Mr. Muo’s Travelling Couch, by Dai Sijie
(Publisher: Anchor; English reprint edition 2006)
Mr. Muo, an ugly little Chinese man, returns to his home-town in modern China to get his imaginary girlfriend out of jail and travel the country while doing psychoanalysis of people’s dreams. His hero is Sigmund Freud and armed with his handbooks, his little blue suitcase and his bicycle, Mr Muo proceeds to interpret dreams and get into trouble.
Dai Sijie wrote the moving, simple and delicate Balzac and the little Chinese Seamstress, a debut novel which has gained cult status since its publication and which has a subtext of the works of the French romantic author Honoré de Balzac (1799-1850), a French journalist and writer, one of the creators of realism in literature. This unusual convergence of western literary references and eastern subject matter and style, made Sijie’s first novel instantly successful, and in Mr Muo and his Travelling Couch he repeated this recipe of multiple subtexts. However, at first glance, he was not as successful this time around.
In Balzac…Sijie cleverly used the premise supported by his silent ghost writer, Balzac, to shape his novel. The work is a stunning example of realism in literature, the characters being portrayed with realistic personas and badly affected by society. Like Balzac, Sijie described individuals as existing only in relation to society. This approach worked exceptionally well considering China’s long history of socialism and communism. In Mr Muo…, Sijie combined opposing philosophies – that of Freudian psychoanalysis, now outdated, and modern Chinese society. Sigmund Freud (1856–1939) was the founder of the psychoanalytic school of psychology, based on his theory that human development is best understood in terms of changing objects of sexual desire; that the repression of these desires are the source of neuroses.
On a superficial level, this contrast makes for entertaining reading, however, the reader is meant to realise that Mr Muo’s is an excellent example of a Freudian case study in desperation. He is a virgin with repressed desires and a fixation on women and sex. But his desires are diametrically opposed to the society in which he lives, and therefore doomed to remain unrequited. He does not fit into Chinese society and he perceives his daily life as threatening and disastrous. He loses his virginity in a kitchen where the dumplings almost set the place on fire. He is so stressed about not waking his mother late at night that he sneaks into the wrong apartment block. The plot, structure and the language, translated from the original French, gives the story a goof-ball-type feeling and makes it peculiarly amusing.
If Sijie wanted to illustrate that classic psychoanalysis is about unconscious patterns of life as they become revealed through free associations, then he did. Mr Muo is constantly off on a tangent, thinking about disconnected things or seeing his dreams as premonitions. However, if Sijie wanted to say that the independence of the individual, and his dreams and hopes will persevere, regardless of society, he definitely did. And in this is the core message of Mr Muo… Mr Muo, bumbling and inept, does not give up his search or his hope of freeing the love of his life.
This novel is a short, quick read but stays on your mind, puzzling and complex, long after you have put it down. Like a good psychoanalyst, Sijie has the ability to get into his readers’ subconscious and stir their memories, getting them out of their comfort zones. That is why Mr Muo... is as moving and memorable, if not more so, than Sijie’s debut novel.
Dai Sijie (Chinese: 戴思杰, pinyin: Dài Sījié; born 1954) is a Chinese-French author and filmmaker. He was born in China in 1954. He grew up working in his fathers tailor shop. He himself became a skilled tailor. The Maoist government sent him to a reeducation camp in rural Sichuan from 1971 to 1974, during the Cultural Revolution. After his return, he was able to complete high school and university, where he studied art history. In 1984, he left China for France on a scholarship. There, he acquired a passion for movies and became a director. Before turning to writing, he made three critically acclaimed feature-length films: China, My Sorrow (1989) (original title:Chine, ma douleur), Le mangeur de lune and Tang, le onzième. He also wrote and directed an adaptation of Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress, released in 2002. He lives in Paris and writes in French. His novel, Par use nuit où la lune ne s’est pas levée (Once on a moonless night), was published in 2007. L’acrobatie aérienne de Confucius was published in 2008. His second book, Le Complexe de Di won the Prix Femina for 2003. It recounts the travels of a Chinese man whose philosophy has been influenced by French psychoanalyst thought. The title is a play on “le complex d’Oedipe”, or “the Oedipus complex”. The English translation (released in 2005) is titled Mr. Muo’s Travelling Couch.