Death and the Movement: Sheng Keyi

October 20, 2015

Sheng, K 2014 (Shelly Bryant trans.), Death Fugue, Sydney, Giramondo.

Reviewed by Glen Jennings

Sheng Keyi has written (and Shelly Bryant has translated into lively English) an excellent novel about young migrant workers in China. Northern Girls is realistic, humorous, and convincing in its portrayal of young women who leave their villages to seek a new life. Xiaohong and Sijiang are nuanced characters shaped by naivety, and cunning who face exploitation but also take risks in search of rewards. Knocked down many times, and only occasionally helped up, their aim is to “make it” in a country that, over the past twenty-five years, has been on the most spectacular “make” the world has ever seen. Anyone interested in the transformation of China from an overwhelmingly rural society to a global powerhouse, and the young workers who feed the literal and figurative furnaces of that powerhouse, should be interested in the lives of the Northern Girls.

Impressed by Northern Girls, I was greatly looking forward to Death Fugue, the latest fictional collaboration between Sheng Keyi and Shelly Bryant. This anticipation was heightened by the fact that Sheng Keyi had chosen to write, allegorically, about the Chinese Protest Movement of 1989 and its violent suppression. I lived in China during that time. What is euphemistically called “The Tiananmen Massacre” is a defining moment in my life, and something I believe deserves deeper exploration through fiction. This is exceedingly difficult for a Chinese author still living in China to do. Sheng Keyi, a native of Hunan who now resides in Beijing, is bold and admirable for tackling this important topic. Death Fugue also appeared around the time of the “Occupy Central” demonstrations in Hong Kong, the so-called “Umbrella Revolution” against China’s denial of full democratic reform for the citizens of this former British colony (people who never enjoyed full democratic freedoms under the British). Unsurprisingly, Death Fugue is officially unpublished in China and it has not been released through Sheng Keyi’s previous English-language publisher, Penguin. Instead, a small Australian publishing house, Giramondo, has taken up her novel. While it is always good to stick up for the little guy having a go, Death Fugue unfortunately cannot be recommended as highly as Northern Girls.

The central character of Death Fugue begins as an influential young poet on the periphery of the protest movement. Mengliu loves a woman at the core of that movement. When the demonstrators are killed or imprisoned, Mengliu loses, or loses contact with, his colleagues, friends and lover. He gives up poetry, takes up medicine as a profession for many years, and then mysteriously finds himself in a foreign land where poets are revered.

Death Fugue is long and at times complex, but it lacks definition and clarity. The characters are largely unsympathetic and the novel seems to be made up of various parts and styles. Is this novel realism? Political allegory? Science fiction? Dystopian fantasy? A critique of what Sheng Keyi calls “the vanity of material things” when former political radicals settle down to lives of wealth accumulation and conspicuous consumerism? Is it a cry from the soul of a poet whose ideals were crushed when the tanks and guns destroyed his braver colleagues, driving him to a vow of literary silence?

It is all these things and less.

There are moments of bitter realisation, if not despair in Death Fugue: ‘Poetry is no use; poetry isn’t as fast as a bullet; poetry is not as cruel as the muzzle of a gun’ (p.62). But overall the shifts in context and time frame jar on the reader, although the novel’s general chronology is fairly simple: Protest Movement/Violent Suppression of Protest Movement/Embrace of Materialism/Escape to a Foreign Utopia (which, you can guess, isn’t really a Utopia). The quick entry and exit of largely mechanistic characters grates, as does the sudden transformation of the key protagonists’ motivations and feelings. What endures, however, is dissatisfaction with mixed metaphors and ridiculous imagery (often, though not always, associated with sex and coconuts):

Her chest boasted a pair of loaded coconuts, uniquely lethal weapons with which to wage her revolution. They were a potent pair of aphrodisiac tear-gas canisters. Day or night, if she willed it, she could pull the pin and instantly fill the world with smoke. No one would be able to escape from her (p.50).

Not convinced?

What about:

He felt like a monkey who wanted to climb up the tree and pick Juli’s solid coconuts, and lay her down whether she resisted or obliged (p. 218).

Enough said.
It is probably not fair to imagine a different book than the one the author has written. But there are parts of this novel that are moving and meaningful. Stripped of the nonsense, cut back dramatically from its current 375 pages, and focused more clearly on the central issue of the protest movement and its aftermath; a revised Death Fugue could be as interesting as Northern Girls. Millions of Chinese students and ordinary citizens who took to the streets in 1989 deserve such a book.


Glen Jennings’ articles and reviews have appeared in a number of publications including ‘Arena Magazine’, ‘The Australian Journal of Politics and History’, ‘Cha: An Asian Literary Journal’, ‘The China Journal’, ‘Mattoid’, and ‘The Melbourne Journal of Politics’.

One Response to “Death and the Movement: Sheng Keyi”

  1. […] volume begins with a collection of critical book reviews: Glen Jennings, in Death and the Movement: Sheng Keyi presents a critical review of Sheng Keyi’s attempt in Death Fugue to portray the Chinese Protest […]

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