Authors: Dai Sijie
Tags: #General, #French, #Fiction - General, #Fiction, #Historical, #Literary, #Foreign Language Study, #Romance
The book’s author, to whom Seventy-one granted an interview, asked him about a legend which claimed that, during one excursion with the empty aviary, his children changed their route to go to a “singing dune” where Seventy-one’s calls to his imaginary eagles combined with the children’s ascent of the steep slope to produce a rumbling from the dune, a natural acoustic phenomenon, which the locals had known for a long time and which was of considerable interest to many scientists. On that particular day the “Song of the Sands,” as it was known, started as a muffled murmur and grew in volume until it merged with the engine noise of a plane passing over the dune at the same time. The plane flew on and disappeared, but not before dropping an ancient Chinese silk painting which floated through the air, twirled in the wind and landed, nonchalantly, close to the prince’s aviary, like a gift fallen from the skies. The son denied, not the episode in its entirety, but the nature of the object in question:
“It wasn’t a painting” [he corrected] “but half of a text, calligraphic signs on a torn piece of silk. I don’t know the origins of the signs and I can only find one way of describing them: tadpole signs with a huge head joined to a soft body, elongated with frail, squiggling limbs. A friend of my father’s, the exiled poet Zhang Zigang, examined the mutilated artefact and announced that it was a language he didn’t recognise written in horizontal form from right to left, unlike the Chinese language, and this was almost certainly a piece of immense value if not a priceless treasure, as was suggested not only by the great age of the cloth and the colour of the ink but, more significantly, by the seals of its successive owners above the text: two emperors of the Song dynasty, a prime minister of the Ming dynasty, a sovereign of the Qing dynasty, and Qianlong, whose Seal of the Five Joys of the Sons of Heaven (a very rare seal recognised only by his close entourage) proved the pleasure he had taken in owning the work.”
“Do you remember the aeroplane?”
“It was a Japanese plane.”
“Why do you say that?”
“It wasn’t a combat plane with an open cockpit, but the Japanese emblem painted in red became clearly visible as it glided lower and lower, going very slowly, just skimming the stunted trees.”
“Planes at the time looked like geometrid moths.”
“This one, with its earth-shaking, drumming engines, was like a winged monster suspended in the air, growling, furious. When this horrible monster darkened the sky over us, a young man in glasses opened the door while still in full flight. It seems far-fetched now but at the time you could open the doors of aeroplanes. His glasses were snatched by the wind straight away, the craft was thrown off balance and one wing dipped dangerously. The man didn’t seem to want to commit suicide, he was just brandishing something in his hand, as if to throw it out. The plane seemed to go into a sort of spasm, shuddering frighteningly, as if paralysed. All through the struggle that was going on inside the door stayed gaping open, then I saw the wheels of the landing gear peeling from the monster’s body like talons. That was when a shredded piece of silk flew out of the door and was swept away by the wind. Several other pieces of paper or silk flew down, and were carried off by another gust of wind. The pilot managed to right the plane but, as he attempted to regain height, he was heading straight for the side of a dune with the door now closed and the landing gear retracted; the whole incident or spell of madness hadn’t lasted more than a minute. The plane disappeared into the depths of the sky, not leaving a sound. And in that silence a ghost of transparent silk sketched a trail of white across the dusk, drifting on the wind with a nonchalant fluttering, and eventually landing on our cart with its empty aviary.”
The historian pointed out that when he wrote his book Seventy-one was still living in exile in Manchuria and was over eighty, a much greater age than his blind instructor had predicted for his demise. What had altered his fate? He had stopped his expeditions in his cart at the age of sixty-nine, that is, two years before the anticipated date of his death, on the day that he came into possession of the mutilated silk artefact, which he considered to be a gift from Heaven. “At last,” the oldest political prisoner in the world confided in his son, “I have received my rightful inheritance. I’ve been given back my legitimacy as a prince. Justice has been done to me.”
COULDN’T HAVE IMAGINED THAT THE
greengrocer’s on Little India Street, where I spent more and more of my time after my university lectures, would mark such a turning point in my fate. Seen through the prism of my growing affection, those ordinary cheap vegetables on the brink of decay took on a rainbow of iridescent colours, deploying every nuance of the spectrum: the emerald green of peas, the scarlet of chillies, the sulphurous pink of pumpkins, the purple-blue of aubergines … even the swarms of cockroaches as fat as Manchurian soya beans crawling in every corner were decked in jet-coloured velvet in my eyes. Late one afternoon in March 1978 I was at the top of the hill which looked down over the Forbidden City (“Wait for me here,” Tumchooq had said, before running off to his mothers home in the quarters for employees of that prestigious establishment, old houses of grey brick next to the grey moat beneath the grey walls) when I was bewitched by the spectacle of the sun sinking into the waves formed by the palace roofs—the marriage between Heaven and Earth, as Tumchooq called it—and the first thought that came into my head couldn’t avoid the tyranny-by-vegetables that now irrevocably dominated my entire mind: I saw countless grains of corn coming towards me, endlessly reflected in the matt gold mirrors of those magnificent roofs, and, when the huge red disc was half-masked by heavy clouds, the grains of corn metamorphosed into the gently curved shape of an aubergine, the lower half distorting into serpentine contortions before shrinking, shrinking until it turned into long, gleaming bean sprouts. At the climax of this copulation between yin and yang, the sun broke up into a diffuse force bathing the roofs with its shimmering fluid, flowing dark red over the golden background that still shone through.
In his only novel,
, the great Chinese writer (and probably the most famous scholar of the twentieth century) Qian Zhongshu tells us, with an irony all his own, that in Chinese love stories the one who loves always starts by borrowing a book from the beloved, be it simply a manual of Japanese grammar, a knitting pattern or a bicycle-repair leaflet. In fact, when I decided a few years ago to make enquiries on the subject, I couldn’t find a literate person in the whole country who had made their first advances in any other way, even in the disadvantaged circles of restaurant waitresses, little urchins hanging about in station waiting rooms, young apprentices … except for me. My love story began with a wilted yellow-green cabbage eaten away by a worm that I thought I could see lurking in the folds of a leaf, a cabbage that Tumchooq—the salesman at the shop on Little India Street—offered me out of generosity, or perhaps contempt, when he still thought of me as just a foreign student with a little rabbit to feed.
White-Tuft was the name I had given the animal bought at a Sunday market, and I had cobbled together a hutch for him out of wooden bars secured with huge nails flattened with a hammer, covered with a piece of rusting zinc and positioned in my backyard against a scaly, whitewashed wall. Apart from a few mosquitoes and a spider scuttling on flimsy legs around my room and my bed, White-Tuft was the only creature I could talk to on those long, icy cold nights. His favourite food was leafy vegetables, which I would go and pick up from the shop on Little India Street every day. This daily task soon brought me closer to Tumchooq, I even got friendly with his mostly lame colleagues and was almost allowed to witness their evening ritual around the oily cash register, which sat crookedly in its casing and made a grating noise. When money was very short, Tumchooq sometimes took me out to the country on his bicycle to pick wild herbs to replace the “socialist vegetables,” as he called them, and sometimes after work he would walk me home to the foreign students’ halls, watched by invisible eyes. It was an old bicycle from the 1950s, an East German make, and its brakes, unlike current models’, were connected to the pedals so you had to back-pedal to operate them, making a long mechanical graunching sound and going into a protracted slide fraught with danger as you exposed yourself to all sorts of accidents before the two wheels, firstly the rear wheel, then the front one, stopped turning altogether.
“It’s my only inheritance,” Tumchooq told me, flirtatiously; “every bit of it is extremely precious, because you can’t get hold of the parts any more.”
The grips on the handlebars, the forks at the back and front and various other parts of it were wrapped in red fabric, blackened with age; this made it look from a distance like a swaying horse covered in wounds, its deep gashes bound in heavy, blood-soaked bandages. When he pedalled and I sat on the rusted luggage rack, which creaked at the slightest bump in the road, I thought it miraculous that the thing kept moving and didn’t leave us both stranded.
Despondency isn’t the precise word to describe my state of mind during my time in Peking. When I went out walking I felt I was swimming through the cabbage soup in the canteen, and when I drank the cabbage soup in the canteen, I felt I could see Peking reflected in it, their similarities seemed so obvious to me: same blackish grey texture in the bowl of soup and the moat of the Forbidden City and, once the frost lifted, the bland, sickening smell of sludge drifting up from it. My university, which was almost deserted, was worse still. It had the best reputation in all China, but you never saw real Chinese students there, just revolutionary farmhands, workers and soldiers—the people the university was open to. In my isolation, the only thing I learnt in class by way of literature were the words of Mao; I could recite whole sentences, some as long and convoluted as a labyrinth. There were also the revolutionary songs I had to sing with the others so many times each day that I sometimes found myself inadvertently humming them to the little rabbit I had bought in the market. Lying in bed in the mornings I would often picture myself at death’s door, struck down by some fatal illness, and I would start composing my own obituary under the title
A Revolutionary Parrot Beneath the Peking Sun
. At night, locked in my room, I would sleep for ten hours, sometimes more, as there were no nightclubs anywhere, or concert halls or cinemas screening anything other than propaganda films … and there wasn’t a single restaurant in the whole city that stayed open beyond seven o’clock in the evening. There was a great wall covered in weeds and moss between China and me. If I needed to use the bathroom in the middle of the night, whatever the season but particularly in winter, I had to get dressed from head to foot, trousers, coat, etc., and cut across a dark, deserted, freezing courtyard with a torch in my hand, because the bulbs had been broken in all the lamps. Eventually, after my long journey, I would reach the far side and the door to the latrines, also plunged in shadow. I had won the first round of the game; now for the second: rotting wooden planks wobbled beneath my feet, spanning a slurry ditch, which gave off the oldest stench in the world. With a feeling of terror but no surprise, I heard my shit fall through the air and then, after half a second that seemed to last an eternity, an echo reverberated through those unfathomable depths, a disproportionate, eerie echo laden with menace, which made my blood freeze. (“When two Chinese words have the same pronunciation,” Tumchooq, my instructor in swear words and Peking slang, once told me, “there must be a mysterious connection between them. Take
, for example; it’s pronounced
, exactly like the word for the start of something, a beginning.”) I only ever felt like the proud winner of this dismal nocturnal game once I was back in my room. Occasionally, I would stop halfway and make a detour round the back of the house, where my rabbit lived in its little lean-to next to a telegraph pole. By torchlight I took a handful of grass and vegetables from a basket and slipped them through the bars of the cage under the rabbits nose. For a long time my only source of happiness in Peking was watching my friend chewing fresh grass in the darkness, hearing his gentle, rhythmic mastication against the sound of the wind humming through telegraph wires.
One evening Tumchooq parked his bike and actually stepped inside my hall of residence and came into my room in order, if memory serves, to help me with some work, and afterwards I made him a cup of Western coffee and played cassettes of French songs for him. When we went back out we found his bicycle knocked over, sprawled on the ground; the caps from the valves on his tyres had disappeared; stolen, we felt, as a warning. Condemned to pushing his bicycle, Tumchooq walked off into the night, laughing and whistling out of tune. On another of his visits the bell disappeared, then it was the grips on the handlebars and their red bandaging, and finally the saddle, which meant from then on he had to pedal standing up, proud of his calf muscles and his love. With me on the luggage rack, the pair of us must have made the most spectacular sight on a bicycle in Little India Street, because we couldn’t find the spare parts anywhere, as East Germany had broken off all trade with China.
Only White-Tuft’s death brought an end to his visits: we came in one evening and found my little rabbit assassinated in his hutch, blood still trickling over his flattened ears and dripping to the ground, testifying to the cruelty of the attack, his body still warm as it lay there on his vegetable leaves. His heart stopped beating in my hands.
In the days immediately after that sordid event, Tumchooq continued his visits to demonstrate our determination to whoever had taken out the contract on the assassination but, once in my room, nothing was the same; there was a strange atmosphere because White-Tuft’s presence was still so tangible, not to say all-pervasive. My cassettes of French songs sounded like funeral marches and, anyway, they kept getting stuck in the tape player, introducing long silences in which we felt we could still hear the soft regular noises of our late friend chewing his cabbage leaves. The coffee didn’t taste the same either, and we had lost the knack for concentrating with childish innocence on my Chinese grammar. To avoid descending into a prolonged period of mourning, Tumchooq suggested I go home with him to do my homework in the shop, where he slept on a bamboo mat that he laid out on the desk in the evening, then rolled back up in the morning and hid behind crates of vegetables, leaving all sorts of rubbish, peelings and dust behind on the table that served as his bed.
“I love money so much,” he joked, “I sleep on the desk so I can hear coins rolling around in the till when I move.”
That was how the greengrocer’s shop definitively took possession of me. Every day after lectures, at closing time (my favourite time), I would run over there like a little girl, carrying our supper, which I had bought at the university canteen, in two bowls covered with lids. Tumchooq often told me stories—they were my addiction, but his too—after we’d eaten. Occasionally, he gave me a brief glimpse of his childhood as he drained a glass of sixty-degree-proof maize spirit, but sometimes he would get carried away, drunk on his storytelling, and expand on a myriad different details until late into the night. As I listened, trying to picture him as a toddler or a schoolboy, another image came to mind, Marlow in
Heart of Darkness
, lying on the bridge of an old boat under a sky littered with stars, and I could no longer tell whether the words I was listening to came from Marlow or Tumchooq as he, too, related events of crushing, inhuman enormity in a slow, slightly cracked voice, which wrapped itself round you, lulled your senses, paralysed your limbs, made your head spin and swallowed you up.
“They were nothing earthly now …,” says Marlow. “I began to distinguish the gleam of the eyes under the trees.”
White-Tuft’s death was never far from my thoughts, and the slightest noise outside—a stray dog barking, a screech of car brakes, a pigeon cooing feebly—made me sit up sharply, terrified, as if it had been a policeman’s boot kicking at the metal shutter.
“Mr. Liu,” Tumchooq began, “was my class teacher, but was also in charge of drawing lessons for the whole school. He was thirty-five, a very happy, enthusiastic man with a slight weakness for alcohol, not that he was ever drunk in lessons. His life’s work, and he’d clearly given himself to it heart and soul, was a portrait of each of the world’s five Great Revolutionaries, using models in Tiananmen Square, where Karl Marx had pride of place surrounded by the other four: Friedrich Engels, his close collaborator and faithful financier with a beard just as exuberant and tightly curled as his own (he’s not so famous in the West, but very popular in communist countries, where he’s seen as a co-founder of the proletarian revolutionary movement), Lenin, Stalin and Mao, the only one without a beard. (It was the late 1950s and China, still passionately in love with the USSR and only just flirting with Maoist idolatry, still respected chronological precedence, so Mao was positioned behind his bearded precursors, two Europeans and two Russian ‘big brothers.’ Mao never lost his infallible respect for the first two. Towards the end of his life, whenever he mentioned his imminent death, he talked as if it were an appointment with Marx and Engels.)
“Those five portraits painted by our teacher—with real paint which gave off exquisite wafts of turpentine for a whole academic year—were a source of great pride to our class for a long time. If you looked at them closely which is what pupils from other classes who came to admire them did, all you could see was a swampy delta of colours you would never have guessed were there, throbbing, swirling, mingling and clotting into countless tiny mounds, uniting together with one aim—complying with the artist. Everyone agreed on one thing: these five ‘saviours of humanity’ looked more real than on the printed posters hanging on the walls of other classrooms. The nuances of his work (products of his tipsy state, who knows?) translated as clearer lines, more natural colouring and particularly as more real, personal expressions on their faces, transforming those serious, feverish ‘helmsmen’ into smiling, sympathetic individuals, and this was a lesson we would never forget (his only failure was Engels, the great German theorist, who seemed sullen, with a less confident and determined look in his eye, betraying the sort of anxiety rarely attributed to political figures).