Mr. Muo's Travelling Couch

Mr. Muo's Travelling Couch

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by Dai Sijie
     
 

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Having enchanted readers on two continents with Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress, Dai Sijie now produces a rapturous and uproarious collision of East and West, a novel about the dream of love and the love of dreams. Fresh from 11 years in Paris studying Freud, bookish Mr. Muo returns to China to spread the gospel of psychoanalysis. His secret purpose

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Overview

Having enchanted readers on two continents with Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress, Dai Sijie now produces a rapturous and uproarious collision of East and West, a novel about the dream of love and the love of dreams. Fresh from 11 years in Paris studying Freud, bookish Mr. Muo returns to China to spread the gospel of psychoanalysis. His secret purpose is to free his college sweetheart from prison. To do so he has to get on the good side of the bloodthirsty Judge Di, and to accomplish that he must provide the judge with a virgin maiden.

This may prove difficult in a China that has embraced western sexual mores along with capitalism–especially since Muo, while indisputably a romantic, is no ladies’ man. Tender, laugh-out-loud funny, and unexpectedly wise, Mr. Muo’s Travelling Couch introduces a hero as endearingly inept as Inspector Clouseau and as valiant as Don Quixote.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"Fans of Dai Sijie's Balzac will adore this enchanting adventure story." —Chicago Tribune

“Always entertaining. . . . A bawdy, comic romp [that] takes our hero into all kinds of wild scrapes and adventures.” —San Francisco Chronicle

"Poignant. . . . Hilarious. . . . A fascinating book." —San Jose Mercury News

Elinor Lipman
… 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.
— The Washington Post
Christopher Atamian
The novel is strongest when Dai shadows the lives of Muo and the others with stark visions of official corruption, but even when the frenetic search for a virgin threatens to become overwhelming, his zesty storytelling continues to entertain. As Mr. Muo's Travelling Couch hurtles toward its end, one incredible encounter after another forces Muo (and the reader) to reconsider the logic underpinning not only psychoanalysis but modern life itself.
— The New York Times
Publishers Weekly
Wong's mellifluous, theatrical voice sets the stage for this novel of Muo, a French-trained psychoanalyst who returns to his native China in search of his lost love. Finding her imprisoned by Communist fiat, Muo discovers that the only way to free her is to bring a tyrannical local judge a virgin for his delectation. Sijie's comic-romantic quest becomes a travelogue of the new China, taking in a panoply of voices, a ceaselessly chattering orchestra playing the song of life in the proto-capitalist era. Wong chooses to perform the book as an extended series of monologues, bending and playing with each word like a separate, discretely wrapped treat. Some get whispered silkily, others intoned fitfully, others yet provided with a series of intricately nuanced voices. The book becomes an opportunity for Wong to luxuriate in the sound of Sijie's words and in his own voice. Wong makes his own performance the centerpiece of his reading, and his audacious willingness to place himself at the forefront is a gamble that pays off handsomely, providing a holistic unity that elevates this audiobook over the run of its peers. Simultaneous release with the Knopf hardcover. (July) Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
Trained as a psychoanalyst in Paris, Mr. Muo has returned to China to rescue the oddly named Volcano of the Old Moon, his university sweetheart and now a political prisoner. His desperation has led him to Judge Di, who will release poor Volcano if Mr. Muo finds him a virgin. Mr. Muo may have lived in the West, but here he's the innocent-he's even a virgin himself-and his Wonderland-like adventures as he seeks to satisfy the judge's request are eyeopening for him and the reader. In one memorable scene, Judge Di seems to have succumbed before coupling with the first virgin Mr. Muo brings him but wakes up on the embalming table. Yet this is not really a picaresque tale; it's too melancholy. It's also not quite as satisfying as the author's sparkling Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress, though Balzac lovers will enjoy the perfectly crafted prose and sense of the absurd. Mr. Muo seems unduly myopic (yes, he wears glasses), his escapades are sometimes strained, and in any case he doesn't much profit from his experiences. In the end, his determination to sacrifice another to achieve his aim leaves a bad taste, but in the context of China's history that may be precisely the point. Buy where Balzac is popular. [See Prepub Alert, LJ 2/15/05.]-Barbara Hoffert, Library Journal Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
An unlikely hero resists injustice while introducing the interpretation of dreams to China, in this fey successor to Sijie's hugely successful Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress (2001). The eponymous protagonist is "a Chinese-born apprentice in psychoanalysis recently returned from France," where he absorbed the teachings of Freud and Lacan, and presumably the resolve to liberate his girlfriend (identified as Volcano of the Old Moon), whose freelance photographs of victims of government torture have landed her in prison, at the order of "the famous Judge Di of Chengdu, king of the criminals' hell." Sijie writes appealingly of gently eccentric Mr. Muo, who begins his picaresque misadventures as a 40-year-old virgin aflame with scholarly and humanitarian purpose, emulates Cervantes's Don in his quixotic encounters with corrupt bureaucrats, formidable women (including a truculent policewoman whom he sullenly nicknames "Mrs. Thatcher"), roving sociopaths, the staff at an Observation Post where panda droppings are examined as a means to prolonging the endangered critters' lives-and the all-too scrutable Judge Di. The latter is an unregenerate monster of appetite whose favor is susceptible to bribes, notably the offer of nubile virgins. Muo's search for one of these endangered specimens broadens his horizons agreeably, as he surrenders his own sexual innocence while laboring to satisfy the greedy magistrate's creepy demands. The story wanders as much as Mr. Muo does, moving inelegantly between past and present, relying heavily on flashbacks, and rather too frequently presenting major actions only in retrospect and in little detail. Muo-a little like Nabokov's Pnin and the protagonists ofNaipaul's early novels-is a charmer. But Sijie's latest is a very rickety construction. Nevertheless, it will very probably be another reading group sensation. First printing of 100,000; author tour

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Product Details

ISBN-13:
9781400077144
Publisher:
Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date:
06/06/2006
Edition description:
Reprint
Pages:
304
Sales rank:
564,258
Product dimensions:
5.18(w) x 8.10(h) x 0.65(d)

Read an Excerpt

A Disciple of Freud

The metal chain sheathed in transparent pink plastic is reflected, like a gleaming snake, in the window of the railway carriage, beyond which the signals fade to pinpoints of emerald and ruby before being swallowed up in the mist of a sultry night in July.

(Only a short while ago, in the squalid restaurant of a little station near the Yellow Mountain, this same chain had been looped around the leg of a fake-mahogany table and the retractable chrome-plated handle of a pale blue Delsey suitcase on wheels belonging to one Mr. Muo, a Chinese-born apprentice in psychoanalysis recently returned from France.)

For a man so bereft of charm and good looks, thin and scrawny, a scant five foot three, with an unruly shock of hair and bulging eyes slightly squinty behind thick lenses, Mr. Muo moves with surprising assurance: he takes off his French-made shoes, revealing red socks (the left one with a hole, through which pokes a bony toe, pale as skimmed milk), then climbs up on the wooden seat (a sort of banquette deprived of padding) to stow his Delsey on the luggage rack; he attaches the chain by passing the hoop of a small padlock through the links on either end, and rises up on tiptoe to confirm that the lock is secure.

Having settled on the bench, he stashes his shoes under the seat, dons a pair of white flip-flops, wipes his glasses, and, lighting a small cigar, uncaps his pen and gets to work-that is to say, he begins noting down dreams in a school exercise book purchased in France, this discipline being part of his self-imposed training as a psychoanalyst. Hardly has the train gathered speed when the hard-seat carriage (the only one for which tickets were still available) is bustling with peasant women carrying large baskets and bamboo panniers, plying their modest trade between stations, lurching up and down the aisles, some with hard-boiled eggs and sweet dumplings, others with fruit, cigarettes, cans of cola, Chinese mineral water, and even bottles of Evian. Uniformed railway staff work their way down the crowded carriage pushing trolleys laden with spicy ducks' feet, peppered spare ribs, newspapers and scandal sheets. An urchin of no more than ten is sitting on the floor, vigorously applying polish to the stiletto heel of a woman of some mystery, remarkable on this night train for her oversized, dark blue sunglasses. No one notices Mr. Muo or the maniacal attention he accords his Delsey 2000. But once he becomes engrossed in his writing, he is oblivious to the world. Travelling on a day train a few days ago-likewise in a carriage with hard seats-he had just completed his daily entries with a resounding quote from Lacan when looking up he observed a trio of passengers so intrigued by his security measures that they had mounted the bench for a better look. They were gesturing dramatically in double time, as in a silent movie.

Tonight, his right-hand neighbour on the three-seater bench, a dapper fifty-year-old with sagging shoulders and a long, swarthy face, keeps glancing at the exercise book, covertly at first, but then quite brazenly.

"Mr. Four Eyes," he enquires, in a tone more obsequious than his rude address would imply, "is that English you're writing?" Then: "May I trouble you for some advice? My son, a secondary-school pupil, is utterly hopeless-hopeless-at English."

"By all means," Muo replies with a serious air, not in the least offended by the moniker. "Let me tell you about Voltaire, a French eighteenth-century philosopher. One day Boswell asked him, 'Do you speak English?' and Voltaire replied, 'Speaking English requires placing the tip of the tongue against the front teeth. Me, I am too old for that; I have no teeth left.' Do you follow? He was referring to the way the th is pronounced. The same goes for me: my teeth aren't long enough for the language of globalisation, although there are certain English writers whom I revere, and also one or two Americans. However, what I am writing, sir, is French."

Initially awed by this reply, his neighbour quickly composes himself and fixes Muo with a look of profound loathing. Like all workers of the revolutionary period, he can't abide those whose learning surpasses his own and who, by virtue of superior knowledge, symbolise enormous power. Thinking to give Muo a lesson in modesty, he draws a game of Chinese checkers from his bag and invites him to play.

"So sorry," says Muo, in all earnestness, "I don't play. But I do know exactly how the game originated. I know where it came from and when it was invented . . ."

Now completely nonplussed, the man asks, before settling down to sleep, "Is it true that you are writing in French?"

"Indeed it is."

"Ah, French!" he intones several times, his words echoing in the silence of the night train, the tone of satisfied comprehension belying the complete bewilderment on the face of this solid family man.

For the past eleven years Muo has been living in Paris, a seventh-floor flat, that is to say, a converted maid's room (a walk-up, with the red carpet on the stairs stopping at the sixth floor), a damp place with cracks all over the ceiling and the walls. He spends every night from eleven till six in the morning noting down dreams-first his own, then those of others, too. He composes his notes in French, using a Larousse dictionary to check each word he is unsure of. And how many exercise books he has filled already! He keeps them all in shoe boxes secured with rubber bands, stacked on a metal e´tagère-dust-covered boxes, like those in which the French invariably keep their utility bills, pay stubs, tax forms, bank statements, insurance policies, schedules of instalment plan payments, and builders' receipts: in other words, the type of boxes that contain the records of a lifetime. (He himself has just turned forty-the age of lucidity, according to the old sage Confucius.

In the decade since his arrival in Paris in 1989 Muo had been recording these dreams in a French mined painstakingly from Larousse, when suddenly he found himself changed-changed no less than his wire-framed spectacles (like those of the last emperor in Bertolucci's film), stained with yellow grease, clouded with sweat, and so twisted that they no longer fit in any spectacle case. "I wonder if my head has changed shape, too," he noted in his exercise book after the Chinese New Year celebrations of the year 2000. That day, tying an apron around his waist and rolling up his sleeves, he resolved to tidy his garret. He was doing the dishes, which had been stacked in the sink for days (such a bad bachelor's habit), a solemn mass jutting iceberg-like from the soapy surface, when his glasses slipped from his nose-plop!-into the murky water, on which floated tea leaves and food scraps, above the reefs of crockery. He groped for them blindly under the suds, fishing out chopsticks, rusty saucepans encrusted with rice, tea cups, a glass ashtray, rinds of sugar melon and watermelon, moldy bowls, chipped plates, spoons, and a couple of forks so greasy they slipped from his grasp and clattered to the floor. At last, he found his spectacles. He carefully wiped off the suds and polished the lenses before holding them up for inspection: there were fine new scratches among the old ones, and the sides, already bent, were now a sculpture twisted beyond recognition. But all in all they were fine.

Tonight, as this Chinese train pursues its inexorable journey, neither the hardness of the seat nor the press of his fellow passengers seems to bother him. Nor is he distracted by the alluring passenger in oversized sunglasses (a showbiz wannabe travelling incognito, perhaps?), sitting by the opposite window beside a young couple and across from three elderly women. She is graciously tilting her head in his direction while resting her elbow on the folding table. But no indeed, neither train nor intriguing stranger can offer our Mr. Muo such transport as he finds this moment in words and writing, the language of a distant land and especially of his dreams, which he records and analyses with professional rigour and zeal, not to say loving tenderness.

Now and then his face lights up with pleasure, 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. As though recognising a long-lost friend, he smiles and moves his lips with childish glee. His expression, so severe just a moment ago, softens like parched earth under a shower; his facial muscles slacken; his eyes grow moist and limpid. Freed from the constraints of classical calligraphy, his writing has become a confident Western scrawl, with strokes growing bolder and bolder and loops ranging from dainty to tall, undulating, and harmonious. This is a sign of his entry into another world, a world ever in motion, ever fascinating, ever new.

When a change in the train's speed interrupts his writing, he lifts his head (his true Chinese head, always on guard) and casts a cautious eye overhead to make sure his suitcase is still attached to the luggage rack. In the same reflex, and still in a state of alert, he feels inside his jacket for his Chinese passport, his French residency permit, and his credit card in the zippered pocket. Then, more discreetly, he moves his hand to the back of his trousers and runs his fingertips over the bump produced by the stash in his underpants, where he has secreted the not-inconsiderable sum of ten thousand dollars, cash.

Toward midnight the strip lights are switched off. Everyone in the packed carriage is asleep, except for three or four card players squatting by the door of the toilet. Bills continually change hands amid the feverish bets. Under the naked bulb of the night-light, whose weak blue glow casts violet shadows across their faces, the players hold cards fanned close to their chests as an empty beer can rolls this way and that. Muo recaps his pen, places his exercise book on the folding table, and observes the attractive lady who, in the semidarkness, has removed her wraparound sunglasses and is smearing a bluish cream on her face. How vain she is, he reflects. How China has changed! At regular intervals the woman turns to the window to behold her reflection, before removing the bluish unguent and starting all over again. It has to be said, the mask gives her the sphinxlike aspect of a femme fatale as she studies her face in the glass. But when a passing train flashes a succession of lights on the window, Muo observes that she is crying. Tears stream down on either side of her nose, defining wonderful, sinuous pathways in the thick, bluish mask.

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