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Once on a Moonless Night

Once on a Moonless Night

3.9 8
by Dai Sijie, Adriana Hunter (Translator)

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A precious scroll inscribed with a lost Buddhist sutra—once owned by Pu Yi, the last emperor of China—is illicitly sold to an eccentric French linguist, Paul d’Ampere, who is imprisoned as a result. In jail, he devotes himself to studying its ancient text.
A young Western scholar in China hears this account from the grocer Toomchooq,


A precious scroll inscribed with a lost Buddhist sutra—once owned by Pu Yi, the last emperor of China—is illicitly sold to an eccentric French linguist, Paul d’Ampere, who is imprisoned as a result. In jail, he devotes himself to studying its ancient text.
A young Western scholar in China hears this account from the grocer Toomchooq, whose name mysteriously connects him to the document. She falls in love with both teller and tale, but when d’Ampere is killed in prison, Toomchooq disappears, and she, pregnant with his child, embarks on a search for her lost love and the scroll that begins, “Once on a moonless night . . .”

Editorial Reviews

Rebecca Tuhus-Dubrow
…this strange and beautiful novel ponders the nature of language, the history of China, filial and romantic love, and intellectual passion…Though it plays with ideas, the novel is most impressive as a stream of striking images and vignettes. Sijie, author of the best-selling Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress, has an outrageously fertile imagination and a fine instinct for absurdist tragicomedy, frequently involving animals.
—The New York Times
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.)
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.
From the Publisher
“[A] multilayered masterpiece.” —The San Francisco Chronicle

“Beautiful. . . . Spectacularly scenic. . . . Impressive. . . . The euphonious sounds of the prose, together with the sensory impressions they unleash, reinforce the book’s message that language can offer mesmerizing pleasures.” —The New York Times Book Review

“Enchant[ing]. . . . Elegantly translated. . . . An intricate and affecting legend of love, loss, and intellectual obsession.” —The Boston Globe

“An exquisitely structured, dreamlike tale of strange and noble quests, not to mention love, that roams across centuries and touches down in China, Burma, Mali and Paris.” —Kansas City Star, Best 100 Books of the Year
“Haunting and complex. . . . Told with a spare elegance of prose. . . . Abounds in inventive mythology darkly threaded by a tragic love story.” —The Washington Times
“A freewheeling meditation on language as the divine current that buoys human experience. . . . As a piece of art, encrusted with meaning and mystery, it is rich and strange.” —The Los Angeles Times
“Much of this wonderfully written book is set against the colorful backdrop of Old Peking and the crisply written narrative is as exciting and powerful as a typhoon.” —Tuscon Citizen
“At its heart the novel crafts an ode to the power of language.” —National Geographic Traveler
“[This] complex and well written historical novel . . . grips the audience thoroughly with its poetic look back in time.” —Mainstream Fiction
“Mesmerizing.” —Audrey Magazine
“Elegant and thoughtful. . . . Worthwhile and captivating with a beautiful ending sure to resonate with its audience. . . . A celebration of the joy of a good story. [Dai] Sijie delights in storytelling.” —Bookreporter.com
“Filled with twists and turn of fate, back stories, symbolism and intersections of politics and religion worthy of a Dan Brown novel. . . . Dai adds layer upon layer of meaning. . . . [Once Upon a Moonless Night] pulls the reader along, as does the language, which is pungent and immediate. And as for the scroll itself: this is one mystery, one message, that really makes it worth reading until the last lines of a novel to discover.” —UPI Asia
Once on a Moonless Night is full of tales within tales and worlds within worlds, ranging from ancient Chinese empires through communist China to modern Beijing.” —A. S. Byatt, The Guardian [UK]
“[Dai] Sijie's ambitious work spans a thousand years of Chinese history. . . . [with] a rich repository of tales, traditions and sensibilities [the book's] theme of indeterminacy of meaning is braided into the clash between East and West. . . . [Dai] Sijie has a gift for the spectacular.” Times Literary Supplement [UK]
Once on a Moonless Night evokes the past with all the eerie clarity of a dream, its outlines blurred, but every tiny, telling detail extraordinarily alive. Anyone in search of a brief history of China would do well to begin right here.” Financial Times [UK]
“[Dai] Sijie’s breathtaking story shows the beauty and horrors that make up China’s history while the poetry of [Dai] 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.” Publishers Weekly (starred review)
 “[B]ewitching. . . . As impressionistically historical as it is imaginative, Dai’s dreamlike tale of epic quests and love put to the test is exquisitely structured. . . . Dai’s dazzling and magical saga intimates that language is transcendent; books are precious; translation is a noble art; stories are the key to freedom; and truth prevails.” Booklist (starred review)

Library Journal
A young French translator becomes obsessed with an ancient silk scroll in this impressionistic novel. (LJ 5/1/09)

Product Details

Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
5.34(w) x 8.38(h) x 1.10(d)

Read an Excerpt


Let's call it the mutilated relic, this scrap of sacred text, written in a long-dead language, on a roll of silk which fell victim to a violent fit of anger and was torn in two, not by a pair of hands or a knife or scissors but quite genuinely by the teeth of an enraged emperor.

My chance meeting with Professor Tang Li sometime in mid-July 1978 in a conference room of the Peking Hotel, and what he revealed to me about that treasure, both shine out to this day like a little square of light in the hazy and confused labyrinth that my memories of China have become.

For the first time in my life I was being paid in my capacity as interpreter in a meeting set up by a Hollywood production company to discuss the screenplay of The Last Emperor, which went on to be the major film that everyone knows, garlanded with nine or ten Oscars and generating astronomical box office takings. With permission from the University of Peking, where I was enrolled in the Chinese literature department as a foreign student, and armed with a notebook bought the day before specially for the occasion, I made my way to the Peking Hotel in the middle of a summer afternoon so hot it vaporised everything, turning the city into a cauldron steadily stewing its population. Creaking their last, my bicycle wheels sank into the cloying asphalt, softened by the heat and giving off little spirals of blue smoke. The foyer of the eight-storey hotel (the city's only skyscraper at the time) was overflowing with excited activity, the revolving glass door besieged by a noisy succession of fifty, a hundred, two hundred people, I couldn't tell. Judging by their accents they had come from every corner of China. Parents laden with provisions and children carrying violin cases on their backs and, despite the heat, wearing Western-style blazers with white shirts buttoned up to the neck and ties or bow ties, even though some of them were barely six or seven years old. As soon as each child appeared in the foyer, a riot broke out; the others would swarm over and huddle round, peering anxiously and bombarding the newcomer with impatient questions. It looked just like a crowd of worried refugees jostling at the doors of an embassy. After a while I gathered that they were each waiting for a private audience with Yehudi Menuhin, who came to China once a year on a mission that was as charitable as it was artistic (and in which there was a certain element of personal publicity): to find one or two child prodigies, a new Chinese Mozart. This was a golden opportunity for these young violinists, an unhoped-for chance to set off for the United States and attend a music school directed by the master himself.

The lift wasn't working and the climb to the eighth floor, where my meeting was being held, required considerable effort, especially as there were violinists everywhere in the stairwell too, milling about like ants, sitting or even lying on the stairs, along corridors and in the corners of window ledges. Eventually, almost rigid with exhaustion, I reached the meeting room and found that it was, quite by coincidence, right next to the budding violinists' audition room, which had its door closed.

I was invited to join a group comprising a representative for the Italian-American director, a production assistant, another translator and a dozen eminent Chinese historians. We were seated around a rectangular table covered in a white cloth dotted with tins of Coca-Cola, cups of tea, ashtrays and vases of plastic and paper roses, and in the middle, in pride of place, stood an imposing and majestic professional tape recorder. On the wall hung an enlargement of a black-and-white photograph of Puyi, the last emperor, taken in the Forbidden City on a particularly raw winter day in 1920. He was wearing a Western-style jacket and glasses with rimless round lenses, his features tense, his expression dark.

The introductions and handshakes were accompanied by my halting translation from Chinese into English laced with a strong French accent, while the other translator, who was barely more at ease than I was, translated from English into Chinese; protocol was strictly respected. I noticed a Chinese man of about sixty, not like the others who all wore short-sleeved shirts; he was draped in traditional Chinese dress (a tunic in dark blue satin, buttoned at the side and falling to the floor) which, bearing in mind the season, made him look slightly absurd if also touching. He alone bowed to greet the organisers of the meeting, but with no hint of sycophancy, and occasionally he raised an elegant hand, in a gesture so slow it seemed to date from a different age, to stroke his long white beard, which wafted gently in the draught from the fan hanging from the ceiling. It seemed time had stopped over him, he alone was the incarnation of an entire era, a separate universe. When he spoke his name, in just two characters, I was struck by their simplicity and familiarity, which I mentally associated with . . . I searched and searched as I looked at his face, but in vain. The memory stayed buried in some recess of my mind, paralysed by the nerves of this first professional experience.

When I translated the nickname that his Chinese colleagues gave him—the Living Dictionary of the Forbidden City—the director's representative burst out laughing and promised, rather condescendingly, to hire this "gentleman" for a walk-on part or even a minor role. The other Chinese people present fell about laughing, but not the old man. I heard the hum of mosquitoes dancing in the artificial draft from the fan, flitting across beams of light that striped the room. The sound of a violin through the wall acted as background music to the meeting, a Mendelssohn sonata or concerto, gentle, slightly mawkish.

Two or three hours elapsed before I turned to look at the man in traditional dress again. The meeting, during which he had remained silent, was drawing to a close and the participants were glancing impatiently at their watches when he suddenly began to speak in a cracked, reedy, almost strangled voice.

"If we have a few more minutes I would like, very humbly, as humbly as my background dictates, to plead the case for re-establishing the truth."

In a fraction of a second, as I translated what he had said, I thought I knew what his name reminded me of. It was . . . Just then a large mosquito which was stuck to the forehead of the director's representative caught my eye; I saw it take off, hover, veer back and land very precisely on the end of his nose, probably a less oily site. A verse from a Russian poet whom I had just read in translation came to mind: "the mosquito beatifically raised its ruby belly." That was exactly it. As for knowing who the old Chinese man was, my vague recollections were extinguished almost before they were lit.

"I would beg the director and his writers," went on the old man, "either by your intermediary or through the tape recorder on which my eminent colleagues cannot help focusing, to throw this screenplay—or at least this version—in one of the hotel's bins, where, despite the establishment's reputation, there's quite a substantial population of hidden little scrabbling creatures who, I can only hope, will nibble it page by page, word by word. So very far is it from the true character of Puyi, who, contrary to the untruthful biography on which your screenplay is based, was a pathologically complex person, and I'm not referring here to his homosexuality, for many an emperor before him had similar tendencies. That is not the question, but his sadistic cruelty and frequent fits of delirium—as unpredictable as they were uncontrollable—were due to schizophrenia, in the purely medical sense of the term."

In our collective silence we could make out through the wall the individual notes in the opening melody of the allegro from a Beethoven concerto, then a slap rang out, one the director's representative administered to himself. The mosquito, which I could no longer see, must have avoided the blow and escaped.

"Piece of shit!"

With this vengeful cry, the man leapt from his chair, crushed the insect between his hands and threw its oozing, bleeding corpse into an ashtray, where he burned it with the tip of his cigarette.

"What the hell was that mosquito doing here?" he said. "Did he want to get into movies too?"

He roared with laughter and declared that, on that note, the meeting was closed. Before leaving he turned to me.

"Tell the old man I'm sure he knows the truth, but it's too dark, too negative, it won't work with a Western audience, it has nothing to offer a movie, no one's interested in that, least of all a world-famous director whose ambitions can be summed up in one word: Oscar."

He left. While I translated, struggling to find attenuating words and turns of phrase, the Living Dictionary of the Forbidden City stared at me with eyes bulging from their sockets, his smooth beard and white hair stiff with rage.

It was only after his blue-robed figure had vanished, still reeling, through the doorway and I had closed my scribbled notebook in relief that—without even searching my memory—the thing I could not remember earlier came to me. Tang Li, well, of course! The author of The Secret Biography of Cixi. I stood up, reached the door, launched myself into the corridor, bumped into someone and thundered down the stairs, which were still heaving with future Mozarts so I had to zig-zag my way through them on every floor. As if finally seeing the Bearer of Good News, the highly strung crowd, tortured by their long anxious wait, sprang to life again. The fact that I was obviously in a hurry, my little translator's notebook, my Western appearance . . . all insignificant details, granted, but enough to whip up their emotions and create ripples of excitement that escorted me all the way down to street level, along with waves of questions, supplications and fears concerning the choices made by the king of violins. They clearly took me for his powerful assistant who worked behind the scenes scheduling the on-camera auditions. Despite my explanations (and my futile swearing in the name of film and of another king—this time of cinematography), the young performers' parents continued to hound me, God knows why. One mother of about thirty, a hunchback with permed hair and a sweaty face, picked up the hem of her cheap skirt, dragged her offspring by the arm, followed by her bald husband, and bore down on me like a determined predator, descending the stairs with the fervent energy of a good soldier, close on my heels all the way. But she must have tripped on a step, because her bag fell, scattering tins of food, sandwiches, bottles of water and a red apple, which bounced from stair to stair right to the bottom of the flight.

It was almost dark outside. I had to leave my bicycle where it was parked and, by dint of various acrobatic manoeuvres, cross the tightly packed streams not of cars (which were rare commodities at the time) but of bicycles advancing inexorably, in order to catch up with the old man in the long blue robe at the tram stop on the other side of the widest boulevard in China, built in the passion for all things huge that was the 1950s, in imitation of Moscow's Red Square. Another couple of seconds and I would have missed the tram. The driver set off, but my relief evaporated when I saw—still running and now out of breath—the father, the boy and the violin case, but not the mother, at least. I rushed to the door, which shuddered under the father's blows and eventually opened. Once more they interrogated me furiously; I explained who I was, helped by the testimony of the old historian who had come to my aid and whose hostility seemed to have vanished on that imposing grey boulevard, known the world over for its military parades, its huge mass demonstrations and, years later, the student massacre. The father, floundering between the names Menuhin, Bertolucci and Puyi, eventually gave up and a group of schoolchildren surging towards the door pushed him and his son aside, helpless.

Rather than the old historian's steady, motionless, almost bulging eyes, it is his voice that comes to mind and still rings in my ears, a quivering thread of a voice, cracked and very gentle, drowned out most of the time by the racket of the tram. His voice and the way he cleared his throat when he succumbed to a wave of sadness or indignation. Standing among the other passengers, holding on to a leather strap, with no comment on the lurching corners which threatened to throw him over, without looking at me, he took up the subject of Puyi exactly where he had been interrupted that afternoon, as if nothing had happened in between and the meeting were carrying on quite naturally in that dusty tramcar.

"History tells us that the two child emperors, Guangxu and Puyi, appointed successively and thirty years apart by their aunt, the empress Cixi, were struck by the same mysterious disorder: impotence, to give it its name, and this brought an end to any hopes of perpetuating their lineage. Puyi's case seems all the more fateful as, bearing in mind his status as last emperor, the phenomenon takes on an almost metaphysical dimension far beyond his personal destiny. He was, anyway, a sickly child and his fragile state was aggravated over the years by countless Chinese and Western remedies, high-dose injections, prayers, rituals and all sorts of cures, aromatic fumigations and aphrodisiacs extracted from the testicles of various species of mammal, bird and fish, the most famous of which is incontrovertibly the Tibetan 'grass worm,' a small flatworm, a plathelminth of the peziza order, about two or three centimetres long, it looks like the grey silkworm and is called Bombyx mori. This worm owes its name to the fact that after it dies in winter its body, buried beneath the Himalayan snow, turns into grass, which eventually pokes through the snow and grows all through the spring, now enjoying an entirely vegetal existence. Even so, massive doses of this powerful aphrodisiac famous for its success were unable to stir the imperial organ from its lethargy. Worse than that, they plunged the emperor into states of extreme panic, bringing on outbursts when he believed he was prey to tiny creatures writhing inside his stomach, invading his liver and making their way up to his heart and brain, sometimes claiming it was caterpillars with pearly grey fur that were inside him, breaking him down, eating him up and coupling in his insides to the death, sometimes pointed bamboo shoots that he felt he could see gleaming green, springing up from every part of his body as it cooled, cooled, cooled like a field the day after a lost battle, like a drifting iceberg.

Meet the Author

Born in China in 1954, Dai 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).Sijie

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Once on a Moonless Night 3.9 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 8 reviews.
harstan More than 1 year ago
In 1978 the French student attends the University of Peking studying Chinese literature when she is hired as a translator between the Chinese representatives and a western movie crew wanting to make a film on the last Emperor Puyi. At the meeting she learns of the mysterious second century Buddhist sutra written in an unknown language that the emperor inherited. She becomes obsessed with translating this treasure. The student finds out about the sutra's history in the twelfth century when the Japanese incarcerates Puyi; who apparently ripped it in half and tossed it from a plane. The student further learns from street stand seller Tumchooq that his father Paul d'Ampere did some work on the half found by her maternal family; her mom is curator at the museum of the Forbidden City. D'Ampere went to prison for twenty five years until he died. The student-narrator aborts the baby she had with Tumchooq and leaves for France after he left the city motivated by to seek the missing half. She tracks him in Burma in 1990, but he is arrested and deported to Laos. This is a complex well written historical novel that either grips the audience thoroughly with its poetic look back in time or turns off the readers with its flowery description of the past. Case in point is some of the passages go on and on and on with incredible depth like the historian looking at the ancient emperor's love of the art of calligraphy. Character driven including the prized sutra that seems to have a life of its own, ONCE ON A MOONLESS NIGHT is not for everyone as the action in spite of imprisonment in several eras and locales is limited to musings. Harriet Klausner
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