A Shrink at Large

Reviewed by Elinor Lipman
Sunday, June 19, 2005


By Dai Sijie. Translated from the French by Ina Rilke

Knopf. 287 pp. $22

Four years ago, Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress , its cover adorned irresistibly with red scuffed Mary-Jane shoes, introduced the novelist Dai Sijie to American readers. Like his two main characters, he had been "re-educated" in China's Cultural Revolution, exiled to a remote village to be purged of intellectualism. And while one shouldn't ascribe autobiographical footnotes to fiction, personal experience and a reportorial eye were undoubtedly driving the story.

Now comes Mr. Muo's Travelling Couch , and with it a whole new voice -- more wry, more charming and even more quixotic. Mr. Muo is a 40-year-old student of Freud, self-described as China's only psychoanalyst-at-large, a near-sighted klutz who has returned to his home country from his adopted Paris. His main mission, besides introducing 21st-century China to the blessings of psychoanalysis, is to win the release of his university love, a 36-year-old photographer named Volcano of the Old Moon, who has been imprisoned for documenting police torture.

"Love" may be an overstatement; Muo's sexual experience is confined to his notebooks, where he religiously records his dreams in the language of Molière, with the help of a Larousse dictionary. He records these dreams with something like rapture, "especially as he recalls or applies a phrase, perhaps even an entire paragraph, of Freud or Lacan, the two masters for whom his esteem is boundless."

Muo is our hero and straight man, so wonderfully earnest, stepping aside to observe himself, to excoriate and revile his shortcomings, to dream his dreams aloud. While his faith in psychoanalysis is boundless, Dai's omniscient narrator slyly deflates the science so beloved by the protagonist: "Having no French at first, Muo spoke Chinese, of which his psychoanalyst understood not a word; even if he had, he would have been hard put to cope with the dialect of Sechuan, the province from which Muo hailed."

If there's a fly in the professional ointment, it's Muo's virginity. "How can you discuss psychoanalysis if you've never made love?" a blind Parisian poet rails at our hero not long before his journey home. But he's a man on a mission: To free his beloved, Muo needs to procure a virgin for an evil judge in exchange for clemency. He sets off, a traveling shrink on a bicycle with a banner flying above his head. How fabulous, he thinks, that the Chinese character for "dream" is two vertical strokes crossed by two horizontal ones, symbolizing a bed. Above his new logo, he proclaims in red ink, "INTERPRETER OF DREAMS" followed by "PSYCHOANALYST RETURNED FROM FRANCE and SCHOOLED IN FREUD AND LACAN." His fee is 20 yuan per session, often lowered to one yuan and sometimes waived altogether if it means more referrals, more nubile candidates.

Psychoanalysis is not an easy sell in China. One reluctant pro bono patient tells him, "It was neither myself nor my late wife who had this dream, but someone who lived in our building in the southern district of Chengdu." No matter; Muo listens to the dream-once-removed, which features a severed head, and feels inspired. He tells the patient that his wife is going to die quite soon, probably of some disease of the throat.

If the father of psychoanalysis takes a beating in these pages, Cervantes takes a bow. Mr. Muo's Travelling Couch -- here's a nod to its inspired title and talented translator, Ina Rilke -- is peripatetic with a capital P. Dai is quick to point out, "Muo the incorruptible, Muo the true, Muo the knight in shining armour! Invoking the name of his own Dulcinea, he pictured her in his mind as he pedalled along the bumpy road just ahead of his dream-logo banner."

Volcano of the Old Moon, true to Dulcinea-style form, never appears as a character, and Muo's efforts to find virgins for the evil magistrate are complicated by his blank sexual slate. At the novel's end, "he is in love with four real-life -- and indeed quite estimable -- women." Expert that he is, he recognizes that his own recurring dream -- in which Volcano's cell is raided by a firing squad -- might signal, in Freudian terms, "the beginning of the end of love."

The set pieces and the slaying of symbolic dragons that line Muo's path sometimes interrupt rather than drive the story, which may be Dai's filmmaker's eye lending action to his hero's yearnings. But we keep reading Mr. Muo's Travelling Couch for its voice and wit, for the delicious turns of phrase and perfect characterizations of a naif with professional pretensions inside a "poor dreamy and dream-interpreting head." Will Mr. Muo narrow down his "polyamorous perversion" to the wholesome love of one woman? He has earned our fondest hope for a happy ending. ยท

Elinor Lipman is the author of seven novels, most recently "The Pursuit of Alice Thrift."

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