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 himthe Living Dictionary of the Forbidden Citythe 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 screenplayor at least this versionin 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 deliriumas unpredictable as they were uncontrollablewere 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 thatwithout even searching my memorythe 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 kingthis 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 sawstill running and now out of breaththe 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.