Mr Muo’s Travelling Couch (or The Complex of Judge Di) by Dai Sijie 戴思杰 (2005). Born in China, writes in French. Dai Sijie is also a film-maker.
Imagine Monkey (above from Aaron Shepard’s retelling) from The Journey to the West meets Cervantes and Rabelais via Freud and Lacan in modern China, ranging from the Cultural Revolution to Falun Gong, from Hainan Island in the south to Sichuan and Chengdu in the west, to Beijing. Imagine a sex scene punctuated by ruminations about Shanghai dumplings. Imagine bizarre scenes evocative of Grand Guignol. Imagine the damsel in distress is called “Volcano of the Old Moon”. Imagine the grotesque Judge Di who fashions art objects from the shell casings of bullets fired in executions. All are in this utterly delightful, very funny novel. The constant uncertainty whether psychoanalysis (whether Freudian of Lacanian) is or is not fortune telling is just one of many cross-cultural jokes that run through Mr Muo’s Travelling Couch. I loved it.
Definitely one of 2007’s top reads.
The Guardian reviewer does a right balls-up on this:
Why has Sijie chosen to make his hero like this? If a western writer were to employ such a character, they would be accused of racial stereotyping. The decision is either highly calculated or extremely foolish.(…) Although very interested in the changes now taking place in China, the novel is definitely not realist. But then what is it? Either humorous picaresque, or a silly story in which almost every detail rings false and every event is improbable..
Yes, I think all but the dumbest reader would know the novel is definitely not realist; neither is Gulliver’s Travels. As for racial stereotyping: I don’t think so. The novel is far too intelligent, and (given it is comedy) the “stereotypes” are various and often original. No-one in their right mind could possibly not get the joke. Should we avoid David Williamson’s The Club because it stereotypes businessmen or footballers? Should Evelyn Waugh’s The Loved One be rejected for stereotyping the English, Hollywood, morticians, Americans? I don’t think so. Why has Sijie* chosen to make his hero like this? Perhaps because he is writing the novel and you’re not. Really, critics who complain that a writer has not written the book the critic would write are terribly naff…
One of the first things I learned in 1990 when I began to become acquainted with people from Mainland China and had a peck of stereotypes standing in my way was that the Chinese really do have an often loud and irreverent sense of humour. Dai Sijie writes a string of firecrackers that strike me not only as very Chinese but also as very French… At the same time, incidents such as the suicide of The Embalmer’s gay husband ring horribly true.
* Our culturally sensitive Guardian reviewer is so uninformed about Chinese culture that he seems unaware that Dai Sijie is a Chinese name; the family name is Dai. So Mr Dai to you… His main problem seems to be that Dai has not been reverential enough towards Freud and Lacan.
I gather Dai’s work is banned in China. There is a wonderful vignette in the novel of the Palace of Justice in Chengdu, “an ultramodern structure designed by an Australian architect.” Mr Muo meets “Judge Huo, President of the Commission for the Prevention of Clandestine Publications” who informs Muo that Freud’s books are strictly forbidden.
He spoke of his modest origins as a Communist school teacher and his good fortune at having been singled out by the Party in the late nineties to pursue a career in the judiciary. He had resigned himself to being at a disadvantage vis a vis certain colleagues who were drawn from the ranks of the army…
Arriving in the centre of the space, where the light was strongest, Muo took advantage of the Stork’s momentary inattention to put doen his bags and reach for the nearest book. It was a copy of the memoir’s of Mao’s personal physician… Muo shut the book and replaced it on the shelf. He walked on, passing shelves crammed with political books. There were many reports and analyses of the events of 1989 in Tiananmen Square, but also documents pertaining to power struggles in the bosom of the Party, the suspicious death of Lin Biao, the true personality of Zhou Enlai, the famines during the sixties, the massacres of intellectuals, the reeducation camps, cases of revolutionary cannibalism… Muo, whose head was reeling, lost himself in this archive of blood-curdling cruelty and connivance before finding himself afloat in a sea of erotic novels, licentious writings by libertine monks, the works of de Sade, old sexual manuals clandestinely reprinted, albums of pornographic wood engravings from the Ming dynasty, various editions of the Chinese Kamasutra, and several dozen versions of Jing Ping Mei (the novel that had so inspired Muo when he read it in France that he almost devoted a psychoanalytic dissertation to it — although the idea had never developed beyond occasional jottings in exercise books.)…
— Mr Muo’s Travelling Couch pp. 182-185