Death Fugue

Sheng Keyi

Death Fugue
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Death Fugue

Sheng Keyi

Published for the first time in English by Giramondo, Death Fugue is the bold attempt by a prominent Chinese novelist to confront the legacy of protest and suppression which haunts her generation. Sheng Keyi was born in Hunan province in 1973 and lives in Beijing. Death Fugue is her sixth novel, and the second to be published in English translation, after Northern Girls (2012). It is a brave work of speculative fiction, a cross between Cloud Atlas and 1984, scathing in its irony, ingenious in its use of allegory, and acute in its understanding of the power of writing. The imagination that drives it is exuberant and unconstrained.

In a large square in the centre of Beiping, the capital of Dayang, a huge tower of excrement appears one day, causing unease in the population, and ultimately widespread civil unrest. The protest, in which poets play an important part, is put down violently. Haunted by the violence, and by his failure to support his girlfriend Qizi, who is one of the protest leaders, Yuan Mengliu gives up poetry in favour of medicine, and the antiseptic environment of the operating theatre. But every year he travels in search of Qizi, and on one of these trips, caught in a storm, he wakes to find himself in a perfect society called Swan Valley. In this utopia, as he soon discovers, impulse and feeling are completely controlled, and every aspect of life regulated for the good of the nation, with terrible consequences.


This allegorical tale follows a womanising doctor living with the repercussions of his involvement in a mass anti-government movement. In a world that feels parallel with China, Yuan Mengliu is a poet who followed the charismatic protest leader Qizi into the streets to fight a dictatorial regime. Unable to save Qizi from a dark fate, he abandons poetry for medicine. Once a year he allows himself to search for her. His travels lead him to Swan Valley, a ‘perfect society’ and totalitarian nightmare where torture, forced labour and execution reign supreme over human expression.

Death Fugue is a mix of satirical adventuring, dreamy youthful romance, silly metaphor and brutal Orwellian terror. It’s all entertainingly jarring thanks to the author’s wry sense of humour. This type of parody – a mix of high- and low-brow – has been much more common in post-communist literature in Russia and Asia than in the Western world. Regardless of how unusual local audiences will find the style, the most compelling aspect of this unsettling tale is its unspoken but clear subject.

There’s no denying Sheng Keyi’s scatological absurdism makes for a messy allegory – this is an outrageous world where the struggle for freedom frequently crosses paths with unglamorous bodily functions. But this reflects a very dirty and uncomfortable secret that haunts contemporary China. Much as some might want to, the author’s generation cannot escape a legacy of suppression and brutality, and this is a wild, bold attempt to navigate that legacy.

While the Chinese government did not disclose overall spending on domestic security this year, for the past three years it has spent more on internal security than on its military budget. This is a sign it fears its own people’s thirst for freedom and equality more than any international threat. However quirky Keyi’s execution, for an author to tackle such a taboo subject in this context is extraordinarily brave.

Chris Dite is a bookseller at Readings Carlton.

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