain of awkwardness that comes from the sheer size of the chasm between English and Chinese. It feels like reaching back in time and reading Dickens, or listening to a familiar song over a weak, rusted speaker. Some sentences are clunky, and some of Keyi’s tangents didn’t make much sense to me no matter how I analyzed them. I say this, and in the same breath I will admit that this is a stunning translation. Only if I were being extremely picky would I say that translator Shelly Bryant could have been a bit bolder in morphing this beast of a book into a smoother breed of English.
i did not want them to lose so tragically, blown away like ashes in the wind…
Sometimes faith is nothing but a guard who exists in name only at the gate of a village. If you are arrogant, you can walk through easily, but if you look left or right before you enter the gate, he will stop you and interrogate you.
That night the moon looked pale as it hung above the forest. The look, so melancholy, made it seem like the moon was about to break into tears.
He held her, like the wind brushing a cloud, as if he were holding the hidden secret of spring, a sprouting seed, a river through the mountains, like holding time, like holding his past and present self.
The sun fell as lightly as silk at his feet.
The sky was so thin that a fingertip could poke through it.
HOW DID IT GET SO CREEPY?
If you’ve ever read Madeline L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time, you understand Keyi’s Swan Valley. When protagonist Mengliu first arrives in this mysterious utopia, he is taken with the apparent comfort in which its residents live. The unravelling of this utopia is deeply connected to questions about how we value art, the importance of material and physical experiences (versus Buddha-like detachment), and genetic fascism a la Mein Kampf.
As a reader, we begin skeptical of Mengliu, a womanizer who gave up his life as a famous poet after the “round square massacre”—a direct allegory for Tiannamen square with emphatic, absurdist changes like the impetus being a huge random pile of shit appearing in the middle of the square for, like, a day.
As the book continues, however, we come to feel so protective of Mengliu’s poetry that it doesn’t seem odd when it looks like he might die for it.
All people were doing these days was comparing who could draw the roundest circles.
I believe that everyone who reads this novel will take something different from it. But we will all probably share an eerie, unsettled feeling after putting it down—the kind that only gets more pervasive as you realize that this book and these questions are sharply relevant to the world today.