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Authors: Dai Sijie

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Once on a Moonless Night (4 page)

BOOK: Once on a Moonless Night
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“Another letter, a surprisingly thick one, its envelope smothered in strange stamps and postmarks, arrived in Puyi’s residence in Tianjin in mid-August 1931. The place was shrouded in gloomy silence, this was a month before the Japanese invasion of Manchuria. The sumo came into his room and put the letter on the emperor’s bedside table while he lay huddled in his freezing bed, tortured by worry and migraines, haunted by the thought of becoming a puppet for the Japanese who would name him emperor of Manchuria, casting infamy over the entire Chinese people. That same day the only Chinese scholar familiar with Sanskrit, the sacred language of India, was summoned before Puyi to read the letter. All that emerged from this consultation was that the author of the letter was a ruler from a region which once belonged to ancient India but was now part of Nepal, and its Kapilavastu district had been Buddha’s birthplace two thousand five hundred years earlier. On orders from his superior, a British governor who had fought the Boxers in Peking in his youth, he was sending Puyi a copy of
The Hitopadeśa
, a collection of fables written in a local language called Newari, a combination of Sanskrit and a north Himalayan dialect used by nomads. This letter fostered an infatuation with Sanskrit in Puyi, who was quite won over by its grammar, as it was explained to him by the scholar, or rather by one essential grammatical point, the only one that held his attention: in this very rich, very precise language, verbs existed only in the passive form. You could never say, for example: ‘The cook is preparing rice,’ but rather: ‘Rice is being prepared by the cook.’ Tormented by a feeling of failure and the thought that he would soon leave his residence and be no more than a puppet emperor in captivity, Puyi felt every sentence pronounced by the scholar resonating in his ears like some gentle incantatory formula, his every word opening a new doorway through which he alone could reach the skies with his magician by his side. In the space of an afternoon an idyllic world was born in his mind, a world where verbs—actions—were reduced to their passive form, thus making every kind of threat disappear. No gesture or movement had any meaning now other than submitting, like a virgin sheet of paper that accepts having print over its entire surface, sometimes even being deeply dented in the process.

“That evening the Sanskrit scholar, exhausted by his new pupil’s ardour, took his leave immediately after dinner to sleep in one of the many empty bedrooms. Puyi, on the other hand, as he later recounted, spent a sleepless night learning the alphabet and a dozen or so Sanskrit words by heart, floundering in the contrast between long and short vowels, their solemn weight, the way they alternated, and in the framework of consonants, the voiced and unvoiced, the aspirates and the unvoiced aspirates. He even tried to compose a sentence—his first in Sanskrit—to taste the pleasures of passive experience and passive desire; he succeeded and it was beautiful. Then he discovered, and this too was beautiful, how to decline the concept of despair in the passive form and, better still, in passive past participles. Oh, the power of passivity!

“He did not close his eyes until daybreak, sinking into a half sleep, and, in a fleeting fraction of a second, he saw two strangers leaning over him, one tall in a monk’s habit with a beard that completely covered his cheeks, the other small and slight, still young but with a greying goatee on the tip of his pointed chin. They disappeared just as they had appeared, before a single word had been exchanged. Only afterwards did Puyi recognise them as An Shih-Kao and Huizong, even though the latter had not been wearing an imperial headdress. He had two votive altars erected to them in a large hall in recognition of his gratitude for this first visit, which he saw as a very good omen, a mute baptism of the sacred language.

“In the last fine days of autumn—which were also, although he did not know this yet, the last fine days of his apolitical life as emperor—to be sure that he could immerse himself in this language to which he was recently converted, whatever the time of day and wherever he might be (in his study, the dining room, the bathroom, the toilet, along a dark corridor, in the disused ballroom or the deserted courtyard), he gave his guest, the professor, sheets of white paper and asked him to write out the names of almost everything in Sanskrit, as in the village struck down with amnesia in
One Hundred Years of Solitude
. His servants copied out the labels in whitewash letters a hundred times the size on the ground, the walls, doors, windows, armchairs, beds … even the sumo, who pinned the words
raja purusa
, ‘the emperors servant,’ on his capacious tunic. For the first time in a long while Puyi could be heard roaring with laughter again, yes, real laughter, in his falsetto voice, granted, but glorious laughter which filled the gloomy house with joy. One morning he met his scholarly visitor in a corridor and greeted him in Sanskrit but, instead of saying ‘Good morning,’ he employed a polite formula with all its attendant protocol, meant for the emperor alone, without realising he was making a mistake. His guest bowed to thank him but, moments later, was packing his bags, and it was only when he came into Puyi’s study with his suitcase and said a simple ‘Goodbye’ in Sanskrit that light dawned in the emperor’s mind and, understanding the absurdity of his mistake, he was filled with elation and laughed till he wept. He experienced similar sensual ecstasy when his wife—a general’s daughter he had married six years earlier and to whom he vowed platonic love, although he did not truly know her sweet face or her tender body—came into his study disguised as a young Indian prince, sat on his lap, covered his face in kisses and whispered in his ear:
‘sā bhāryā yā pativratā,’
a Sanskrit sentence which he had made her learn by heart in the tomb-like chill of her bedroom, impregnated by a strong smell of opium, and which could be translated as: ‘me wife devoted to my husband.’

“But time had run out for Puyi to use the words of this sacred language, which he had learned so quickly and with such appetite as an effective means of defence. Events took an ironic turn when two Japanese officers, in civilian dress, came to fetch him and take him out to a car parked by the front door of his residence (for the rest of his life he would remember the squeak of that car’s brakes and the furtive sound of footsteps—or rather the absence of any sound of footsteps—made by those two ghosts). He struggled to keep his composure and, with all the dignity of a head of state, responded to the officers’ military salute by uttering, syllable by syllable, the longest Sanskrit sentence he knew by heart:
Brāhmanah Kalaham asahamāno bhāryāvatsalyāt svakutumbam parityajya brāhmanyā saya desāntaram gatah
(‘After his house was abandoned, unable to bear the disagreement any longer, out of love for his wife, the Brahman fled with her to a foreign country’). After such an exploit and having surprised even himself, Puyi was overcome with joy and experienced patriotic pride for the last time in his life, particularly as, although they understood absolutely nothing, the two ghosts from the land of the Rising Sun had bowed before him on three separate occasions during this interminable sentence.

“But when it came to saying goodbye to his scholarly guest he again used an inappropriate Sanskrit formula without realising it. For reasons of intellectual integrity, his embarrassed guest reminded him that he should have used the term meaning ‘goodbye,’ and not the one for ‘hello’ in the present tense. Puyi, who had managed to keep his madness in check up until this point thanks to Sanskrit, succumbed to a violent fit of hysteria and, shaking like a leaf, called the man every abusive name he could think of so that their farewell scene descended into nightmare. An hour later, at the airfield, his anger subsided when the sumo, the only person permitted to travel with him, appeared with two padlocked, chrome-plated metal chests, which bounced glints of sunlight round the stark, tattered and uncomfortable cabin. He put them down opposite the emperor on an iron seat with cracking dark green paint. These two chests—one filled with works of art counted among the most precious treasures in China if not the world, the other quite priceless, once the property of Emperor Huizong and now Puyi—were cited as exhibits years later by an international tribunal, proving Puyi was not innocent: he had prepared his departure and had, therefore, been guilty of treason when he stepped into that Japanese aircraft. A crime that was all the more shameful for being premeditated.

“The six other people on board—a pilot, two co-pilots, the two officers and the sumo—died during the war without leaving any testimony about the incident which happened inside the plane when Puyi, gripped with sudden madness, opened the cabin door in mid-air and threw out torn shreds of various works of art.

“Puyi had never flown before, notes Li Ping, a specialist of the Sino-Japanese War, in an article published in the twenty-third edition of the magazine
History
, and was taken to a dirty, cramped aircraft intended for transporting freight. It was chosen deliberately by Japanese generals for its sorry appearance and, more particularly, its poor state of repair, as a way of thoroughly duping the Chinese administration, a fact revealed by the few documents concerning the future emperor of Manchuria’s camouflaged departure. In
Memoirs of a Japanese Colonel
, which I was lucky enough to buy for a handful of coins from a second-hand bookseller in Kyoto, the author relates, among other things and with supporting photographs, how his own nerves were sorely tested the day he had to take one of these planes that were kept for secret missions, in order to get out of Mongolia. Take-off was delayed and the pilot had to get down from the cockpit, find a long bamboo ladder, lean it against the plane, climb up it and wipe the cabin windscreen by hand, because it was too dirty to begin such a long journey. No one knows whether Puyi was subjected to similar inconveniences, but the state of the plane, I’m quite sure, heightened his fear and exerted such pressure on his already disturbed mind that it brought on a fit of hysteria. According to Li Ping, the violent jolting like a constant earthquake under his seat, and the whining motor like a siren announcing the end of the world, along with his loneliness and the feeling of being held captive by brutal creatures exhaling their steaming breath over his face, shouting and playing childish games, laughing at obscene jokes, one cruel jibe leading to another, not that he could understand a single word—all of these elements combined to induce another mental breakdown.

“The causes of the incident have raised little if any controversy. Some of his contemporaries attributed it to a rush of arrogance on Puyi’s part, humiliated to be travelling in that ugly little freight plane, or even a final patriotic reflex, an indication of his self-loathing for failing to reject the idea of resuming the imperial throne, even if only as a puppet for the Japanese. At various symposia I discussed it with other, more sceptical specialists who felt Puyi’s gesture was a tad too spectacular, as if he were trying to leave an image of himself as an emperor who, even after his downfall, would not collaborate without rebelling, and this very attitude meant he was actually more than a collaborator, he doubly collaborated.”

As the professor explained his colleagues’ opinions to me, we arrived at his house and went into a small dark room, which served as dining room, sitting room, kitchen and study all at once. He lit the gas hob with a plastic gun and started making tea next to a sink filled with a teetering iceberg of filthy washing-up.

“One of my former students works at the Party Central Committee Archives where, as you know, they keep all documents classed as ‘state secrets.’ One time, in this very room, when we were talking about drug use in China, she mentioned a file relating to Puyi, which she came across by chance when she was filing archive material. This came as a surprise to me, because I thought she catalogued only documents about the Party. She recited from memory a few pages from an interrogation which took place in a Manchurian prison in 1954. It was the first time I had heard this version of the facts and, while I made notes, I prayed silently that there would be no gaps in her recollections. But she accomplished quite a feat and earned my respect. How precious they are, people with the prodigious gift of memory, who can record things in their heads, like the three-hundred-page book by Dmitri Shostakovich, which was banned but later published by one of his pupils, who made it through to the West and found all those quantities of words written by his master still anchored inside his head. I shall read you an extract of the notes I made:

INTERROGATOR B:
Prisoner, can you describe for us the plane that took you to the site of your betrayal? And don’t try and make the same mistake you made in the last interrogation: when talking about yourself, you won’t say “the fallen emperor” or put all your verbs in the third person, you’ll just say “I” like everyone else.
PRISONER:
I don’t remember it clearly any more, either the shape of it or the interior. I felt as if I were in a different world, not on this earth, less still in heaven, but in a world I didn’t know and which I don’t really remember. I do recall certain sounds and sensations, smells, images, but very few of the thoughts that came into my head that day, and even less of what they might have meant. I think we stayed in the plane on the ground for quite a long time, until it started to rain. But I couldn’t hear any sound, as if I were deaf. Through the open cabin door I could see the rain falling on the dusty runway, on the wings of the plane, harder and harder. Suddenly a colossal silhouette appeared at the end of the runway, looming out of nowhere and slicing through the rain carrying a chest wrapped in wet cloth in each hand. He ran over to the plane, and his feet—I’ll never forget this, he was wearing white flat-heeled thonged sandals—his feet now looked tiny in the middle of a huge raindrop, which fell slowly and made a great puddle on the ground all by itself, silently splashing his white skin and the ivory gleam of his sandals. First one then the other, his feet stepped into another raindrop, just as big as the first one, and it made me laugh, but when I got up to go to the door the vision vanished. Sound came back to my ears. The sumo was at the foot of the plane, bowing and smiling at me as he held out the two chests as though in some ridiculous theatrical performance or to celebrate a victory, but I couldn’t remember what he was bringing me or why. I think I had lost my memory. The sumo handed the two chests to the officers inside the plane. But he didn’t get in straight away. He stayed where he was, speechless, possibly humiliated because I hadn’t recognised him. A temporary lapse, but its intensity terrified him because he knew from experience that memory loss often heralded death. To avoid dirtying the gangway, even though it was well rusted, he took off his sandals and climbed up the steps, which rocked beneath his weight. Once again I couldn’t resist the urge to laugh as I saw his bare feet coming towards me, shrunken like two expertly sculpted miniatures, held in a single drop of rain as it fell on the steps, and that wading sound,
psh psh psh
, echoing round … I suddenly realised the significance of the situation: those raindrops were tears shed by Heaven for the last seconds of the last emperor of China, a farewell; so I reached my arms outside, and the drops splashed thrillingly over my hands, laden with a sadness that chilled me to the bone.
BOOK: Once on a Moonless Night
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