Jennifer Mackenzie reviews Death Fugue by Sheng Keyi
by Sheng Keyi
translated by Shelly Bryant
Reviewed by JENNIFER MACKENZIE
He calls out more sweetly play death death is a master from Germany
he calls out more darkly now stroke your strings then as smoke you will rise into air
then a grave you will have in the clouds there one lies unconfined
Paul Celan ‘Death Fugue’ (1)
Sheng Keyi has taken Paul Celan’s ‘Death Fugue’ as the title for her new novel, which has been translated by Shelly Bryant. The novel, which lightly disguises its connection to the Tiananmen Square Massacre of 1989, begins in the city of Beiping, capital of Dayang, where the sudden appearance of a tower of excrement precipitates civil unrest and violence. Subsequently the main character, Yuan Mengliu, a doctor and former poet, finds himself in the utopian society of Swan Valley. There, language is employed in the service of the state, a state which is a eugenic meritocracy, a meritocracy eerily similar to the Dayang activist poet, Hei Chun’s book The Genetic Code of the City-State (82/3), with poets being granted supreme status if their verse is eulogistic. In an earlier novel, Northern Girls (2), also translated by Shelly Bryant, Sheng demonstrated her debt to the ribald comedy of the traditional and contemporary Chinese novel, but has in Death Fugue developed it into a refined satirical allegory depicting a society satiated with extraordinary wealth and which has become so pacified that its citizens can accept and justify any restriction on their freedom.
Although the connection in the narrative between the Tiananmen Square Massacre and the violence in Round Square, home of Beiping’s Wisdom Bureau, is what strikes the reader initially, it is the connection between political activity and writing, or poetry in particular, which lies at the heart of this enthralling, and at times confronting novel. With its intense focus on nature, the novel reminds us of the centrality of landscape in Chinese literature, and is in many ways a provocation on this subject. Place and emotion are inextricable elements of this literature, and in ‘Death Fugue’ the land of Swan Valley, as a site of allegory encompassing political philosophy, emerges as less of a place than an emanation of Mengliu’s state of mind, as a full-blown nightmare registering trauma and pain.
Death Fugue begins by introducing the principal character, Mengliu. He was once an acclaimed poet, a member of the revered group, known as the Three Musketeers. After the trauma of the massacre in Round Square, he gave up writing poetry and trained as a doctor, finding some solace in medicine. World-weary, he is essentially a romantic and a libertine, aware of and disturbed by his unknown origins. His orphaned state comes to haunt him every time he plays the chuixun, an instrument left to him by his unknown father, and which he successfully employs to seduce women. He pines for his lost love, Qizi, who disappeared at the time of the unrest, and rather like a character from Kundera’s novels, finds a way to be at a distance from current society, while ironically observing it through random seduction.
Objectification and distance, however, are not working for Mengliu consistently. Memory, trauma and guilt accompany him through life, and his playing of the chuixun reflects that refrain. Central to this state is his abandonment of poetry, which generally fits into his new image as a man of medicine in a depoliticised society. The central figures in his consciousness are the poets he once associated with, and their lovers. Through these figures, Sheng Keyi presents her central theme: what should poetry be? These poets either died as martyrs like Bai Qiu, whose rousing poetry he took to the grave, developed uncompromising ideologies like Hei Chan, or became traitorous like Jia Wen, a mole and trickster who Mengliu happens to fatally confront in his hospital operating theatre. Abandoning poetry has resulted in Mengliu paying a huge price ontologically, but he continues to value writing as an ethical calligraphic act.
How Mengliu continues to value poetry can be seen when he is mysteriously transported to Swan Valley. Here, all is beautiful on the surface, a wonderland of nature. This idyllic environment perhaps has its origins in Sheng Keyi’s experience. In an interview with Jane Perley (3) she discussed how her childhood village had a lush natural environment when she was growing up there, but now ‘all that has gone, replaced,’ she said,’ by factories that pour poisons into the river and smelly ditches filled with trash’.
In Death Fugue, this lushness of nature is eroticised, particularly through the character of Juli, (with whom Mengliu lives and attempts to seduce.) Juli appears to be almost a plant herself, surrounded in her home by an abundance of flowers so dense it is almost comical. Nature is also politicised; for example bird-shaped flowers seen blooming abundantly are considered to be ‘the spiritual blossoms of Swan Valley’, standing for ‘liberty and independence’ (51), and this is also connected with the violent suppression of protest in Dayang:
A faint smell of blood was detectable, sometimes seeming to come from the flora and fauna, sometimes from the sewer, and sometimes from a certain class of people who couldn’t seem to rid themselves of it no matter how often they bathed… The water in the moat there a violent scarlet stream. (20)
Mengliu in Swan Valley notices ‘the screech of birds as they whizzed by like bullets’ (21). When Juli’s red hairpin catches the light, ‘it was as if the sky was on fire. There was gunfire, fighting, killing, blood, tank-trucks rolling, and smoke (77).
As can be seen from the above examples, in the first section of Death Fugue, the narrative moves between Beiping and Swan Valley, and it becomes apparent that Swan Valley is a projection of Mengliu’s turbulent consciousness. The lushness and beauty, the extraordinary wealth and harmonious existence of the citizenry are all there to conceal the ugly truth from these same citizens of a society proclaiming freedom but in fact enforcing a totalitarian eugenic agenda. By providing a fermented tea which induces loss of memory and fosters acceptance of social rules we can see that Swan Valley’s social organisation illustrates the novelist’s take on contemporary society, where wealth fosters political passivity:
All of us born in the 60s were born with a sense of responsibility…those who came after us were more individualistic with nothing inside them except a desire for material gain. … It’s only natural that the people felt they had nothing to worry about. (83)
For Mengliu however, the beauty of the landscape is constantly blown apart by images of the massacre. At the site of a waterfall, ‘the sound of the water falling from that terrible height reminded him of the rumble of the tanks as they lumbered towards him. (38) And on a walk through a forest:
The fear of not being able to get out of the forest enveloped him. The forest at night reminded him of the scene so many years before, when young people grew like trees in Round Square, waiting for rain to come and cleanse them. The forest was silent and furious, bearing great sorrow and helplessness… (197)
This disrupted visual space can also be seen in frequent references to the traditional sage of Chinese poetry, writing and meditating in a remote and beautiful location; Swan Valley then, and nature itself, appears as a trope for the act of writing, and by its very absence in that society, writing as ethical field. The citizens constantly urge Mengliu to return to poetry, but as he complains, writing for them is a tame affair:
Esteban [a citizen of Swan Valley] had invited Mengliu to watch the rice-planting ceremony. The scenery as they walked along was glorious, and Esteban urged him to compose a pastoral idyll, in the hope that he would slowly recover his identity as a poet. Only the people of Swan Valley had the idle time to treat poetry – a bold and powerful mastiff – like a pug. Poetry was a raging fire not a rhetorical game. (99)
Part Two of ‘Death Fugue’ dwells on the consequences of the sedation of the population of Swan Valley, although some do break free of the spell, even if inadvertently. Horrors burst through the surface of beauty, revealing a society practicing ruthless natural selection, giving them at the age of 50 the promise of a nursing home with every facility. However an anonymous note discovered by Mengliu reveals the nursing home to be in fact a crematorium:
‘I’m sorry, but I have to tell you a harsh reality. The truth is, you are living in a sheltered society where the truth is hidden… The nursing home is an execution ground for the elderly. Living people are thrown into ovens, as if they are burning pieces of wood. Please break open the gate of the nursing home and have a look inside. You will find no one there, only ghosts.’ (302)
Sheng Keyi, in ‘Death Fugue’ has composed a work which is bold, humorous and tragic. The second section of the book loses some of the focus of the first, with unnecessarily picaresque longueurs, which detract from the serious revelations which appear almost incidental as a result. Swan Valley, as Mengliu comes to realise, is a product of Hei Chun and Qizi’s utopian ideas. The novel ends with a scene of sham cultural production, with Mengliu seen on a boat, celebrating the shooting of a film called ‘Death Fugue’, while his former lover, the anaesthetist-turned-poet Suitang’s voice, ‘amplified to fill the room, was brimming with an embellished beauty.’ (375)
1. ‘Death Fugue’, Paul Celan, trans Michael Hamburger, www.poemhunter.com
2. Northern Girls, Sheng Keyi, trans Shelly Bryant, Penguin 2012
3. ‘Chinese Writer Tackling Tiananmen, Wields ‘Power to Offend”, Jane Perley, New York Times,A4, Oct 11, 2014
JENNIFER MACKENZIE is the author of Borobudur(Transit Lounge, 2009), republished in Indonesia as Borobudur and Other Poems (Lontar, Jakarta, 2012). She has presented her work at many festivals and conferences in Asia, most recently at the Irrawaddy Literary Festival in Myanmar (supported by the Australia Council for the Arts) and at the Asia-Pacific Writers and Translators Conference in Singapore