“To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric,” said the German philosopher Theodor W. Adorno in 1949. In the dystopian parable “Death Fugue,” Chinese writer Sheng Keyi explores the same maxim a quarter of a century after the Tiananmen Square massacre.
Ms. Sheng’s protagonist is Yuan Mengliu, a lanky, pale, devil-may-care poet living in Beiping, now known as Beijing. This gritty, totalitarian city is grappling with decline, corruption and disorder. When a nine-story tower of excrement appears in a public square one day, people demand answers. Growing unease, combined with a lack of transparency, fuels a large protest movement led by idealistic students. A bloody crackdown ensues.
Two decades later, the now-womanizing Mengliu has abandoned poetry for the sterile world of medicine. Words, he realizes, are useless. His earlier zeal has faded. As a poet friend writes in a suicide note: “I see soldiers with their bayonets, on patrol in my verse, searching everyone’s conscience.”
In the wake of his continuing grief—for lost words, lost hope and his lost love, Qizi, who vanished in the aftermath of the suppression—Mengliu finds himself in a storm on a lake. He is washed up on the shores of a city-state called Swan Valley, an apparent Garden of Eden, where elks, antelopes and kangaroos play together in fields of periwinkle, bluebells, marigolds and petunias. Toilet bowls are crafted from gold, toy marbles are made of diamonds, and teapots pour streams of pearls. In one early vision, presumably derived from biblical Eve, a beautiful girl walks towards Mengliu. She is naked with long hair hanging around her neck, her breasts as heavy as “coconuts on a tree.” Swan Valley is a land of plenty.
Like paradise, it is also too good to last. Ruling over a seemingly perfect population—who are all good-looking, smart and strangely compliant—is a mysterious female dictator. Life, from birth to death, is strictly controlled. Sexual intercourse is banned. Instead, babies are conceived through artificial insemination in laboratories designed to produce the best possible genes. Those with a low IQ are not allowed to reproduce. When inhabitants reach 50 years of age, they are sent to retirement homes that turn out to be crematoriums. They are considered “useless citizens” who must be exterminated.
Named after the Holocaust survivor Paul Celan ’s poem “Todesfuge,” “Death Fugue” takes its cues from both Nazi Germany and modern-day China. Ms. Sheng seems to have other influences, too. Parts of the novel, lush with a fecund (often overripe) creativity, are reminiscent of “The Wizard of Oz.” Swan Valley is home, for example, to gentle, grass-eating lions, while the fearsome leader turns out to be a fraud hiding behind a complex robotic machine. Those in possession of absolute power, Ms. Sheng seems to say, are nothing more than cowards.
With such a message at its core, it is little wonder that “Death Fugue,” the author’s sixth novel, was turned down by more than 10 publishing houses in China (it is only available in Mandarin in Hong Kong and Taiwan). But daring subject matter and a thinly disguised allegory for authoritarian regimes is not an automatic recipe for great literature.
Ms. Sheng’s first novel to be translated into English, “Northern Girls” (2012), was born from her own experiences as a rural-to-city migrant and charted the journey of the millions of women who travel from the poverty-stricken countryside in China’s north to the factory lands of the south. Into this setting Ms. Sheng interjected a note of magical realism: As the narrative progresses, her protagonist’s breasts enlarge to a grotesque size. They represent the burden of her sex, dragging her down into a patriarchal world dictated by men.
“Northern Girls” works precisely because it depicts, on the whole, a raw and painful reality. “Death Fugue,” by contrast, suffers from a lack of self-restraint. Chapters alternate between Beiping and Swan Valley, and in the former Ms. Sheng adeptly conveys the headiness of youth, awash with love and politics and dreams of immortality. Meanwhile, Beiping’s guttural language is described as making a person sound like an “asthmatic she-donkey”: It is a brilliant onomatopoeic phrase that represents a populace choking on its own oppression. Yet Swan Valley, while meant to be the more menacing state, often borders on the farcical. Interesting ideas—not least the concept of a national amnesia that allows its residents to swap personal freedom for state productivity—are undermined by an overabundance of metaphors, similes and clichés. In one page alone teeth are “as shiny as a steel blade,” someone is startled “as if he had heard a bomb explode nearby,” a smile is offered “as if it were a sweet on a plate” and Mengliu’s heart is “like a sensitive scar registering a change in the weather.”
“Death Fugue” is nonetheless a brave book. This year saw the eruption of Hong Kong’s Umbrella Revolution as well as the 25th anniversary of Tiananmen Square. China’s Communist Party is going to great lengths to wipe both protests from the collective memory. As Ms. Sheng writes: “If our generation continues to remain silent, this whole incident will be erased.” This novel is her attempt, however flawed, to remember.