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TRAVELLING MAN. Pictured above is Dai Sijie, author of Mr. Muo’s Travelling Couch, a novel about a quixotic search for truth, justice, and the Asian way. (Photo/John Clarke)

From The Asian Reporter, V16, #12 (March 21, 2006), page 20.

Freudian slapstick

Mr. Muo’s Travelling Couch

By Dai Sijie

Alfred A. Knopf, 2005

Hardcover, 287 pages, $22.00

By Dave Johnson

This novel is Freudian slapstick — a quixotic search for truth, justice, and the Asian way, a theatric of the absurd played out in desperate alleys and ramshackle bus stations across the Land of the Grinning Dragon, a flash of whimsical realism that would startle and bemuse shamans from Copper Canyon to Kamchatka. The protagonist is Mr. Muo, an often-befuddled scholar who studied psychoanalysis in Paris and has just returned to 21st-century China to introduce his nation to the wonders of Western shrinkdom. He also has another agenda item — to liberate Volcano of the Old Moon, his college sweetheart who was jailed for publishing photographs documenting government torture.

Judge Di, who sentenced Muo’s daring darling, explains that he’ll spring her if provided with a nubile virgin for his own delights. Thus begins Muo’s chivalric if ludicrous quest to fulfill his part of this devil’s bargain.

Penned by Dai Sijie, author of Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress, a best-selling novel that was adapted to the screen, this second narrative takes Muo into a creepy mortuary operated by a strangely compelling woman who helps him lose his own virginity, over a wild mountaintop road where the Lolo, a fierce band of acrobatic bandits, leap on passing trucks, through a panda habitat overseen by a mystic healer who collects panda scat for a living, and into the vile depths of the sadistic, insanely insatiable magistrate’s lair.

It is the smooth interaction between a wildly careening plot, enthusiastic attention to details, and nonstop wordplay that makes this second novel a memorable read. You can take away as much as you want from this narrative. For example, Muo, who has spent many years in Paris, returns to China to live for a while in his parent’s flat located in a residential hall in a canton called "city of Light."

The author is able to summon this subtle reference as well as devote a lengthy romp of a passage to Judge Di’s preparation for the promised maiden. Advised by his sexologist to reduce his diet to sea cucumber, the judge grumpily lets go of his gross consumption of pork offal, et cetera, to nibble on this bland mollusk related to the sea urchin. Shaped like a human penis, the sea cucumber was considered "the pinnacle of Chinese pharmacopoeia" during the Tang Dynasty, when it was known as "marine manhood."

The upshot of this sea cucumber episode is an irreverent commentary on Chinese traditions, a raunchy riff worthy of Rabelais, the French master of the ribald, and a troubling glimpse into the dark, lonely heart of one of the most detestable and fascinating villains in contemporary fiction.

As he encounters the nasty judge, offbeat healers, demure lasses, and other colorful characters, Muo offers his services as an interpreter of dreams. Nobody, of course, has heard of this Freud guy, but they know dead-on divination when they hear it. Those who pause to stretch out on Muo’s travelling couch as it wanders around China are given meaning to their troubled dreams and direction to their confusing lives.

Eventually our hapless hero, who is good at his job, achieves a vaguely satisfying epiphany, a possibility of sweet closure, and the beginning of the greening of Mr. Muo. Describing his character’s postponed loss of innocence, Dai Sijie writes, "Muo’s first copulation, which proceeds in textbook fashion, is in danger of turning into a doctoral thesis."

Imagine sly Vladimer Nabokov, droll Lewis Carroll, and indefatigable Miguel Cervantes beaming at the arrival of their new colleague. Born in China, Dai Sijie has lived and worked in France since 1984.

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