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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Mr. Muo's Travelling Couch

Dai Sijie

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To purchase Mr. Muo's Travelling Couch

Title: Mr. Muo's Travelling Couch
Author: Dai Sijie
Genre: Novel
Written: 2003 (Eng. 2005)
Length: 287 pages
Original in: French
Availability: Mr. Muo's Travelling Couch - US
Mr. Muo's Travelling Couch - UK
Mr. Muo's Travelling Couch - Canada
Le complexe de Di - Canada
Le complexe de Di - France
Muo und der Pirol im Käfig - Deutschland
  • French title: Le complexe de Di
  • Translated by Ina Rilke

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Our Assessment:

B : odd, but has its charms

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Daily Telegraph . 11/7/2005 Phil Baker
Financial Times A- 10/6/2005 Margaret Hillenbrand
The Guardian . 25/6/2005 Toby Litt
The LA Times . 24/7/2005 Irene Wanner
Neue Zürcher Zeitung . 10/2/2005 Marion Löhndorf
The NY Times Book Rev. . 7/8/2005 Christopher Atamian
San Francisco Chronicle . 12/6/2005 Sarah Coleman
The Spectator . 27/12/2003 Anita Brookner
The Spectator . 16/7/2005 Harriet Sergeant
TLS . 27/5/2005 Sam Thompson
The Washington Post B+ 19/6/2005 Elinor Lipman
Die Welt A 10/7/2004 Tanja Langer

  Review Consensus:

  Favourable, though many a bit confused

  From the Reviews:
  • "Sijie's dense and slightly claustrophobic narrative often has the quality of a bad dream, not least when Muo's teeth start coming loose. Unusually for a comic novel, it grips like a thriller and has some page-turningly tense moments. It also has some interesting details about Chinese life" - Phil Baker, Daily Telegraph

  • "This is a novel that aims, quite explicitly, to paint contemporary China in panoramic strokes, complete with nods to Zola, Grand Guignol and Cervantes. And, predictably, this ambition is both the book’s strength and its occasional undoing. (...) The novel captures the dislocations of modern-day China in a full-blown metaphorical mode that plays straight to Dai’s imaginative powers, and his deadpan yet playful prose hooks the reader in. Yet, from time to time, his remit seems too broad, and one suspects that episodes have been staged to showcase some particularly outre aspect of the Chinese scene rather than obey the natural rhythms of the narrative flow." - Margaret Hillenbrand, Financial Times

  • "Why has Sijie chosen to make his hero like this ? If a western writer were to employ such a character, they would be accused of racial stereotyping. The decision is either highly calculated or extremely foolish.(...) Although very interested in the changes now taking place in China, the novel is definitely not realist. But then what is it ? Either humorous picaresque, or a silly story in which almost every detail rings false and every event is improbable." - Toby Litt, The Guardian

  • "Muo is a deliciously unlikely knight errant. (...) Sijie's new novel is uneven, its message less apparent. A hero as flawed and dogged as Muo, however, can't help but be endearing." - Irene Wanner, The Los Angeles Times

  • "The novel is strongest when Dai shadows the lives of Muo and the others with stark visions of official corruption, but even when the frenetic search for a virgin threatens to become overwhelming, his zesty storytelling continues to entertain." - Christopher Atamian, The New York Times Book Review

  • "The novel is a bawdy comic romp that at times gives way to some serious questions about love, sex and political repression. (...) Where Balzac was spare and elegant, the new novel is sprawling and untidy. It's a picaresque narrative that ranges widely, introducing ever more outlandish characters and twists as it goes. Though always entertaining, it lacks the finesse and control that distinguished Sijie's earlier work." - Sarah Coleman, San Francisco Chronicle

  • "Mr Muo is a Chinese Pangloss whose philosophical speculation proves redundant in the chaotic world in which he finds himself. (...) The great virtue of the book is its irrelevance. China inspires didactism and earnestness in most writers. But here all is black humour, satire and even frivolity." - Harriet Sergeant, The Spectator

  • "This is a friendly, substantial, apparently disorganized novel, happy to leap time and space, to digress and freewheel. (...) The novel is Pninian in its good-natured sadness; an energetic comedy of exile that knows exile can continue once you are home." - Sam Thompson, Times Literary Supplement

  • "The set pieces and the slaying of symbolic dragons that line Muo's path sometimes interrupt rather than drive the story, which may be Dai's filmmaker's eye lending action to his hero's yearnings. But we keep reading Mr. Muo's Travelling Couch for its voice and wit, for the delicious turns of phrase and perfect characterizations of a naif with professional pretensions inside a "poor dreamy and dream-interpreting head."" - Elinor Lipman, The Washington Post

  • "Dai Sijie hat ein wildes, böses Buch geschrieben, das sich heiter und bunt in den Kopf des Lesers einschleicht. (...) Sijie betreibt eine Art geistiger Globalisierung bei gleichzeitiger Globalisierungskritik." - Tanja Langer, Die Welt

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       In Mr. Muo's Travelling Couch Muo has returned to his native China after spending all of the 1990s in France. An excellent student, he won a competition and received a stipend to complete his doctorate in Paris, but the field that truly seduced him there was psychoanalysis, his newfound idols the twin pillars of Freud and Lacan. From the beginning he underwent psychoanalysis -- and from the beginning we see how seriously Dai Sijie takes it (i.e. not very): having no French when he arrived in Paris Muo babbled to his analyst in Chinese in their early sessions -- "of which his psychoanalyst understood not a word".
       Back in China, Muo raises a banner on his bicycle, advertising himself as an 'Interpreter of Dreams' -- and "Psychoanalyst from France - Schooled in Freud and Lacan" which, needless to say, means little to the country-folk among whom he is trying to ply his trade. Dream-interpretation is his big thing, with Muo carefully recording all his own and trying to interpret -- in best Freudian and Lacanian manner -- the dreams of others. He's not too fastidious about staying professional: some accuse him of being just another fortune-teller -- and he realises that that's not the worst claim he can make. (Even his earnest efforts don't prove his method right: he does on occasion divine the future -- only to learn the dreams he based his opinions on were made-up.)
       Muo's far-ranging travels as a wandering psychoanalyst aren't an attempt to establish himself in his profession, or even to spread the psychoanalytic-gospel. In fact, Muo uses it as a cover for an entirely different project: procuring a virgin. His university-love, 'Volcano of the Old Moon', is a photographer who passed on some pictures of the police torturing people to the Western press and wound up in jail. To save her, Muo has to bribe the notorious Judge Di (who formerly was an executioner, and seems to really miss his old job) -- but Di doesn't want money: he wants a virgin "a girl whose red melon has not yet been slashed".
       What's the deal with virgins ? Well, in this country where aphrodisiacs of all sorts are still immensely popular, there are still a lot of mis-conceptions and -perceptions about sex. Someone explains the virginal appeal to Muo by claiming:

Her saliva is more fragrant than a married woman's; her vaginal secretions bestow an exquisite grace on the sexual act. That is the most precious source of vitality on Earth.
       Unfortunately, there don't seem to be many virgins left in China; Muo certainly has trouble finding any. Of course, Muo isn't exactly an expert in this department:
The truth is that, for all the abstract knowledge stuffed in his head on subjects ranging from psychoanalysis and ethics to the history of the breast or of sex since antiquity, he is sorely lacking in sexual experience.
       Sorely indeed: in fact, Muo seems to be pretty much the only virgin around. (As it turns out, he's not.)
       This odd quest -- and Muo's odd way of going about it -- make for a fairly entertaining if bizarre novel. Muo's efforts are Quixotic -- and he's generally as hapless and clueless as Don Quixote. The adventures that befall him along the way make for most of the entertainment value, and they certainly are imaginative (and often humorous) enough. But as a whole the novel jumps and drags oddly about, sending Muo all over the country and getting him into all sorts of often artificial situations. The fact that the story doesn't unfold strictly chronologically also adds to the sense of displacement.
       Mr. Muo's Travelling Couch is, specifically, a commentary on contemporary China -- hence also the need for Muo to see so much of it. Muo left China in 1989, and missed the entire 1990s -- first the repression, and then the rapid modernisation -- and Muo's observations about and encounters with what has changed (and what hasn't) do give a good picture of contemporary China. For a comic novel it's also surprisingly dark: corruption and crime are endemic, and parts -- such as Di's previous murderous career -- are particularly unpleasant.
       A bit too far-flung and wildly spun, Mr. Muo's Travelling Couch does have its charms -- and enough entertaining (mis)adventures to amuse.

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Mr. Muo's Travelling Couch: Reviews: Other books by Dai Sijie under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Film director and author Dai Sijie was born in China in 1954. He has lived in France since 1984.

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