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Chinese fortune cookie
Dai Sijie takes Freud to China

Love, perhaps, makes fools of us all. But chaste devotion has such a purity about it that it opens the lover up to grand comedy. This kind of adoration can be an easy target: without the grounding of earthy sensuality or even reciprocated affection, sexless devotion is prime fodder for self-delusion and misunderstanding. It’s also the material of Chinese author Dai Sijie, who knows how to exploit innocence with subtle humor and stinging wit.

In his bestselling Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress, Dai set such love off like a jewel against China’s Cultural Revolution. Two urban students have been sent to the mountains for "re-education" and fall for an entrancing if illiterate seamstress. The unnamed protagonist woos both her and his own culture-deprived senses with remembered stories and movie plots. And he finds himself carried away by his fantasies as neither love nor the seamstress turns out to be what he expected.

In Mr. Muo’s Travelling Couch (which is translated, once again, with lyrical grace by Ina Rilke), Dai’s longing lover is neither so young nor so sweet but a stiff, bespectacled prude "bereft of charm and good looks." Returning from Paris, where he trained as a psychoanalyst, Muo has come to bring his great love, Freud, to his homeland. But he has a second ambition: to liberate the object of his adoration, Volcano of the Old Moon, who’s been jailed for leaking secrets. To do so, he must bribe the corrupt Judge Di with a virgin. If this sounds convoluted — both mediæval and postmodern — it is. Muo plies his trade as an itinerant shrink, nearly losing Freud — as well as his faith — in the muck of millennia.

Moreover, the narrative jumps in time and place, from Muo’s present back to his own schoolboy sexual awakening (involving Volcano’s "white-socked insteps" — our hero is a foot fetishist) and to Judge Di’s culinary and mah jong orgies. The cast of characters — all every bit as odd as these two — includes the Embalmer, whose husband killed himself on their wedding night, and the Old Observer, who keeps track of panda droppings. Everyone is frustrated, living a life of compromise and often blind to the currents that manipulate him or her. It is, as Muo had hoped, a world ripe for psychoanalysis, though the would-be savior’s lack of interpersonal skills often makes his blunt, public dream interpretations unwelcome.

Some of Muo’s knots do unravel. Pressed, he lets his hard-line doctrine loosen, and as his clients are permitted to interpret his analyses as the more traditional mode of fortunetelling, he begins to experience success. But even then, that success is not what he — or they — expected. More cynical than Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress, Mr. Muo’s Travelling Couch unfolds like a difficult dream, albeit one remembered vividly.

What holds it together is Dai’s sly humor. Strict Freudian Muo’s naiveté is such that he doesn’t recognize his own castration anxiety when he catches his finger in a set of "stealthily swinging doors." Neither does he ever wonder why he "dreamed of organising a fashion show in Paris with models riding bicycles down the catwalk."

Only as one reads and re-reads does this deadpan humor sink in, throwing every aspect of Muo’s life into doubt. His own training psychoanalysis, for example, began with his speaking in Chinese "of which his psychoanalyst understood not a word." Who exactly is Muo saving again? What really does a prison make?

Issue Date: July 1 - 7, 2005
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