Sunday, January 3, 2016

Wandering Soul

The River Below by François Cheng

Lifting my gaze, I scan the horizon:
The longed-for return, when will it come?
The bird takes flight to regain its nest:
And the fox, dying, turns to its lair,
Upright and loyal, yet I live in exile,
When shall I forget my fate, what day what night?

                                                          Qu Yuan

“French writing continues to emerge from unusual sources,” writes John Taylor in his 2008 essay on the matter in the Michigan Quarterly Review, a fascinating piece in which he introduces the reader to the work of three prominent Chinese-French writers, Dai Sijie, Gao Xingjian, and François Cheng, whose extraordinary novel, The River Below, is the subject of this post.

In The River Below Cheng “uses the conceit of the medieval dit to let one Tianyi, a Chinese artist, tell the story of his life, as he travels from China (where he was born in 1925) to Paris (where he lived in the 1950’s) and then back to Communist China.” The dit is a form of storytelling believed to have originated in late 12th Century France as a means of distinguishing allegorical tales, tales that concealed a truth within a purely fictional story or conte, from other more popular tales. Typically the dit signified a moral or instructive story, what soon proved to be a successful compromise “between the heaviness of didactic treatises and the lyricism of courtly poetry…”

No doubt this was precisely what Cheng had in mind when he wrote The River Below. As one reviewer describes the novel: “It unrolls like an allegorical scroll, its characters at once individuals and symbolic figures, as in the I Ching, in which the individual reflects the universal,” making the novel seem both ancient (timeless) and distinctly, significantly modern. 

In fact one of the most remarkable characteristics of this layered, deeply sophisticated novel is the constant interplay between these different narrative modes—that of allegory and that of the anxious modern Bildungsroman. It is the nearly seamless interplay of these different narrative styles that gives the novel its unusual resonance, its force.

Early on in the story, the protagonist, Tianyi, in a line straight out of a fairy tale, reflects upon his discovery of the powers of traditional Chinese calligraphy: “…I was won over by the magical power of brush and ink. I sensed it was to be a weapon for me. Maybe the only one I would have to protect me from the overwhelming presence of the Outside.” Now contrast this passage with the novel’s modern, distinctly Tristram Shandy-like opening in which, with the same casual disregard with which Tristram’s mother—at the very moment of Tristram’s conception—interrupts his father at his business by asking him if he remembered to wind the clock, the young Tianyi makes the foolish mistake one night of calling out to a grieving wid0w in the voice of her dead husband, not knowing that “If by chance someone among the living answers her cry with a yes, he loses his body, which is quickly entered by the dead man’s wandering soul that then returns to the world of the living. And the soul of the one thus losing is body becomes in turn the wanderer…” Near the end of this opening section the elder Tianyi, looking back over his long and rootless life, remarks, in words that Laurence Sterne himself might have penned (if with no intended humor): “I was convinced that from then on everything in me would be perpetually out of joint.”

And so it is, as we follow young Tanyi in his wandering throughout China, to France, to Paris, then back again to China, a nation torn asunder by the zealotry of Mao Tsé-Tung. Juxtaposing an artist’s lyrical sensibility against the violent upheavals of revolutionary China, The River Below is a subtle, broadly challenging novel of ideas that is rich with rewards for the patient and talented reader.

François Cheng Is a Chinese-born French academician, novelist, poet, calligrapher, and translator.

Peter Adam Nash