<b>East meets West in Sijie's new novel</b>The eighth-century poet Li Po could well have been describing the plot of Dai Sijie's latest novel, <b>Mr. Muo's Travelling Couch</b>, when he wrote, <i>Hard is the journey / So many turnings / And now where am I?</i>Chinese author Sijie, whose <i>Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress</i> was an international bestseller, now introduces readers to Mr. Muo, a middle-aged apprentice in psychoanalysis. Returning to his native China after studying in Paris, Muo's thoughts are filled with Freud and longing for his love, Volcano of the Old Moon, who has been imprisoned by the Communist government. To free her, Muo has been forced into the role of procurer for the decadent Judge Di, who has demanded the use of a virgin in exchange for her release. One would think that, in a country of 1.3 billion people, one virgin shouldn't be difficult to locate. However, in Sijie's dexterous hands, Muo's mission takes on seriocomic turns melding Don Quixote, Sisyphus, Kafka and Hermann Hesse. The parallel with Hesse is especially strong, not only due to the inevitable self-discovery that accompanies Muo's quest, but also because of the underpinnings of modern psychoanalysis (where Sijie turns to Freud and Lacan, Hesse substituted Jung). Fans of such novels as <i>Demian</i> and <i>Knulp</i> will find this book richly resonant. The couch of the title, as one might guess, is the device our semi-psychotherapist uses not only as a way to finance his mission, but as a devious stratagem to seek out virgins in his various environs. In exchange for a little cash, Muo proves quite the gifted dream interpreter, occasionally (and quite unintentionally) to his detriment.
Sijie, who has lived in France since 1984, excels at painting this miniature of a complex, idealistic man facing a complicated ordeal, and in so doing, both informs and inspires. <i>Thane Tierney is a record executive in Los Angeles.</i>