Sheng Keyi was only just too young to have witnessed the infamous crackdown in Tiananmen Square firsthand. A teenager in rural Hunan Province, she and her family watched the events unfold on television, where state-run media told a story of student protesters inciting violence and acting criminally. She knew no better than to believe it. Three years later, at nineteen, Sheng would leave home for the first time and go to Shenzhen, a booming city full of young migrant workers like herself. There, she would make friends who were only a few years her senior who had participated in the protests, and she would experience a kind of political awakening.
Sheng has been clear in interviews and in the author’s note that accompanies the book’s press release, that Death Fugue, her sixth novel and the second to appear in English, is a political allegory, the product of the Tiananmen moment, and reckons with the possibilities for China’s future. Shelly Bryant’s translation of this sprawling and chaotic novel is tireless and keeps up with Sheng’s often exhausting twists and turns. The novel follows the at times absurd journey of Yuan Mengliu, an orphan and erstwhile poet, as he grapples with the personal and political fallout of a pivotal political moment in his country’s history.
That moment centers around an enormous column of excrement. In the main square of a fictional city called Beiping, the nine-story tower suddenly appears, provoking students and others to protest after the government explains it away as mere gorilla dung and quickly removes it. Mengliu gets swept up in the protests only because his friends and girlfriend, Qizi, have enthusiastically taken up the cause. But an emotional breakup sends Mengliu into a deep depression, while Qizi sails to the top of the movement’s leadership before she disappears in the government crackdown on the square. Frankly, this plot alone would have made for an excellent 375 pages of reading, but this is only how Death Fugue begins.
But many of the more interesting questions and details in the Tower Incident sections are glossed over, missed opportunities for deepening the world of political dissent and distrust in the novel. Little is made, for example, of the numerous conspiracy theories that arise in the wake of the incident, with only passing mention of aliens and speculation about a “monster man.” Intellectuals do write about and respond—in prose and in verse—to the government cover-up, but we read very little of this material, left instead to imagine it.
When an apathetic Mengliu peruses a wall near his home where people go to pin notices, pamphlets, and anti-government screeds, he finds two poems written by his best friends: “They were written with a lot of passion. He was so excited that he fell into a fit of coughing.” But we don’t get to experience these poems, nor are we made to understand what Mengliu’s excitement means in light of the political movement growing around him. In fact, in this novel about poets, no poem appears until page 69.
The bulk of Death Fugue takes place some twenty years after the Tower Incident. Mengliu, now a womanizing surgeon who has sworn off poetry, wanders into a utopian society called Swan Valley after getting caught in a storm while on an annual trip to search for Qizi. Here, the novel shifts all at once from allegorical realism to dystopian fantasy. With its beautiful women, solid gold toilets, children who engage in philosophical debate, and relentless proselytizing about freedom and kindness, Swan Valley is a kind of new age, Huxleyesque, techno-theocracy where the populace is blissfully apolitical and genetics determines everything, from vocation to marriage. It is, of course, too good to be true.
The leaders of Swan Valley are especially eager to goad Mengliu into writing poetry again—specifically, an ode to Swan Valley. In fact, it is of such importance to them that Mengliu is badgered about it wherever he goes. The problem is that the Swanese are happy to see poetry as a bourgeois pastime, to fetishize it for its aesthetic qualities and strip it of its power to dissent and disrupt. When asked by one of Swan Valley’s more prominent citizens to compose a pastoral idyll, Mengliu gets prickly: “what a foolish suggestion that was—to rattle off a few simple pastoral stanzas and recover his fucking poetic identity. Only the people of Swan Valley had the idle time to treat poetry—a bold and powerful mastiff—like a pug.”
One thing that only becomes clear in the Swan Valley sections is that Mengliu has a good deal of respect for poetry and its potential to inspire change, even if it failed to do so during the Tower Incident. Whether this has always been the case (Mengliu remembers a poet friend who, with surprising conviction and rage, committed suicide during the demonstrations), or he is merely annoyed and pushing back against the Swanese, who insist he write again, is difficult to say. Mengliu’s refusal to write poetry does feel much more a matter of personal despair at losing the love of his life, Qizi, than it does a moral or political stance. At the same time, much of Mengliu’s despair stems from an important historical and political moment that his country has since silenced.
Despite its length, Death Fugue doesn’t linger on this question long enough for us to understand Mengliu’s motivations, in part because he is too distracted by his pursuits of the various women around him. Plagued by uncontrollable lust, especially for a Swanese woman, Su Juli, who takes him in when he arrives, Mengliu is in a constant state of arousal. This state yields some of the most dubious writing in the novel: “He felt her firm body warming quickly against him, becoming as hot and floury as a baked potato. All at once he knew how to strip the skin off the potato and consume the soft flesh inside it.” Worse, Mengliu vows on more than one occasion to “take” Juli whether she is willing or not, and is prone to misogynist generalizations about women: “He felt that a man should never engage in a war of words with a woman. A woman was like candy, and all you needed to do was keep her in your mouth and allow her to soften quietly until her hardness had completely disappeared.”
That Death Fugue is so sexually charged is not itself the problem. Sheng’s provocative approach could be refreshing and lighten a novel posing some very serious questions. But these passages—and there are a great many—remain unconnected to the overall political project of the book. There is only levity, when there could be much more. Many have read Swan Valley as a metaphor for present-day China, or for an ideal China of the future. Surely, in this metaphor, there is room for an exploration of desire, violence, and self-loathing?
It is a shame because there is otherwise so much to be excited about in Death Fugue. Sheng is only forty-one years old. She came up through poverty and the migrant working class. When word reached her village back in Hunan that she had become a famous writer, the local Communist Party leadership, not having any idea what Sheng’s books were about, invited her father to join the party. Sheng is nothing short of a superstar in China. But publishers there, including those who know Sheng and her work well, wouldn’t take Death Fugue, and Penguin China, who published her first book, Northern Girls, in English, never replied to her at all. To say this isn’t a brave book would be unfair.
There are moments of real clarity and elegance in Death Fugue. It is full of clever observations, energy, wit, imaginativeness, and endless lush, colorful landscapes that toe the line between the beautiful and the fantastical. Its absurdity, while at times wholly unhinged, is also at times exciting and funny, as when Sheng describes the Beipingese language: “Sadly, there was no beauty in the language of Beiping, and its writing was ugly. For instance, the words ‘Long Live Democracy’ were inscribed ‘WlOrj ldlNOr!’”
Death Fugue is long, vulgar, over the top, and addresses China’s most taboo subject. It is nothing short of ambitious and risky. But Sheng sought a provocative book, a place to say what she cannot say elsewhere. “A novel must have the power to offend,” she writes in her author’s note. Whether or not the reader can endure the provocation is another matter entirely.