"Death Fugue" is a recent novel by Shenzhen-based author Sheng Keyi, who was longlisted for the Man Asian Booker Prize in 2010. Critics say there is much in it that resonates with this year's 25th anniversary of the military crackdown and bloodshed that put an end to weeks of student-led pro-democracy protests on Tiananmen Square. Cantonese Service commentator Ye Xin reviews it:
This novel is a fable about the quest for freedom leading to imprisonment.
The protagonist, Yuan Mengliu, is a poet. During a huge demonstration, he meets Qizi, a girl who he realizes also lacks the will to take part in politics. But Qizi disappears in the mayhem that follows, and Yuan Mengliu is subjected to serious oppression. He stops writing poetry and becomes a doctor instead. On the pretext of taking a vacation, he sets out to search for Qizi. He is unexpectedly blown by a mysterious wind to a place called Swan Valley, where there is a beautiful city with a liberal civilization.
However, it's not quite as beautiful as he thought: natural desires are repressed, and eugenics is practiced, resulting in designer prodigy children.
He recoils in horror at the inhumanity of the system and the extreme nature of the methods used.
The reader is sure to notice that the details of the novel are replete with hidden meaning.
This may be a story about the future, but it reflects contemporary China.
"From the map he could see that Dayang looked like a huge paramecium, or the sole of a left shoe. The capital, Beibing, was a city of courtyards, sitting like a bubble excreted by the paramecium, keeping the homeostatic balance. The climate in Beibing was ghastly, and all the land around had turned to desert."
"The winds swept the sands across the city every autumn, turning the city into a bombsite, while dust filled all the crevices of the face. Winters there were extremely cold, its summers torridly hot, and for some weird reason, the air always smelled of bread."
"The sad thing was that the language of Dayang wasn't beautiful. Its script was ugly, so that the words 'Long live democracy!' would be rendered as 'WIOrj IdINOr!'; in shapes that looked like insects, while the ugly pronunciation sounded as if one was being burned by hot soup and twisting the tongue out of shape and distorting the mouth. All the muscles were required to make these sounds, even a flaring of the nostrils and an exhalation of breath, and there was a strong nasal sound like a donkey having an asthma attack..."
"The main street in Beibing lay like a satiated boa constrictor, with a circular square of some half a million square meters in the area of its belly. This was a popular tourist destination in Dayang. In 2019, the totally transparent statue of a naked goddess carrying a torch was added to the square, with diamond eyes and red lasers shooting forth the news and weather, interspersed with the occasional poem, to the night sky."
Reading between the lines, we find intense political irony, in particular the resemblance of several of the main characters to the democratic movement, and its student leaders and academics who yearned for freedom, with the result that they were either injured by gunfire and sacrificed their lives, or fled to make a comeback, or a new revolution, overseas.
Translated by Luisetta Mudie.