This may prove difficult in a China that has embraced western sexual mores along with capitalism–especially since Muo, while indisputably a romantic, is no ladies’ man. Tender, laugh-out-loud funny, and unexpectedly wise, Mr. Muo’s Travelling Couch introduces a hero as endearingly inept as Inspector Clouseau and as valiant as Don Quixote.
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A Disciple of Freud
The metal chain sheathed in transparent pink plastic is reflected, like a gleaming snake, in the window of the railway carriage, beyond which the signals fade to pinpoints of emerald and ruby before being swallowed up in the mist of a sultry night in July.
(Only a short while ago, in the squalid restaurant of a little station near the Yellow Mountain, this same chain had been looped around the leg of a fake-mahogany table and the retractable chrome-plated handle of a pale blue Delsey suitcase on wheels belonging to one Mr. Muo, a Chinese-born apprentice in psychoanalysis recently returned from France.)
For a man so bereft of charm and good looks, thin and scrawny, a scant five foot three, with an unruly shock of hair and bulging eyes slightly squinty behind thick lenses, Mr. Muo moves with surprising assurance: he takes off his French-made shoes, revealing red socks (the left one with a hole, through which pokes a bony toe, pale as skimmed milk), then climbs up on the wooden seat (a sort of banquette deprived of padding) to stow his Delsey on the luggage rack; he attaches the chain by passing the hoop of a small padlock through the links on either end, and rises up on tiptoe to confirm that the lock is secure.
Having settled on the bench, he stashes his shoes under the seat, dons a pair of white flip-flops, wipes his glasses, and, lighting a small cigar, uncaps his pen and gets to work-that is to say, he begins noting down dreams in a school exercise book purchased in France, this discipline being part of his self-imposed training as a psychoanalyst. Hardly has the train gathered speed when the hard-seat carriage (the only one for which tickets were still available) is bustling with peasant women carrying large baskets and bamboo panniers, plying their modest trade between stations, lurching up and down the aisles, some with hard-boiled eggs and sweet dumplings, others with fruit, cigarettes, cans of cola, Chinese mineral water, and even bottles of Evian. Uniformed railway staff work their way down the crowded carriage pushing trolleys laden with spicy ducks' feet, peppered spare ribs, newspapers and scandal sheets. An urchin of no more than ten is sitting on the floor, vigorously applying polish to the stiletto heel of a woman of some mystery, remarkable on this night train for her oversized, dark blue sunglasses. No one notices Mr. Muo or the maniacal attention he accords his Delsey 2000. But once he becomes engrossed in his writing, he is oblivious to the world. Travelling on a day train a few days ago-likewise in a carriage with hard seats-he had just completed his daily entries with a resounding quote from Lacan when looking up he observed a trio of passengers so intrigued by his security measures that they had mounted the bench for a better look. They were gesturing dramatically in double time, as in a silent movie.
Tonight, his right-hand neighbour on the three-seater bench, a dapper fifty-year-old with sagging shoulders and a long, swarthy face, keeps glancing at the exercise book, covertly at first, but then quite brazenly.
"Mr. Four Eyes," he enquires, in a tone more obsequious than his rude address would imply, "is that English you're writing?" Then: "May I trouble you for some advice? My son, a secondary-school pupil, is utterly hopeless-hopeless-at English."
"By all means," Muo replies with a serious air, not in the least offended by the moniker. "Let me tell you about Voltaire, a French eighteenth-century philosopher. One day Boswell asked him, 'Do you speak English?' and Voltaire replied, 'Speaking English requires placing the tip of the tongue against the front teeth. Me, I am too old for that; I have no teeth left.' Do you follow? He was referring to the way the th is pronounced. The same goes for me: my teeth aren't long enough for the language of globalisation, although there are certain English writers whom I revere, and also one or two Americans. However, what I am writing, sir, is French."
Initially awed by this reply, his neighbour quickly composes himself and fixes Muo with a look of profound loathing. Like all workers of the revolutionary period, he can't abide those whose learning surpasses his own and who, by virtue of superior knowledge, symbolise enormous power. Thinking to give Muo a lesson in modesty, he draws a game of Chinese checkers from his bag and invites him to play.
"So sorry," says Muo, in all earnestness, "I don't play. But I do know exactly how the game originated. I know where it came from and when it was invented . . ."
Now completely nonplussed, the man asks, before settling down to sleep, "Is it true that you are writing in French?"
"Indeed it is."
"Ah, French!" he intones several times, his words echoing in the silence of the night train, the tone of satisfied comprehension belying the complete bewilderment on the face of this solid family man.
For the past eleven years Muo has been living in Paris, a seventh-floor flat, that is to say, a converted maid's room (a walk-up, with the red carpet on the stairs stopping at the sixth floor), a damp place with cracks all over the ceiling and the walls. He spends every night from eleven till six in the morning noting down dreams-first his own, then those of others, too. He composes his notes in French, using a Larousse dictionary to check each word he is unsure of. And how many exercise books he has filled already! He keeps them all in shoe boxes secured with rubber bands, stacked on a metal e´tagère-dust-covered boxes, like those in which the French invariably keep their utility bills, pay stubs, tax forms, bank statements, insurance policies, schedules of instalment plan payments, and builders' receipts: in other words, the type of boxes that contain the records of a lifetime. (He himself has just turned forty-the age of lucidity, according to the old sage Confucius.
In the decade since his arrival in Paris in 1989 Muo had been recording these dreams in a French mined painstakingly from Larousse, when suddenly he found himself changed-changed no less than his wire-framed spectacles (like those of the last emperor in Bertolucci's film), stained with yellow grease, clouded with sweat, and so twisted that they no longer fit in any spectacle case. "I wonder if my head has changed shape, too," he noted in his exercise book after the Chinese New Year celebrations of the year 2000. That day, tying an apron around his waist and rolling up his sleeves, he resolved to tidy his garret. He was doing the dishes, which had been stacked in the sink for days (such a bad bachelor's habit), a solemn mass jutting iceberg-like from the soapy surface, when his glasses slipped from his nose-plop!-into the murky water, on which floated tea leaves and food scraps, above the reefs of crockery. He groped for them blindly under the suds, fishing out chopsticks, rusty saucepans encrusted with rice, tea cups, a glass ashtray, rinds of sugar melon and watermelon, moldy bowls, chipped plates, spoons, and a couple of forks so greasy they slipped from his grasp and clattered to the floor. At last, he found his spectacles. He carefully wiped off the suds and polished the lenses before holding them up for inspection: there were fine new scratches among the old ones, and the sides, already bent, were now a sculpture twisted beyond recognition. But all in all they were fine.
Tonight, as this Chinese train pursues its inexorable journey, neither the hardness of the seat nor the press of his fellow passengers seems to bother him. Nor is he distracted by the alluring passenger in oversized sunglasses (a showbiz wannabe travelling incognito, perhaps?), sitting by the opposite window beside a young couple and across from three elderly women. She is graciously tilting her head in his direction while resting her elbow on the folding table. But no indeed, neither train nor intriguing stranger can offer our Mr. Muo such transport as he finds this moment in words and writing, the language of a distant land and especially of his dreams, which he records and analyses with professional rigour and zeal, not to say loving tenderness.
Now and then his face lights up with pleasure, especially as he recalls or applies a phrase, perhaps even an entire paragraph, of Freud or Lacan, the two masters for whom his esteem is boundless. As though recognising a long-lost friend, he smiles and moves his lips with childish glee. His expression, so severe just a moment ago, softens like parched earth under a shower; his facial muscles slacken; his eyes grow moist and limpid. Freed from the constraints of classical calligraphy, his writing has become a confident Western scrawl, with strokes growing bolder and bolder and loops ranging from dainty to tall, undulating, and harmonious. This is a sign of his entry into another world, a world ever in motion, ever fascinating, ever new.
When a change in the train's speed interrupts his writing, he lifts his head (his true Chinese head, always on guard) and casts a cautious eye overhead to make sure his suitcase is still attached to the luggage rack. In the same reflex, and still in a state of alert, he feels inside his jacket for his Chinese passport, his French residency permit, and his credit card in the zippered pocket. Then, more discreetly, he moves his hand to the back of his trousers and runs his fingertips over the bump produced by the stash in his underpants, where he has secreted the not-inconsiderable sum of ten thousand dollars, cash.
Toward midnight the strip lights are switched off. Everyone in the packed carriage is asleep, except for three or four card players squatting by the door of the toilet. Bills continually change hands amid the feverish bets. Under the naked bulb of the night-light, whose weak blue glow casts violet shadows across their faces, the players hold cards fanned close to their chests as an empty beer can rolls this way and that. Muo recaps his pen, places his exercise book on the folding table, and observes the attractive lady who, in the semidarkness, has removed her wraparound sunglasses and is smearing a bluish cream on her face. How vain she is, he reflects. How China has changed! At regular intervals the woman turns to the window to behold her reflection, before removing the bluish unguent and starting all over again. It has to be said, the mask gives her the sphinxlike aspect of a femme fatale as she studies her face in the glass. But when a passing train flashes a succession of lights on the window, Muo observes that she is crying. Tears stream down on either side of her nose, defining wonderful, sinuous pathways in the thick, bluish mask.
Reading Group Guide
“Fans of Dai Sijie’s Balzac will adore this enchanting adventure story.” —Chicago Tribune
The introduction, discussion questions, suggestions for further reading, and author biography that follow are intended to enhance your group’s conversation about Mr. Muo’s Travelling Couch, Dai Sijie’s imaginative work about the lengths we go to in pursuit of love.
1. Sijie explicitly compares Muo to Cervantes’s famous knight, Don Quixote. Upon Muo’s rejection of a shop girl’s overtures, Sijie writes, “Had she insisted, had she pled for the sake of her business or her family, had she played the damsel in distress, it might have ended quite differently for Muo the incorruptible, Muo the true, Muo the knight in shining armour! Invoking the name of his own Dulcinea, he pictured her in his mind as he pedaled along the bumpy road just ahead of his dream-logo banner” [p. 96]. How is Muo’s quest Quixotic? What else does Muo seek besides a virgin as he traverses China?
2. Is Muo an unlikely hero? Is he a believable character? What are his strengths and weaknesses? Muo often does unpredictable, strange things, such as his acrobatics when he visits Judge Di’s chambers [p. 74], or when, as a boy, he shoved a whole egg into a storyteller’s mouth [p. 83]. What makes him act like this? Is he comical?
3. As the motivation for Muo’s journey, Volcano of the Old Moon is a key figure in the novel. However, like Muo’s parents, she only appears in Muo’s memories and other recollections. How does their absence reinforce the themes of the novel? Do these characters belong to a different world from Muo or the other characters with whom he becomes entangled?
4. Why does The Embalmer seem to disappear from the novel and, apparently, Muo’s thoughts after he sleeps with her?
5. Is Muo a reliable reporter on the nature of love? What is the nature of his love for each of the four women he claims he “truly loves” [p. 276]? Muo thinks that his dream about Volcano of the Old Moon’s pregnancy and her prison cell being invaded by a firing squad was, “In Freudian terms . . . a sign of ‘the beginning of the end of love’” [p. 280]. What does this mean?
6. Describing psychoanalysis as one would a religion, Muo cries, “Revelations, confessions, emotional apocalypse! Ah, the power of psychoanalysis!” [p. 95]. What is it about Freud’s writings and teachings that appeals to Muo? What power does he think lies in understanding dreams?
7. Why are all the provincial people in Chapter 6, “A Movable Couch,” so eager to have their dreams interpreted? How do they react to Muo’s interpretation of their dreams? Are their reactions what Muo expected or hoped for?
8. Muo begins his quest with doubts about his faith in Freud: “Ever since setting foot in China, Muo, the most doctrinaire of disciples, has faced looming doubts about his psychoanalytic vocation. . . . He looks for orthodox answers in his psychoanalytic texts, but when he finds the answers, they seem only more outlandish here, in his true home. Nothing disconcerts him more than the prospect of renouncing his calling” [pp. 84–5]. What about being in China makes his faith in Freud waver? Does Muo lose his faith in Freud completely by the end of his quest?
9. Toward the end of the novel, Muo concludes, “No one can truly comprehend a dream. But not even artists, a breed apart, understand the meaning of dreams. They merely create them, live them and end up as the dreams of others” [p. 281]. How are the creations of artists—including books—like dreams? If books are like dreams, and dreams cannot be interpreted, what is Sijie implying about the ability of the reader to understand a book?
10. In the chapter entitled, “The Sea Cucumber,” Sijie describes in exhaustive detail the food that Judge Di consumes [p. 257]. For what is food a metaphor? How are the physical appetites and desires of the characters different from their spiritual desires? Do these different desires intersect or overlap?
11. “How China has changed!” Muo observes on the train ride home [p. 9]. The China of Muo’s youth was the China governed by Mao Tse-Tung and his Great Cultural Revolution. Evidence of the Great Cultural Revolution is still very much present in the landscape of China, from the fields of execution [p. 59] to the denunciations collected by the Stork in the basement of the courthouse [p. 199]. What can the reader surmise is Sijie’s opinion of the Cultural Revolution? What is the state of post-Cultural Revolutionary China as viewed by the now-Westernized Mr. Muo?
12. Muo thinks, “Now Fate had decreed that Judge Di should be the one to spur him on to resume his old quest, driving him to realize the old ideals concretely, with a proper balance of revolutionary romance and proletarian realism, as Mao would have wished. Nowadays, great leaps forward are par for the course in the communist world, but that hardly makes Mao’s leap less great” [p. 277]. Is Dijie’s homage to Mao Tse-Tung sincere? Is Muo as much—or more—a product of Mao Tse-Tung’s Communist China as he is a disciple of Freud? Is Muo’s true home in China or France?
13. In a passage about Judge Di’s successes, Sijie writes, “Some years later, when his life was all sunshine (not thanks to the rays cast by the Great Helmsman, despite the song sung by billions of his countrymen for half a century—‘The sky reddens in the East. The sun rises. It is he, Mao, our president . . . ’—but rather to the sun rising in West, the sun of capitalism in the communist mode)” (p. 259). Is there other evidence of capitalism’s influence on the modern China to which Muo returns? How has China reconciled this capitalistic influence with its communistic state?
14. Is there a distinctive “Chinese” personality that is different from a Western personality? How are the Chinese men portrayed compared to the Chinese women in the novel? Are their dreams different?
15. Muo compares the self-denunciations collected by The Stork from the Great Cultural Revolution to “confessional novels” [p. 200]. What do each of these types of confessions have in common with the central motif of the novel: the sharing of ones dreams? Are politicians, Freud, Muo, and the reader all equally duped by their own mistaken conviction of their ability to understand the dreams of another?
16. Sijie employs an original narrative style and different devices to relay the events of the novel and to convey Muo’s inner thoughts. For example, he relates Muo’s bout in the insane asylum through a newspaper article [p. 66], Muo’s experiences with the girls in the domestic workers’ market through first-person entries in his “psychoanalytic workbook” [p. 107], and Muo’s adventures with the Lolo through a letter from Muo to Volcano of the Old Moon [p. 214]. Does Sijie’s style add another dimension to the novel or detract from its plot? Does it reinforce the themes of the novel?
17. Sijie also inserts himself occasionally as an instructive narrator: “Here it must be remembered that whatever the faults of Muo’s conduct of his own life, however crushing his ignorance, in matters of psychoanalysis, particularly as applied to the domain of dreams, his knowledge was vast and unimpeachable” [p. 90]. Is this narrator sincere or sarcastic? How does this testament to Muo’s knowledge affect the reader’s faith in Muo or ability to sympathize with him?
18. Sijie is also a filmmaker. How does the artistic viewpoint of a filmmaker manifest itself in the landscape that Muo traverses—both the physical landscape of China and the landscape of human experience and emotion? Does the viewpoint of a filmmaker affect the tone of the novel or the presentation of ideas?