Book Review: Death Fugue

One of the most defining moments in modern Chinese history is the 1989 Tiananmen Square Massacre. The Chinese government more or less pretends that it never happened, and detains anyone inside the country who argues publicly otherwise. A situation that can only be described as absurd.

And there is plenty of the absurd in Sheng Keyi’s new novel, Death Fugue, a thinly-disguised allegory of the 25-year-old bloody crackdown.

The novel begins with a giant mound of feces in Round Square in Beiping, the capital city of Dayang (a country that could be China through the looking glass). Sheng does a lovely job of hinting at the sinister nature of a simple landmark.

“Beiping’s main road is like a satiated python lying flat on the ground, the five-hundred-thousand–square meter Round Square its protruding abdomen. This is the heart of the city, and one of Dayang’s main attractions.”

A mass protest erupts over the mysterious mountain of manure and our hero, the poet-doctor Yuan Mengliu (a callous, prone to mope, selfish and lecherous character, is not overly likeable), goes home to sleep when the tanks roll in.

Years later, still torn by his lack of resolve and the loss of his first love during the crackdown, Yuan finds himself in Swan Valley, a dystopia ruled by a green-haired robot. After he realizes that sex is banned – the penalty for penetration is beheading – we follow Yuan and his libido in their bid to escape back home, where even though the past is censored, at least sex is legal.

Despite the name changes, and the green-haired robot, the book’s obvious allusion to the Tiananmen Square Massacre is too close for comfort for any mainland publisher. Surprisingly, Penguin, who published Sheng’s Northern Girls in 2012 (a book that did rather well, even making the Asian Literary Prize’s long list), did not take up the option to publish Death Fugue. Sheng’s second book in English (she has published six in Chinese) has been released by a small Australian literary press, Giramondo.

With all the sex and the science fiction, and the more philosophical ponderings of Yuan about the real power of protest and life under a suppressive regime, Death Fugue is a fun read. Sheng touches on many issues plaguing modern China, such as the loss of idealism, the allure of materialism, the distortion of history and a society empty of trust.

In what might be seen as infantile in a male author, Sheng carries off a ploy to lighten things up with bouncy breasts (Yuan is obsessed) and their relationship to revolution.

“Her chest boasted a pair of loaded coconuts, uniquely lethal weapons with which to wage her revolution. They were a potent pair of aphrodisiac tear-gas canisters. Day or night, if she willed it, she could pull the pin and instantly fill the world with smoke.”

Although nicely translated, Sheng’s prose becomes cumbersome at times, largely because it’s thickly littered with descriptive elements. This slows the pace, as do the pages and pages of poetry.

Speaking of poetry, the book’s title Death Fugue, is taken from the poem of the same name by Paul Celan, about a Nazi Death Camp, and published in the late 1940s. While the horrors of the holocaust do not fit easily with the adventures of Yuan, perhaps the choice of title can be seen as a plea for China to have the same courage as Germany in owning up to its past.

Born in 1973, Sheng is surely too young to have played a key role herself in Tiananmen. It would be interesting to know how she did her research into the mood of the time, and the thoughts of those who took part and lost.

“A novel must have the power to offend,” she writes in her author’s statement. Death Fugue probably offends Beijing, which would rather people not speak of the massacre. It might offend the new moneyed classes in China, who believe it spoils their dreams today. In the novel, Sheng voices her worries that the censorship and silence will end up erasing history.

Towards the end of the book, Yuan’s escape efforts are thwarted because he can’t remember the past clearly.

“It was like fishing for the moon in water. When he lowered a finger to its surface, the moon dispersed.”

As the students in Hong Kong twirl their yellow umbrellas in their own democracy protest today, reminding the world of a similar event 25 years ago, Sheng’s book is also a reminder to us that even if don’t catch it, we need to fish for the moon or we will forget it was ever there.