Beguiling and ambitious, this new novel by the author of Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress, is ostensibly a search for an ancient text, and a love story. But beneath that is a haunting tale about language and identity, about the shifting layers of history under the confusing surface of Chinese life and politics, with a final Buddhist twist.
A young French woman in Peking in the late 1970s interprets between Chinese professors and Bertolucci for his film The Last Emperor. Afterwards, she follows a disgruntled old professor who tells her about a text believed to be taken directly from Buddha's teachings and inscribed on silk cloth centuries ago. It was written in a now-dead language called Tumchooq (coincidentally, the name of a young Chinese man she has just met), so beautiful in its simplicity it is almost impossible to render accurately in translation. Puyi, the last emperor and last owner of this relic, allegedly tore the silk in two with his teeth while being flown to Manchuria by the Japanese, and threw the fragments from the plane. Only half of the mutilated manuscript was recovered, and the reader, like the narrator, must wait till the end of the novel to discover the rest. When the complete text is finally pieced together, its message is devastatingly simple, and all the more poignant because it has taken such sacrifice and effort to decipher.
Comprising ancient texts and fables, stories within stories, and a young man's desperate search for his father's legacy, this brilliant novel, covering almost a century of China's history, has the modernity and tenderness of the film, Lost in Translation.