Two decades ago, Tahar Ben Jelloun brought a new current into Francophone literature: a cosmopolitan story-telling which combined the narrative strategies of the One Thousand and One Nights and Sufi parables with the sly cerebralism of Borges. There hasn't been anything to compare with it since. Dai Sijie is not, at first reckoning, a writer of similar innovation. Yet he attempts, in this novel composed of diary entries, fables, lost manuscripts, travelogues and realistic narration, to give us something similar in scope, if not style, to Ben Jelloun's fictions.
Containing these texts is the confessional account of a Frenchwoman in the late 1970s, in Beijing as an interpreter for Bertolucci and his epic The Last Emperor. There she becomes fascinated by the enigmatic half-Chinese man Tumchooq, and the story of his French father, a translator of Buddhist treatises who disappeared into China's Maoist maze while researching an enigmatic script. She leaves Beijing and her life becomes a series of physical and philosophical journeys – to Mali and Burma, for example – that allow Dai to add more stylistic motifs to a complex weave.
Strands of stories, reflections and mysteries converge in a manner not always easy to unravel, but the road, rather than the destination, is what the novel's about. Much of the first half is a quasi-Orientalist retake on Emperor Pu Yi's rule, which links us to the quest at the novel's heart but is out of keeping with the rest. Aware of the surfeit of books about the ravages of Mao's regime, Dai studs his story with episodes of these but integrates them into the larger pattern.
Episodes of academic life in France are beautifully calibrated, but incidental, as is the heroine's Malian journey. If this confident, beautifully written (and translated), though at times maddening, novel is Dai's apology, it's also an unashamed bid for the place of exuberant narrative in a culture which too often undermines that quality.
Aamer Hussein's 'Another Gulmohar Tree' is published by Telegram in May