Chinese author Dai Sijie’s first novel, Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress, did well as a film. It followed the lives of two students forced to work as manual labourers during the Cultural Revolution of the 1970s. Dai directed it himself, telling the tale of how the boys resist attempts at re-education and draw inspiration from Western literature, notably the work of Balzac. In his follow-up, Mr Muo’s Travelling Couch, the inspiration comes from Freud instead, brought to modern-day China by Mr Muo, a zealous psychoanalyst educated in Paris, who is returning to his homeland.
Reading about Muo’s farcical misadventures in a corrupt country that is clearly not ready for Sigmund, one wonders if this new novel wouldn’t work better as a film. Much of the slapstick, violence and banter of Muo’s quest for a virgin, as requested by Chengdu magistrate Judge Di to release Muo’s childhood sweetheart from prison, falls flat on the page, but it might come into its own in a different medium. There would certainly be some good scenes, as when Muo interprets dreams in the domestic workers’ market, where young girls are hired; or when Judge Di suddenly comes back to life in the mortuary, startling Muo and the Embalmer, the ‘beautician of the dead’ – a middle-aged virgin, to whom the analyst loses his virginity.
Things aren’t easy for Muo, who returns to China with $10,000 in cash stashed in his underpants, and a head full of Freud and Lacan. The people he encounters show scant respect for his learning. He is ‘successively robbed of his suitcase on a train, his cigarette case in a market, his watch in a small hotel and his jacket at a karaoke club’, and starting out as an itinerant interpreter of dreams, he is cursed and beaten with a crutch by a crippled man who doesn’t like what he hears. As Muo reflects: ‘Anyone would say I’d forgotten what the great fatherland is like.’
There is some effective satire of Chinese society here, but Dai’s novel is too sprawling and chaotic, even for a picaresque, to be a compelling read. The writing, in Ina Rilke’s translation from the French, is often clunky, and there are too many encounters that lead nowhere. In the end, one is likely to be as frustrated with the book as Muo is with his homeland – or, increasingly, with Freud. For in a country so defiant of logic, no one seems able to grasp the meaning of dreams (‘not even artists. … They merely create them, live them, and end up as the dreams of others’). Muo’s uncertainty about his endeavour is neatly summed up when the wind grabs hold of the banner advertising his dream-interpretation business: ‘Muo could not make up his mind whether it was bearing him aloft or impelling him to plunge over the edge of the buildings.’