The speculative fiction Death Fugue titles itself after Holocaust survivor Paul Celan’s poem “Todesfuge”, and takes its theme from Theodor W. Adorno’s line that “To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric.” Its protagonist is a poet, Mengliu, who abandons poetry – or it abandons him – following an experience that tears his world apart.
Mengliu lives in a city called Beiping. One day a tower of excrement appears in the city square. The people demand answers. The government lies. The people protest. The military violently suppresses the demonstrations. The government whitewashes the history and the people give themselves over to happy, mindless consumerism. So far, so allegorical: even the stinking turd pile suggests the corruption that sparked China’s 1989 pro-democracy movement.
The priapic and amoral Mengliu loses the woman he loves, Qizi, in the violent crackdown. (As “commander-in-chief’” of the protests, Qizi closely resembles the controversial 1989 student leader Chai Ling.) Concluding that poetry has become “a whore’s cry”, Mengliu becomes a doctor. Years later, he is mysteriously transported to Swan Valley, a place of seemingly pervasive beauty, kindness and virtue that turns out to be as violently dystopic as his homeland. He eventually discovers the shocking connection.
Despite its promise, the narrative chokes on a profusion of overwrought similes and metaphors that careen floridly between the banal and the bizarre. In one short paragraph, Mengliu “raced like an escaped horse”, “took wing, like a bird” and “shot forward like a bullet at lightning speed”; elsewhere, a pretty woman’s ears are likened to “a crispy snack, golden and crispy thin”. A woman’s chest boasts “a pair of loaded coconuts” – Sheng is even more laddish here than in her breast-obsessed Northern Girls. The novel appears trapped, too, within a clumsy, wooden-eared translation.
The constant, smoky, dull thunder of misfiring verbal pyrotechnics makes it hard to invest emotionally in the love story, or intellectually in what seems intended as a novel of ideas. That it can’t be published in China is a fact but not automatically a commendation. Although Sheng has bravely tackled one of her country’s greatest taboos, she falls far short of the power, universality and literary accomplishment of her many name-checked literary survivor-heroes. CG
Giramondo, 392pp, $29.95
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Oct 4, 2014 as "Sheng Keyi, Death Fugue". Subscribe here.