Imagine Don Quixote as a bookish, bespectacled, and hilariously naïve Chinese man named Muo, recently returned to his native country from studying in France and bent on delivering the wonders of psychoanalysis to his countrymen. Dai Sijie has created just such a character in MR. MUO'S TRAVELLING COUCH, his latest work following the surprising success of his first novel, BALZAC AND THE LITTLE CHINESE SEAMSTRESS. MR. MUO is a classic picaresque tale, following its hapless hero in his misadventures (psychoanalytic, sexual, and otherwise) as he travels through Sichuan and Yunnan Provinces in southwestern China. The results are alternately comical, touching, and even tragic, and never without touches of biting satire about imperious officials, greedy and superstitious citizens, and the chaotic impact of Westernization on people's lives and dreams.
If Mr. Muo is Dai Sijie's Quixote, then his immaculate Dulcinea is a 36-year-old woman he knew from university, improbably named Volcano of the Old Moon. Muo's quest is to secure his beloved's release from a prison in Chengdu where she is being held for having given photographs of police brutality to the Western press. Our hero's ardor is made all the more quixotic by its platonic one-sidedness - Mr. Muo's idealized love is boundless, while the object of his affections has done little more than tolerate him, even mocking his behavior in public. They have shared between them little more than a single kiss, not necessarily mutually sought, in a smoke-filled professor's office. Volcano of the Old Moon's fate is controlled by the lascivious and hedonistic Judge Di Jiangui, a former marksman and military executioner who celebrated his sanctioned killings with bowls of pig's blood soup. Judge Di agrees to assist Muo in getting Volcano's release. The price, however, is not money but an evening's sexual congress with a virgin, to be supplied by Mr. Muo.
A virgin himself, Muo sets out to find a willing virgin for the old judge. Bicycles, trains, and a Blue Arrow truck are his Rosinantes, and Sigmund Freud and Jacques Lacan are his invisible but ever-present Sancho Panzas. Muo experiences a series of humorous escapades that involve interpreting people's dreams for a fee (twenty yuan, but often reduced to one or even none in the interest of gaining referrals), a marauding band of mountain highway robbers, a mysterious old man whose job in a panda preserve is to retrieve the daily feces of the single remaining panda for government monitoring, a young virgin named Little Road, and a female Embalmer (a forty-year-old virgin whose husband jumped to his death on their wedding night because he was a homosexual).
Throughout, Mr. Muo is Quixote with an Inspector Clouseau touch, fumbling every opportunity and watching his every effort collapse or backfire. His attempt to pair the Embalmer with Judge Di nearly ends with the Judge's death, and another attempt to supply the required virgin angers the Judge even further. Muo's own attempts at love are so miserable, he mistakes a broom handle under a train seat for the slender ankle of his desired. Even as the story ends, Muo meets yet another potential virgin for his never-ending quest.
Dai Sijie's story is at its satirical best when Muo attempts to assert his Westernized intellect, gained in France, over a hopelessly non-accommodating Chinese populous. His vaunted psychoanalysis techniques, and Freud's INTERPRETATION OF DREAMS, are reduced to mere fortune-telling tools. His prized command of French becomes nothing more than tonal music to peasants' ears. So convinced is he that the prison authorities cannot censor a letter written in French, Muo writes a lengthy letter to Volcano of the Old Moon in his adopted second language knowing full well that she cannot understand a word he has written. On one occasion, when Muo believes he might be going crazy, he tests his sanity by recalling French vocabulary; another time, he checks for amnesia by remembering the years of Freud's birth and death. In the end, ironically, it is Muo's put-on Frenchness that saves him from a band of black-caped robbers in the mountains of Yunnan.
MR. MUO'S TRAVELLING COUCH is a gem of a short novel, a funny and touching story of a bumbling intellectual, well schooled in Freud's theories of sexuality but without experience of his own, trying to meld East with West. As Dai Sijie traces the exploits of his lovable psychoanalyst Muo, he draws wonderfully memorable portraits of the still bitter and backward lives of people deep in western China, a place where progress is measured by the inflated price Muo imagines his parents paying to compensate the State for the bullet to be used in his own execution. A few hours spent on Mr. Muo's traveling couch are indeed a thoroughly enjoyable experience.