Some people just really love words. Dai Sijie, author of Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress, is one of those people. His new novel, Once on a Moonless Night, revels in language—or more accurately, languages. The plot hinges on an ancient silk manuscript written in a mysterious tongue, torn in half by the teeth of the last Chinese emperor, Puyi, in a fit of rage, and destined to be a source of fascination and mystery thereafter. This scroll serves as a narrative device that leads the novel through the centuries from Imperial China to 1979, where it piques the interest of a Western student in China. And here enters the love story.
If this all sounds a little complicated, well—it is. But it’s also enthralling. Sijie creates a world in which linguists and word-nerds are the heroes, in which the use of passive verbs is cause for existential delight, in which a greengrocer named for an obscure, ancient language plays a crucial role in history (and the plot). And the author pulls off this feat while writing the kind of sentences you’d like to wrap around yourself and cuddle up in—even in translation from his original French.
Sijie is a filmmaker as well as a novelist, and it’s obvious in his writing: the lush descriptions bring every scene into sharp focus. And despite the enormous pleasure to be gained from his prose, it’s hard not to wish for the movie version of the book to hit theaters soon.
The other great achievement of Once on a Moonless Night is in the way it collapses time, so that the character and setting of the emperor Puyi is just as vivid and immediate as the parts of the book that take place in modern times. Some of this has to do with the way Sijie has brought the power of a sacred text forward into today’s world.
A humble greengrocer in the ’70s shares a name with the language of a sacred text from 1128, and somehow it all makes sense within the gorgeously woven fabric of the novel. The message, or part of the message, is that language can transcend time—and the novel itself is sure to prove the point.