Once on a Moonless Night

Overview

From the author of the beloved best seller Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress, a haunting tale of love and of the beguiling power of a lost language.

When Puyi, the last emperor, was exiled to Manchuria in the early 1930s, it is said that he carried an eight-hundred-year-old silk scroll inscribed with a lost sutra composed by the Buddha. Eventually the scroll would be sold illicitly to an eccentric French linguist named Paul d’Ampere, in...
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Overview

From the author of the beloved best seller Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress, a haunting tale of love and of the beguiling power of a lost language.

When Puyi, the last emperor, was exiled to Manchuria in the early 1930s, it is said that he carried an eight-hundred-year-old silk scroll inscribed with a lost sutra composed by the Buddha. Eventually the scroll would be sold illicitly to an eccentric French linguist named Paul d’Ampere, in a transaction that would land him in prison, where he would devote his life to studying the ineffably beautiful ancient language of the forgotten text.

Our unnamed narrator, a Western student in China in the 1970s, hears this story from the greengrocer Tumchooq—his name the same as that of the language in which the scroll is written—who has recently returned from three years of reeducation. She will come again and again to Tumchooq’s shop near the gates of the Forbidden City, drawn by the young man and his stories of an estranged father. But when d’Ampere is killed in prison, Tumchooq disappears, abandoning the narrator, now pregnant with his child. And it is she, going in search of her lost love, who will at last find the missing scroll and discover the truth of the Buddha’s lesson that begins “Once on a moonless night . . .” in this story that carries us across the breadth of China’s past, the myth and the reality.

From the Hardcover edition.
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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Acclaimed novelist Sijie has written another novel that has already caused a stir in France. Narrated by an unnamed Western student in China in the 1970s, the story begins centuries before, with the Emperor Huizong, a calligrapher and great art collector, who acquired a silk scroll with a Buddhist sutra written upon it in an ancient lost language. The last emperor of Japan inherits the scroll and then in 1952, Paul d'Ampère, a French linguist, becomes obsessed with translating the scroll and goes to prison for 25 years for illegally acquiring it. When the narrator falls in love with a greengrocer, Tumchooq, who tells her the story, she begins to witness the life-altering consequences of the scroll—consequences that will change her own life and send her on a journey to seek truth and understanding. Sijie's breathtaking story shows the beauty and horrors that make up China's history while the poetry of Sijie's words is revealed in Hunter's magnificent translation. It's fitting that a story of a love affair with language should be written so beautifully. (Aug.)
Library Journal

"Once on a moonless night a lone man is traveling..." and, stumbling, clings to the side of an abyss. No, this doesn't actually happen in Dai's magisterial new work; it's reputedly the beginning of a lost Buddhist sutra, written on a scrap of silk belonging to China's last emperor. As Dai would have it, the exiled emperor tosses it from a plane, and the daughter of the man who claims it is pursued by French linguist Paul d'Ampere-he's fascinated because the sutra is written in the lost language of Tumchooq. Their son, named Tumchooq, keeps the story of the sutra alive and shares it with a Western student who becomes obsessed with it-and pregnant with Tumchooq's child. Dai's latest is structurally more complex than his international hit, Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress, whose power lies partly in its singular clarity. But it's just as rich and evocative and powerfully delivers the idea that language (even more than literature, as in Balzac) truly defines us. This should be almost as big as Balzac; highly recommended. [See Prepub Alert, LJ4/1/08.]
—Barbara Hoffert

Kirkus Reviews
A scroll containing a Buddhist sutra written in an unknown language causes no end of trouble in Sijie's meandering novel (Mr. Muo's Travelling Couch, 2005, etc.). The unnamed narrator, a French student of Chinese literature at the University of Peking, first hears of the mysterious sutra in 1978, when she is acting as a translator during a meeting about The Last Emperor. Puyi, the subject of that film, inherited the second- or third-century scroll, which resided in the collection of a 12th-century emperor-and anyone who thinks that description is opaque should try reading the longwinded account given to the narrator by an elderly Chinese historian. When Puyi was taken prisoner by the Japanese, the historian says, he tore the scroll in half and flung both halves from the plane. Now the narrator backtracks to describe her meeting with Tumchooq, a vegetable seller on a street near the university, whose name is also the name of the ancient language in which the Buddhist scroll was written. Paul d'Ampere, the French scholar who figured this out in 1952, just happens to be Tumchooq's father; indeed, he may have married Tumchooq's mother, now a curator at the museum of the Forbidden City, to get his hands on the half of the scroll that her elderly relative picked up after it was flung from the plane. D'Ampere ends up in prison; his death there a quarter-century later sends Tumchooq into self-imposed exile. The narrator aborts his baby and returns to France, but soon she's learning new languages and traveling again, for no discernable reason except to make sure that she picks up Tumchooq's trail again in Burma in 1990. He's still looking for the complete text of the sutra, but the missing portionwon't surface until after Tumchooq has been arrested and deported to Laos. By then, only the most patient readers will care. Intended to celebrate the art of storytelling, this tedious work merely illustrates the perils of authorial self-indulgence.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781410419736
  • Publisher: Gale Group
  • Publication date: 10/2/2009
  • Edition description: Large Print
  • Pages: 375
  • Product dimensions: 5.80 (w) x 8.60 (h) x 0.90 (d)

Meet the Author

Born in China in 1954, Dai Sijie is a filmmaker and novelist. He left China in 1984 for France, where he now lives and works. He is the author of the international best seller Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress (short-listed for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize in the United Kingdom and made into a film) and of Mr. Muo's Travelling Couch (winner of the Prix Femina).

From the Hardcover edition.
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