Book review of 'Once on a Moonless Night'

2009-03-25 00:00

Dai is an acclaimed filmmaker and author of the best seller Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress. Born in China, he now lives in France.

This book opens in Beijing in the seventies where the narrator, an unnamed young Frenchwoman, is acting as an interpreter for the filmmaker Bernardo Bertolucci in the making of his epic The Last Emperor. That much I can say, but soon after that, I lost the plot, literally. I managed to pick up the trail from time to time as she becomes fascinated with an enigmatic half-Chinese man, Tumchooq, falls in love with him and becomes as obsessed as he is with an ancient silk scroll inscribed with a lost Buddhist sutra. The last emperor, Pu Yi, was said to have carried it with him into exile in Manchuria in the early 1930s. Tumchooq’s father, an eccentric French linguist named Paul d’Ampère, translated part of the sutra and spent the rest of his life longing to find the rest, but unable to fulfil this quest after being imprisoned in China.

This work is a combination of diary entries, fables, travel writing, narrative, history, mystery and personal reflection. It is a lyrical piece of writing, at times hauntingly beautiful, like the lost sutra that begins, “Once on a moonless night …”

However, I found it frustratingly convoluted as it shifts from ancient China to contemporary China, to France and Africa and back again. I was comforted to find that the reviewer for the Independent in London also found it “maddening” and “not easy to unravel”.

Julia Denny-Dimitriou

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