An unlikely hero resists injustice while introducing the interpretation of dreams to China, in this fey successor to Sijie’s hugely successful Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress (2001).
The eponymous protagonist is “a Chinese-born apprentice in psychoanalysis recently returned from France,” where he absorbed the teachings of Freud and Lacan, and presumably the resolve to liberate his girlfriend (identified as Volcano of the Old Moon), whose freelance photographs of victims of government torture have landed her in prison, at the order of “the famous Judge Di of Chengdu, king of the criminals’ hell.” Sijie writes appealingly of gently eccentric Mr. Muo, who begins his picaresque misadventures as a 40-year-old virgin aflame with scholarly and humanitarian purpose, emulates Cervantes’s Don in his quixotic encounters with corrupt bureaucrats, formidable women (including a truculent policewoman whom he sullenly nicknames “Mrs. Thatcher”), roving sociopaths, the staff at an Observation Post where panda droppings are examined as a means to prolonging the endangered critters’ lives—and the all-too scrutable Judge Di. The latter is an unregenerate monster of appetite whose favor is susceptible to bribes, notably the offer of nubile virgins. Muo’s search for one of these endangered specimens broadens his horizons agreeably, as he surrenders his own sexual innocence while laboring to satisfy the greedy magistrate’s creepy demands. The story wanders as much as Mr. Muo does, moving inelegantly between past and present, relying heavily on flashbacks, and rather too frequently presenting major actions only in retrospect and in little detail. Muo—a little like Nabokov’s Pnin and the protagonists of Naipaul’s early novels—is a charmer. But Dai Sijie’s latest is a very rickety construction.
Nevertheless, it will very probably be another reading group sensation.