Saturday, August 22, 2009

A beautiful novel and homage to literature

A month has gone by since my last post, I'm ashamed to note. My excuse, well, you know, I've been devoting keyboard time to other things. But today I want to rave about an August novel:

Once on a Moonless Night by Dai Sijie. Tr. by Adriana Hunter.
Knopf, 288p. 24.95 (9780307271587).

The spell cast by Dai Sijie’s novels, beginning with his bestselling Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress
(2001), is attributable, in part, to his work as a filmmaker—his fiction is strikingly visual, and most certainly to his bicultural and bilingual experiences. Born in China, where he underwent “re-education” as a boy, Dai came to France at age 30 in 1984. The unnamed narrator in his third bewitching and suspenseful novel about the power of literature makes the reverse trip.

A French college student inspired by the extraordinary work of Paul D’Ampere, a gifted Frenchman linguist who retraced the steps of Marco Polo and then disappeared, she is studying Chinese in Peking in 1978 when she hears the story of a missing ancient Buddhist scroll while riding a train—the first of many journeys of inquiry. She also falls in love with a Peking greengrocer, a young man named Tumchooq after “the language in which Buddha preached.” Through a finely embroidered series of flashbacks, Dai reveals Tumchooq’s connection to D’Ampere and the long lost Buddhist sutra, which begins with the phrase, “Once on a moonless night.”

Dai’s darkly beautiful, suspenseful, and cosmic novel, as richly historical as it is imaginative, is set in the Forbidden City, a Chinese prison camp, Paris, Mali, and Burma, and structured so exquisitely it illuminates “Hell, the earthly world, and Paradise.” Dai’s dazzling and poetic tale of epic quests, martyred scholars and artists, the courage of one’s convictions, and love put to the test tells us that language is transcendent; books are sacred; translation is a noble art; stories are the key to freedom, and truth will be found.