The story that follows is a kind of Chaucerian refraction of the vicious military assault that shocked the world in 1989. Alerted to the appearance of a pile of crap, thousands of people rush to the square. Some wonder “what sort of sphincter would have been capable of forming such a masterpiece.” Others hope to exploit the excitement to push for political reform. Official media outlets advise calm, “advancing the theory that the tower was made of gorilla excrement,” but competing theories spread fast, drawing ever more protesters waving placards such as “Live in Truth” and “DNA Testing for Stool Samples.” Finally, in a violent overreaction, the government flushes the trouble away, leaving the square so perfectly restored that no evidence of resistance remains.
From that mound of scatological humor emerges a pungent political satire that has, predictably, been banned in China, even as Sheng’s work continues to generate gasps and praise. Now, almost 10 years after it was written, “Death Fugue” is being released by a small American publisher in an English translation by Shelly Bryant. Sadly, given Beijing’s continuing tyrannical behavior, this outlandish novel has lost none of its original relevance.
The reluctant hero of “Death Fugue” is Yuan Mengliu, a poet working in the literature department of the National Youth Administration for Elite Wisdom. Comically oversexed, Mengliu runs around with two other poets, forming a trio known as “The Three Musketeers.” He’s not particularly interested in the mysterious mountain of feces in Round Square, but because his poetic comrades are, he gets caught up in the demonstrations. During a police raid he’s briefly detained with a beautiful woman named Qizi, one of the leaders of the Tower Incident protesters.
We learn of those heady days in retrospect, as Sheng presents moments of romance and violence in a scramble of youthful exuberance. But in the novel’s equally unstable present time, Qizi has long since vanished, and Mengliu has abandoned poetry to become a surgeon. Although he’s still constantly on the make for new sexual conquests, he remains obsessed with Qizi. “The love buried deep in his heart flowed continuously,” the narrator says, “like an underground spring.”
Bizarre as Sheng’s satire of the Tiananmen Square incident is, it’s not nearly the strangest element of this story. Indeed, that initial tower of poo is a sophomoric gag compared with what eventually develops in “Death Fugue.” Early in the novel, while Mengliu is engaged in his annual search for Qizi, he stumbles upon “a fertile land with exquisite scenery.” The narrator notes, “There was something a little different about this lake and mountain.” In fact, there’s something very different about this place: Mengliu has entered an ideal city-state called Swan Valley.
Here in this heavenly realm of impeccable beauty and undisturbed peace, the men and women are people of excellence, and their children are profoundly mature. “There is no desire, no greed, no selfishness or distraction, only good deeds.” Mengliu feels enlivened by the land, the very air. “Even the breeze seemed to bring with it a nourishing power. His skin felt moist and smooth, his mood was like a wandering shapeless cloud, free of the burden of the past,” Sheng writes. “A noble temperament was slowly taking over his whole being. The prospect of leading a selfless magnanimous life, away from worldliness and beyond the mundane, permeated the atmosphere.”
“Who would object to such a comfortable and agreeable life?” asks the leader of Swan Valley.
Of course, a century of state-sponsored mass murder in pursuit of the ideal society has made modern-day readers skeptical of such places. And it’s clear early on that Sheng is working in a tradition that includes George Orwell, Aldous Huxley, Philip K. Dick, Margaret Atwood and other keen critics of human folly. But if “Death Fugue” nods to those predecessors, it’s fueled entirely by Sheng’s own elixir of genius and rage. The result is a relentless deconstruction of the Communist Party’s insistence that society can be perfected through enlightened centralized control.
But tellingly, Sheng doesn’t concentrate on Swan Valley’s political or economic management. Instead, she focuses her increasingly acerbic satire on the government’s regulation of intimacy. As Mengliu learns more about this “idealized world,” he discovers that marriages, sexual relations and pregnancies are all carefully engineered “according to scientific principles” to ensure the best possible progeny. Citizens are encouraged by such happy slogans as “Let the Best Sperm Combine with the Best Egg.” The full horror of that program only becomes apparent as Mengliu realizes he cannot leave Swan Valley.
Partly, that’s because Mengliu cannot remember how he got to what he calls “this perverted illusion of peace.” Something about the environment of Swan Valley is corrupting his mind. “He tried hard to recall the scene,” Sheng writes, “but his effort was like breathing on a mirror. His past was becoming more blurred.” That mental confusion is effectively reflected in the structure of “Death Fugue,” which shifts time and place erratically. The tone, too, is weirdly chaotic, sliding from philosophical conversation to moments of grotesque absurdity. To be frank, it’s not an easy read, but in a crowded field of dystopian fiction, it’s destabilizing and finally enlightening in a wholly unique way.
Perhaps this is what it means to write under the watch of a despotic regime constantly scouring the Internet for forbidden ideas. “Sometimes art is the only means by which we may find out the truth,” Sheng writes, “and the only tool flexible enough for its communication.” This infinitely twisty novel couldn’t elude Chinese censors, but it still managed to slip out into the world and shout its scorching critique of the ongoing humiliation of the human spirit.
Ron Charles writes about books for The Washington Post and hosts TotallyHipVideoBookReview.com.
By Sheng Keyi
Translated from the Chinese by Shelly Bryant
Restless Books. 384 pp. $19