The bitter message of a surreal fantasy

Written By: Nicky Harman
Published: October 1, 2014 Last modified: October 25, 2016

Death Fuge by Sheng Keyi, translated by Shelly Bryant (Giramondo, A$29, available from, or as an ebook from online retailers.

Sheng Keyi is not well-known in the West, but that is beginning to change. She now has three books out in English, thanks to Shelly Bryant, her excellent translator. The latest, Death Fugue, is a bold departure from the realism of her last novel, Northern Girls. Seen through the eyes of a young man, Yuan Mengliu, it is based on real historical events: June 4th 1989, usually known in English as ‘Tiananmen’, when students and workers occupied the centre of Beijing demanding political freedoms.
History is thinly veiled – China is Dayang (‘Great Realm’), Beijing becomes Beiping, the rectangular Tiananmen Square becomes Round Square, and the protests are triggered by the appearance of a huge pile of turds in its centre. This touch of humour is short-lived. The protests are brutally crushed, Mengliu’s girlfriend, Qizi, goes missing, others are imprisoned
or killed.
Our hero Mengliu has been at best a reluctant participant and goes on to become a successful surgeon. However, he periodically goes in search of Qizi and one day he finds himself in a strange and beautiful land called Swan Valley.
In Swan Valley, every aspect of life is controlled in order to produce a perfect society: sexual relationships are prohibited, reproduction is achieved through artificial insemination of perfectly-matched genes, sub-standard babies are culled, and the old are despatched to a ‘sanitorium’ and a speedy death. Mengliu quickly becomes disenchanted, but cannot find the way out of the valley, even after the woman he has been forced to marry is given an abortion when their gene combination is deemed unsuitable, and bleeds to death.
The climax of the story comes when Mengliu discovers that the Swan Valley’s supreme leader and architect of its social engineering is his old lover, Qizi. He confronts her, she blows herself up, and Mengliu flees. He wakes up back in normal life.
Sheng Keyi justifies her excursion into fantasy by saying that the whole Tiananmen incident itself was highly surreal: the world’s press and its cameras just happened to be in Beijing because Gorbachev was visiting, and the images captured were stranger and more gruesome that any pen could have invented. Her message is a bitter one: people who fight against totalitarianism go to worse extremes once they come
to power.
Sheng Keyi has said that Death Fugue was written to commemorate a lost generation and to lift the secrecy with which Tiananmen is shrouded for younger generations. In fact, it is unlikely to be published in China because the topic of Tiananmen is still off-limits, although the book is not exactly a secret on the Chinese-language internet.
Does it work as a novel? Well, it is certainly readable, but it feels over-long for the narrative and could easily be cut by a third or a quarter. Parts of the translation might have been smoothed out too. In descriptions, Shelly Bryant’s translation is beautiful, even lyrical, but some of the dialogue stumbles awkwardly. Finally, an introduction or afterword would be a great help to readers new to Chinese fiction.
Nicky Harman
Nicky’s translation of The Book Of Sins by Chen Xiwo is published in October 2014