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Sheng Keyi: 死亡賦格 (Death Fugue)

This novel is set primarily in two fictitious countries. The first is Dayang, capital Beiping, which is clearly based on modern China. Beiping’s climate is poor, its land arid. During the annual autumn storms, the city is bombarded by sand. Everywhere you look, it’s a crumpled, disgraceful mess. The second country is a clearly totally fictitious place, called Swan Valley.

Our hero is Yuan Mengliu. When we first meet him we are well advanced in the story. We learn that he is a skilled and successful surgeon and unmarried. As he is charming, he has no shortage of girlfriends. However, he was unable to make a committent to any of them. The problem was simple. He believed that Qizi was still alive.

Mengliu had been a poet but now poetry was not mentioned. He had, while at university, been part of a group of three young men called The Three Musketeers, all acclaimed poets. The other two were Hei Chun and Bai Qiu. Bai Qiu was dead and, like Qizi, Hei Chun had disappeared.

However, we now go back to a huge pile of excrement. This has been mysteriously dumped in the middle of the wittily named Round Square, which is clearly based on Tiananmen Square, though Tiananmen Square is not round. No-one knows who dumped the excrement or why but it is a huge pile. There are, of course, rumours. Is it gorilla excrement? No, says the experts. Is it alien excrement? No answers are forthcoming. It is then quickly removed and the area cleaned by the authorities.

However, the people want answers. What was it? Why were no DNA analyses done? Then the protests come. The Three Musketeers are involved and they are arrested. They are kept in a building and, gradually, people are released, till Mengliu is left with a young, short-haired woman. She is, of course, Qizi. She is studying physics and working on a mysterious project. Eventually, she was released and then, finally, so was he.

They do meet up again and, despite the fact that Mengliu has another girlfriend, they become a couple and even plan to leave Dayang and live abroad. However, they have different reactions to the ongoing demonstrations about the pile of excrement. Pushed on by the other two musketeers, he is keen to be involved in the demonstration and the political parties formed as a result. However, as Qizi is not keen in involvement, he backs off, to the mockery of Hei Chun.

However, roles are then reversed,as Qizi, becomes more involved and, indeed, the focal point of the group, leading to arguments between the couple. The authorities are increasingly opposing the various opposition movements, resulting in a 1989 Tiananmen Square protests– style brutal repression. Various people, including Qizi and Hei Chun, disappear, either dead or arrested, No-one knows. Mengliu hopes to find them but does not. He becomes a surgeon, has casual affairs and abandons poetry completely.

Every summer, Mengliu travels throughout Dayang, looking for Qizi. One summer, on a recommendation, he goes further afield and, after various adventures, lands up in Swan Valley. At first sight, this seems like an idyllic place. It is lush and fertile, with beautiful gardens and vegetation. Everyone seems happy. The women are beautiful. He is given some marbles by a child and they seem to be diamonds. There is no greed, no want, no poverty.

He did not understand their language but various English words (including profanities) seemed to be mixed in and he gradually picks it up. He is told to pick anyone he wants and they will house and feed him. Naturally, He picks the most attractive woman, Su Juli. Being Mengliu, he really has only one interest as far as she is concerned. However, is she married? She appears to have a son but, though there is a photo of man, there is no evidence of him apart from that.

He gradually learns about the community. We focus on liberal education, and our aim is a cultured people. We spend our time developing the mind, engaging in debate and the appreciation of the arts. Everyone seems happy. Everyone seems to live in luxury The society seems to be a fully democratic society.

The people there compare the life in Dayang with theirs and Dayang comes out very badly. Indeed,it would seem that our author is highly critical of Dayang. He knew that he would always be like a fish out of water in Dayang’s high society. It was infected with skin disease, and seriously ulcerated inside. Mengliu is constantly criticising the lack of equality, the repression and the general poor living conditions for the majority of the population. This is compared to the favourable situation in Swan Valley. There is no desire, no greed, no selfishness or distraction, only good deeds. Swan Valley will be the most ideal place on earth.

However, Mengliu is gradually going to find out that Swan Valley is not the paradise it seems. Indeed, it seems to be more Brave New World than paradise. with his now greater wisdom about what really happens in Swan Valley, Mengliu seems to decide that Dayang, with all of its many faults, is better than Swan Valley. The problem is that he cannot escape from Swan Valley.

When an epidemic – seemingly with a virus transmitted by birds (avian flu? SARS?) breaks out, things get worse, particularly, as we have seen with covid, the authorities claim that it does not really exist.

On the face of it, this novel is a bit like some other dystopian novels, namely is the new paradise, which takes away individual freedoms, better or worse than our standard society with all of its many faults? Sheng/Mengliu are seemingly comparing this brave new world with contemporary China. Sheng/Mengliu are highly critical of contemporary China (Dayang just wanted mediocrity, so long as you were servile enough, and stayed firmly fixed in your place until you were rusted on there. Even if you were versatile, useful, full of ideas, if you weren’t obedient you’d be ostracised until you were broken and then allowed to drift away), yet seem to conclude that it is better than Swan Valley. I think, for many Westerners, the answer would be none of the above. In other words we would consider that both Swan Valley and modern China are too restrictive of individual freedoms.

The other key issue that I have barely touched on in this review is poetry. Mengliu was a poet but gave it up after the upheavals which led to the disappearance of Qizi, Hei Chun and others. What is more he spent five years studying medicine. He remains critical of poetry and when it is raised – his reputation has spread to Swan Valley – he continues to spurn it. However, Suitang, one of his (many) girlfriends comments The past should not be forgotten. Sometimes art is the only means by which we may find out the truth, and the only tool flexible enough for its communication. You get the impression that Suitang is echoing Sheng’s views.

This is a highly complex and original novel, far broader than Brave New World in the range of views it discusses. Sheng has clearly given a lot of thought to issues such as Brave New World versus modern China, the role of poetry in the modern world, what is freedom and whether we should focus on our individual freedom or the greater good. It is perverse to shake people out of their dreams. They don’t need the truth. The truth is like a leftover scrap of bread, it’s unnecessary, the increasingly cynical Mengliu comments but he and Sheng know that this is not really true.

Publishing history

First published in 2012 by Ink Books, Taiwan
First English translation in 2014 by Giramondo Publishing
Translated by Shelly Bryant