Reader reviews for Once on a Moonless Night

Stories within stories, myths within myths ranging from China’s ancient history to communist rule to the modern era in Beijing. I’m not sure if the novel is shy or coy, but it is a quest that is sweeping and forceful and full of the potency of language.Dai revisits his favorite themes that his readers will recognize: 1) the interaction of Western and Chinese cultures [He also seems to resurrect the violin playing Ma from "Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress"]; 2) the impact of forbidden books and texts on the lives of his protagonists; 3) the importance of story as a preservative of culture and the underpinning of civilization and, paradoxically, it’s unreliability. He also introduces a new theme: the abandonment of Chinese language as a result of trauma, injury, or insult by China upon her people, which may reflect Dai’s personal story since he writes exclusively in French.To the story. Puyi, the last emperor is exiled to Manchuria and takes with him an 800 year-old scroll with an unknown sutra written by the Buddha that is lost to history until it is sold to Paul d’Ampere, a linguist who spends his imprisoned years studying the fragment. The novel is narrated by a female Western student in China who hears the story from Tumchooq (his name is the same name of the language that the scroll is written in) Zhong, her lover. "In Chinese love stories the one who loves always starts by borrowing a book from the beloved," Tumchooq tells her. He is a greengrocer, and the personification of a lost civilization, recently free from a re-education camp, put there for being in possession of a forbidden book, "The Secret Biography of Cixi," given him by his childhood friend, Ma.Dai slowly reveals that Tumchooq is d’Ampere’s son, and we understand that he is the personification of the blending of two cultures and languages. The book is about language, memory, and identity that derives from story – how it molds and shapes us as individuals, as peoples, and as nations, and how it is itself molded and shaped by re-telling so that the source and original can never be known but only reimagined and reflected. The novel incorporates several documents beyond the central silk scroll and biography. Textual sources include diaries, research notes, other books, and references mentioned by Professor Tang Li at the beginning of the novel, a history professor who tells the narrator the story of the Emperor Puyi, which involves telling the nested story of an earlier emperor, the eccentric calligrapher and painter, Emperor Huizong, whose story mirrors Puyi’s.Beautifully written, seductive, and far more complex than his previous two novels, "Once on a Moonless Night" is in a way a modern fairy tale. After all, the title of the book seems equivalent to the western tradition of beginning story or tale. . . “Once upon a time. . .” Dai Sijie, while not as prolific as Umberto Eco, is beginning to write novels that remind me of the works of the Italian semiotician/novelist.
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No, no, no.As Ezra Pound said of his early collection "A lume spento": this is a collection of stale cream puffs. "One on a Moonless Night" is contemporary, but Dai Sijie's imagination is embalmed the period between 1890 and 1920: the period of romantic Sinology, of Fennolosa, Binyon, and even Ezra Pound. The period when an aesthete's most obscure and arcane imaginings conjured a rare perfume, a fragrance so refined, so delicate and faded that it could hardly be perceived. The book's aesthetics, in which only the fabulously rare and perfect and long-lost artifact of culture can attract the real connoisseur's eye, comes from symbolist and fin-de-siecle aesthetes like Huysman's Jean Des Esseintes, and book's cast of characters are the stock in trade of 1920s Sinology: Huizong, Du Fu, Li Bo, lost masterpieces of Tang painting, rare sutras, the Jin Ping Mei, oracle-bone script... if those points of reference aren't familiar to you, if they aren't completely tarnished by generations of conservative historians and late-romantic poems, then you may not see just how cloistered, how cobwebbed, Dai Sijie's imagination really is. The book might remind you of "The Name of the Rose," "Foucault's Pendulum," "The Dictionary of the Zhazars," or any number of overly intricate, supposedly erudite novels, all the way down to and including "The Da Vinci Code"... or it might remind you, more precisely, of admirers of Pound's original Sinophilia such as George Steiner. (See Steiner's comment in "After Babel," that Pound translated Chinese poetry better than people who could actually read Chinese, and his notion that the translation issues raised by Pound's versions of Chinese poems might be the most complex event in the history of the universe.) But Eco, Pavic, and the other contemporary writers of the arcane have their own idiosyncracies. This novel is nothing more than warmed-over cobwebs. If you think otherwise, you need to spend time reading about Huizong, Du Fu, Li Bo, lost masterpieces of Tang painting, rare sutras, the Jin Ping Mei, oracle-bone script, and then, when they are as familiar as John Updike's descriptions of New England WASPS, when they have lost whatever aura they might once have had, then come back to this book and you'll see.
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