A scroll containing a Buddhist sutra written in an unknown language causes no end of trouble in Sijie’s meandering novel (Mr. Muo’s Travelling Couch, 2005, etc.).
The unnamed narrator, a French student of Chinese literature at the University of Peking, first hears of the mysterious sutra in 1978, when she is acting as a translator during a meeting about The Last Emperor. Puyi, the subject of that film, inherited the second- or third-century scroll, which resided in the collection of a 12th-century emperor—and anyone who thinks that description is opaque should try reading the longwinded account given to the narrator by an elderly Chinese historian. When Puyi was taken prisoner by the Japanese, the historian says, he tore the scroll in half and flung both halves from the plane. Now the narrator backtracks to describe her meeting with Tumchooq, a vegetable seller on a street near the university, whose name is also the name of the ancient language in which the Buddhist scroll was written. Paul d’Ampère, the French scholar who figured this out in 1952, just happens to be Tumchooq’s father; indeed, he may have married Tumchooq’s mother, now a curator at the museum of the Forbidden City, to get his hands on the half of the scroll that her elderly relative picked up after it was flung from the plane. D’Ampère ends up in prison; his death there a quarter-century later sends Tumchooq into self-imposed exile. The narrator aborts his baby and returns to France, but soon she’s learning new languages and traveling again, for no discernable reason except to make sure that she picks up Tumchooq’s trail again in Burma in 1990. He’s still looking for the complete text of the sutra, but the missing portion won’t surface until after Tumchooq has been arrested and deported to Laos. By then, only the most patient readers will care.
Intended to celebrate the art of storytelling, this tedious work merely illustrates the perils of authorial self-indulgence.