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René Leys by Victor Segalen
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René Leys (1922)

by Victor Segalen

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My edition of this book, an old 'Quartet Encounters' (they specialized in Euro lit that wasn't published in the U.S. or U.K., and many of their titles are now published by NYRB), features a blurb from Publishers Weekly on how the novel "probes the frustrations of man's inability to grasp the unknown." But I must disrespectfully disagree, because if the book was that, I would have been bored stupid, and also not able to concentrate, because quotes from every important philosopher since Kant would have constantly been passing through my head, to the effect that we can grasp the unknown just fine provided we don't assume to begin with that the unknown can't be grasped.

Thankfully, RL is much less than a meditation on epistemological agony and the deep, deep profundities of the abyss: it is a story about the way Europeans look at and think about The Mystical Orient, or, in this case, China. Now, I'm very sensitive to issues surrounding Yellow Fever. I have a friend who's dated east Asian women, and he knows men who openly say that they would never date a non-Asian woman because they fantasize about the Orient and traditional gender roles and submissive little Asian women with tiny feet. That makes me uncomfortable because my wife happens to come from a Korean family. Luckily my wife's about as submissive as a lioness, so I don't feel too guilty. But the point is, I'm predisposed to read this book as a kind of satire on the narrator, and men (and women) like him, who are so obsessed with the Mysteries and Inscrutability of Orientals that they can't see the blitheringly obvious: that most people from China/Japan/Korea etc are just like most people from everywhere else, i.e., stupid, violent, arrogant, hidebound and greedy as heck.

Taken as such a satire, the book is excellent: the narrator's mind, such as it is, is on full display in his style, and though Segalen is supposed to have written the book to prove that you can write a novel without a plot, he's only half-succeeded. Nothing much happens to the narrator, it's true, but the plot is just kind of outsourced onto his friend, Rene Leys, and the nation of China. Plenty happens to both of them.

As a philosophical allegory of epistemological uncertainties, however, the book stinks. I prefer to think that was the furthest thing from Segalen's mind.

( )
  stillatim | Dec 29, 2013 |
Beijing 1911. A 34 year-old French resident in Beijing by the name of 'Victor Segalen' (by no means to be confused with the real Victor Segalen, the author) is trying to learn Chinese. His aim in learning Chinese is to penetrate the mystery of the life and death of the Kuang Hsu Emperor, with whom he has an obsession, and to write a book, probably a novel, about him. He trawls Beijing looking for informants, and a way in to the Forbidden City, where he hopes to interview some of those who had known the Emperor. He engages two teachers: one Chinese, Master Wang, a teacher known to the expat community; and the other, a young European lad of 18 or thereabouts, the preternaturally gifted son of a Belgian resident of Beijing, Rene Leys. Rene Leys has been educated in Europe, and has only been in Beijing for about three years, but already he is fluent in Shanghaiese, Mandarin, and Manchu, is an expert in Chinese life and culture, and has secured the post of professor of political economy in the College of Nobles, an exalted position for a foreigner of his age and circumstances, but one that it was not unusual for foreigners to hold in that time and place.

Segalen gradually befriends the lad, and when Leys pere decides to return to Europe, Rene moves into Segalen's house, where their lessons continue. Over the course of the summer, Rene Leys reveals to Segalen that he is an intimate of the Royal Family. He was the only friend of the Kuang Hsu Emperor, and is now the advisor to the Regent, who has awarded him a concubine for his services. He further reveals, after swearing Segalen to secrecy, that he is the chief of a Secret Police force; that he runs a network of spies and informants among the sing-song girls and prostitutes of the red light district, the Chien Men Wai; and that he has constant but secret access to the Forbidden Palace on payment of large sums to the eunuchs who guard the place. He further reveals that he is the lover of the Empress Dowager, Princess Long Yu; and that she is the instigator of several assassination attempts on the Regent, all of which have been foiled by Rene and his police force. Rene is tormented by divided loyalties, to the Regent, and to the Empress Dowager. In other words, Rene Leys is deeply embroiled in Palace intrigues, his ultimate loyalty is to the Manchus, and he is heavily invested in their continuing to rule China.

The summer turns to autumn. When the revolution breaks out in October, Rene Leys and his Manchu employers are caught off guard. Faced with the prospect of the defeat of the Manchus, and the installation of Yuen Xi Kai as first (provisional) President of a new Republic of China, Rene Leys, afraid of reprisals, and stunned with anguish at the collapse of his world, commits suicide. Segalen decides to leave Beijing, his book about the Kuang Hsu Emperor unstarted, unfinished.

The novel is presented in the form of a diary kept by Segalen, charting his attempts to learn Chinese, his relationships with other expatriates, his trips around the city on horseback in the company of his young teacher, conversations, trips to the brothels and theatres of Chien Men Wai, daily life, the weather. It starts on the 28 February, and ends on the 22 November.

The prose is gorgeous, and is one of the chief pleasures of reading the novel. The descriptions of Beijing in the last days of the Qing are miraculously evocative, poetic, and laden with colour. Segalen is a thoughtful, witty and observant diarist, and writes like a dream, capturing details of his experiences and conversations almost as they occur.

On the other hand, his diary is also laced with sardonic asides at the stupidity of his hosts and the other expatriates. (These are the kind of comments one is still likely to hear in expatriate bars all over the Far East): I am making progress with my Chinese (such a practical language it is: it does away with syntax by reducing all the rules to three) Segalen notes on his linguistic efforts, and he sneeringly calls the White Tower - a Nepalese stupa in the heart of the Forbidden City- an example of art nouveau.

The discourse is not burdened with historical hindsight - the Wuhan uprising on October 10 which leads to the Revolution is related in the diary on the 11 October as an interesting but insignificant item in the newspaper- and has all the freshness and roughness of lived experience rather than the finished polish of a novel. It is a fictional, eyewitness account of the fall of the Qing.

Colonial literature of this type articulates to a more or less conscious degree one major fantasy, and one major fear. (This remark is no less true of long term expatriates in real life than it is of literature.) The fantasy is that.....

Read the full review on The Lectern. ( )
11 vote tomcatMurr | Oct 10, 2011 |
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» Add other authors (4 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Victor Segalenprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Buruma, IanPrefacesecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Underwood, J. A.Introductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Underwood, J. A.Translatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0879513500, Paperback)

In this entrancing story of spiritual adventure, a Westerner in Peking seeks the mystery at the heart of the Forbidden City. He takes as a tutor in Chinese the young Belgian René Leys, who claims to be in the know about strange goings-on in the Imperial Palace: love affairs, family quarrels, conspiracies that threaten the very existence of the empire. But whether truth-teller or trickster, the elusive and ever-charming René presents his increasingly dazzled disciple with a visionary glimpse of "an essential palace built upon the most magnificent foundations."

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 14:01:48 -0400)

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