DAI Sijie (the family name is Dai), who left China for France in 2000, 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 theme the works of the French romantic author Honoré de Balzac (1799-1850). In it, he successfully combined Western literary references with a Chinese setting.
His next novel, Mr. Muo and his Travelling Couch, also has contrasting themes and settings, this time, Freudian Psychoanalysis is combined with the setting of modern-day Chengdu, China.
Mr. Muo’s Travelling Couch (French: Le Complexe de Di) was first published in 2003. The French title of the novel is a play on “le complexe d’Oedipe”, or “the Oedipus complex”. The novel was translated from French to English (Dai writes directly in French) in 2005 by Ina Rilke, and published as Mr. Muo’s Travelling Couch, a pun on a “psychiatrist’s couch”.
Entertaining and a case study in desperation
On a superficial level, this contrast simply makes for entertaining reading. However, Mr. Muo’s Travelling Couch is also an excellent example of a Freudian case study in desperation. “Mr. Muo” 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.
If Dai 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 Dai wanted to say that the independence of the individual, and his dreams and hopes, will persevere, regardless of society, he definitely did. This is the core message, I think – Mr. Muo, bumbling and inept, does not give up his search or his hope of freeing the love of his life. Though it might all have been a dream, or a fantasy.
This novel is a short, quick read, but it stays on your mind, puzzling and complex, long after you have put it down. Like a good psychiatrist, Dai 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’s Travelling Couch is as moving and memorable, if not more so, than his debut novel.
About the author
Photo caption (above): Dai Sijie is a Chinese filmmaker and novelist. Source: Dai Sijie, between two worlds – A portrait of the Chinese writer and director who experienced re-education camps as a teenager, by Jean-Claude Raspiengeas, on 07/03/2019, on la-croix.com.
Dai Sijie (Chinese: 戴思杰, pinyin: Dài Sījié) was born in 1954 in Putian, China. His surname is DAI. He is a Chinese-French author and filmmaker. He grew up working in his father’s tailor shop. He himself became a skilled tailor. The Maoist government sent him to a re-education 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.