Like such protests as the 1965 “Bloody Sunday” march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge and the Stonewall Riots of 1969, the violence inflicted during the Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989 continues to resonate, often in rather interesting ways. Which brings me to Sheng Keyi’s 2013 dystopian novel Death Fugue (paperback, Kindle), which is finally available in American bookstores in a new translation. In the following email interview, Keyi discusses how the Tiananmen Square event, and other things, inspired and influenced this story.
Photo Credit: © Mark King
I always like to start with a plot summary. So, what is Death Fugue about, and when and where does it take place?
This is a fable about pursing freedom and ending up in shackles. The work is a dystopian novel with fantastical elements that takes the 1989 Tiananmen Square historical event as inspiration.
One day, a strange tower of excrement appears on Round Square. As experts are analyzing the origin of the excrement, the government quietly removes it in order to cover the truth. People protest and are quickly crushed by violence. Since then, poet Mengliu Yuan stops writing poems, becomes a doctor, and keeps searching for his girlfriend who disappeared on the Square. One day, a hurricane from nowhere carries him into a place called Swan Valley. A beautiful city of freedom and civilization on the surface, it is actually an extreme and inhumane society that inhibits desire and practices eugenics, manufacture of prodigies, and extermination of old people.
Because of its allusions to the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, Death Fugue has not been published in your native China. Did you set out to write something political, and this is the story you came up with, or did you come up with this story and then realize it either needed to be political or would just work best that way?
No, politicalness was not something within my consideration. Not having experienced certain events, one is still not an outsider, and can still feel the pain. The novel is my fictional reflection and record on history. It is a special way of partaking in history. The reasons for writing this book trace back to before I was a writer. Around the year 1996, I got to know a few intellectuals, many of whom experienced the Tiananmen incident first-hand. They told me many stories. With their passion for revolution not yet extinguished, they recounted to me the scenes from that year which were full of idealism, romanticism, and tragedy. These were things I could not have seen on the TV screen in my little village 2000 kilometers away. I felt shocked. The official accounts of history and the folk narratives were so different. This prompted me to further investigate the truth. In fact, the more materials I read, the more I feel the power of reality’s specificity, which the novel cannot convey. Therefore, I first avoided the realist method of writing.
So then where did you get the idea for Death Fugue?
The book’s title comes from poet Paul Celan’s famous poem “Death Fugue.” This poem is an artistic representation of the tragic fates of Jews in Nazi concentration camps. I believe that a historical event can also simultaneously become a spiritual massacre. That’s why in my novel, the poet gives up on writing poetry and becomes a doctor. It means giving up on passion, faith, ideals, and resistance, giving up on the pursuit of free thought. This is the central question regarding the individual that I pose in my book. It is also a snapshot of the internal state of most intellectuals. They believe: poetry is useless; poetry does not have the velocity of bullets; poetry cannot compare to the ruthlessness of guns. That is why a historical can simultaneously become a spiritual massacre.
Poetry best represents the pure essence of a person, as well as the characteristic of an epoch. Octavia Paz once said, “I don’t think we can have a good society if we don’t have good poetry.” Poetry, and the disappearance of poets, symbolizes the fall of society and morality. A society without poetry is like a person without a soul. This is also what I worry to be the accurate state of Chinese society after 1989.
And is there a reason why it’s a nine-story tower of shit as opposed to an equally high pile of garbage or something else?
Even though the market economy policy back then was well-received by people, the corruption and nepotism among government officials led to dissatisfaction. The “tower of excrement” symbolizes the corruption at the time.
The press materials call Death Fugue a, “dystopian satire.” Is the story funny or are the satirical aspects more thought provoking?
I have always valued the entertaining and humorous function of novels, using comical language to portray serious subjects, using the light to carry the heavy. Even though it is an uncomfortable story, it will make people fear the social environment described in the book.
Are there any writers, or specific stories, that you feel had a particularly big influence on the satirical aspects of Death Fugue?
To establish a social system in the book, I read Thomas Moore’s Utopia and partially referenced the ideal society he describes. Of course, I also reread the classic dystopian trilogy, especially George Orwell’s 1984 and Animal Farm. The demoralizing, dehumanizing, and thought-policing events are occurring in the world today. I think people should be vigilant. Reality and the dark worlds in books might be closer than we think.
Aside from Moore and Orwell, what other writers and stories do you think had a big influence on Death Fugue? And I mean specifically on Death Fugue, not on your style as a whole.
It might be hard to isolate Death Fugue from the rest of my work. Other than relatively big shifts in theme and form, I think the narrative language and style both formed out of my writing over the years. I have obsessed over different writers in different periods of my life, but Juan Rulfo, William Faulkner, García Márquez, Flaubert, and others have never faded from my mind.
How about non-literary influences; was Death Fugue influenced by any movies or TV shows or games?
I have not watched TV in more than ten years. I never play games either. But I am a cinephile. Directors I love include Andrei Tarkovsky, Béla Tarr, Stanley Kubrick, Alfred Hitchcock, Jean Luc Godard and other French New Wave directors, Korean director Kim Ki-duk, Lee Chang-dong, Japanese director Ōshima Nagisa, and so on. The list goes on.
Now, this interview coincides with the American / English language version of Death Fugue; the original came out in 2013 in Hong Kong and Taiwan, with an English edition being released in Australia in 2014. In working with Shelly Bryant, who did this new translation, did you have to make any changes because there are things Americans and / or English speaking people wouldn’t understand or things that just don’t translate? Cultural things?
Based on English-speaking culture and how English readers understand words, the translator would tell me which words need to be replaced, or which sentences need some background knowledge added in front of it. Translation is also creative, it also has its own whole textual environment. For the writer who is not good at English, it is hard to participate in translation in a detailed capacity. One must simply trust the translator.
Earlier I asked if Death Fugue had been influenced by any movies, TV shows, or games. But if someone wanted to turn Death Fugue into a movie, show, or game, which do you think would work best, and who would you want them to cast as Mengliu, Qizi, and the other main characters?
When I was writing this work, it was like a movie was playing in my mind. If turned into a movie, I think it will be very good. Adrien Brody, who has the aura of a melancholic poet, is suitable for playing the poet Mengliu in the book. He looks a little weak and a little lost. Kristen Stewart can play Qizi. She is small, innocent, and perseverant, harboring explosive energy inside her.
Finally, if someone enjoys Death Fugue, which of your other novels that have been translated into English would you suggest they read next?
I hope that the unpublished The Metaphor Detox Center can soon become available to English readers. This book cannot be published in China. It was published in Taiwan in 2018, and the Polish version was published in 2021. The novel’s protagonist, female journalist Minzhu Yao, likes to use metaphors to criticize the government. Those in office believe that she has the “metaphor syndrome” and send her to the “metaphor detox center” to brainwash her, torturing her to death. Her ghost comes to the town Fuyin, which has turned into ghost town. Animals and plants take turns telling her what happened in the town. This is a fable with shadows of history, reflections of the present, as well as fearful predictions for the future.