Dylan Suher reviews Qiu Miaojin's Last Words from Montmartre

Translated from the Chinese by Ari Larissa Heinrich (New York Review Books Classics, 2014)

The world's oldest literary tradition might also have the world's longest literary martyrology. One of the earliest sources of the Chinese lyrical tradition, the Songs of Chu, was traditionally attributed to Qu Yuan, a semi-mythical poet-minister who, having lost favor with his ruler, jumped in a river and drowned himself. From Qu Yuan all the way to the suicide of Hai Zi some two thousand five hundred years later, there has been no end of Chinese poets and writers who have been jailed, executed, or driven to suicide as a result of their inability to reconcile their literary ardor to the disappointing realities of this world. Their suffering and martyrdom is held as proof of their transcendent spirit; as Qu Yuan said, according to Sima Qian's account, just before he jumped into the river, "How could I blot out the purest white with the filth and confusion of this vulgar world?"

On June 25, 1995, a brilliant twenty-six-year-old Taiwanese fiction writer named Qiu Miaojin joined the ranks of the Chinese literary martyrs. Hounded by depression, Qiu took her own life in her Paris apartment in dramatic fashion, stabbing herself in the heart with an ice pick (or a kitchen knife; even the facts of Qiu's suicide have succumbed to her legend). Shortly after her death, Qiu Miaojin won one of Taiwan's most prestigious literary prizes, the China Times honorary prize, for her first novel, Diary of a Crocodile. Her posthumously published, semi-autobiographical, epistolary novel, Last Words from Montmartre, has become a cult classic, particularly in the Taiwanese queer community. In the words of Taiwanese novelist Luo Yijun, the book is "a Bible for lesbians." Her life and work have been the subject of a dedicated special issue of the Taiwanese magazine INK, as well as the subject of two full-length tribute works: Luo Yijun's memoir Encountering Sorrow, and the fiction writer Lai Hsiang-yin's novel Thereafter. New York Review Books recently published a new translation of Last Words from Montmartre, translated by Ari Larissa Heinrich (2014), and will bring out her second novel, Diary of a Crocodile, translated by Bonnie Huie, in 2015. Her publication by New York Review Books puts her in rare company: the only other Chinese writer in their classics series is Eileen Chang, arguably the greatest Chinese writer of the twentieth century.

Last Words from Montmartre is a hundred-page book of twenty letters, sent from a Taiwanese woman studying in Paris to her friends, her family, to no one in particular, and to her love interest, a woman named Xu. In these letters, the narrator discusses life as a student in Paris, the films of Theo Angelopoulos, the 1995 election of Jacques Chirac, the works of Kobe Abe and Osamu Dazai, the politics of her sexual identity, her thoughts of suicide, and above all, her desires. We are instructed to read these letters in any order, and as the book progresses (or reverses), chronologies and identities become confused. The narrator sometimes identifies as Zoe, a masculine, dominating sexual presence, but some of the letters seem to be written to Zoe from the point of view of Xu, and some of the letters clearly are not letters at all. The exact facts of the narrative are unimportant. What drives the novel forward instead is passion—an obsessive, all-consuming passion:

Xu, you don't know how I love you. I'll be here till the end loving you this way. You don't know how I love you, or maybe you just don't want to know . . . You dismiss the value of my love, plaguing me with ulcers. But I'll use my life to prove my beauty and my love; I'll use an 'immortal' self to make my love shine forth with its lustrous glow, and I'll persuade you that all of this is the ultimate meaning of life. But I'll stop talking about it now, and keep my silence. Heaven will make people understand, as you will too . . .

In the Chinese, Qiu's diction is slightly elevated but never obtuse, just elevated enough by grand metaphysical statements to give weight to the demands of her desire. Through compulsively repetitive batteries of short clauses and long modernist-inspired sentences, she evokes a hypnotic mania. Ari Larissa Heinrich, a professor at the University of California, San Diego, does honor to the tradition of the scholar-translator. He is familiar enough with Qiu's work and influences to make good use of the corresponding English idiolects: Sylvia Plath, Kathy Acker, Hélène Cixous's "The Laugh of the Medusa" as translated by Keith Cohen and Paula Cohen, Jean Genet as translated by Bernard Frechtman.

Thanks to Heinrich's skill and judgment, Qiu's passion is as overwhelming and relentless a force in translation as in the original. Qiu's prose strikes the reader like a tsunami: waters of an unassuming height slowly but assuredly surge onto the land until they fill every room and take every object not nailed down. This is not simply passion, but what the Chinese call qing, which is passion as a full-blown aesthetic ideology. For those overcome by it, qing becomes the sine qua non of existing in the world. To quote the preface of the sixteenth-century play The Peony Pavilion, qing can cause "the living to die, and the dead to live again."

To associate such passion with queer desire in the Taiwan of the early nineties was highly political. Generally speaking, homosexuality has been tolerated in modern China and Taiwan only on the condition that the homosexual remain invisible. As the scholars Liu Jen-peng and Ding Naifen write, "homophobic forces do not operate as overtly and violently [as in the West] but rather to protect everyone else's face (read: the faces of those who conform)." Last Words from Montmartre can be read as an allegory for that sociopolitical situation. Like letters sent to someone who doesn't respond, Qiu's novel represents a desperate queer demand for recognition from Taiwanese society. For a young person like Qiu, who graduated from Taiwan's finest university, to refuse to maintain face—to, on the contrary, smash it to bits with the power of qing—struck a daring blow for queer emancipation.

Last Words from Montmartre came at the end of a wave of political unrest powered by student activists on both sides of the Taiwan Strait. Ever since the mythic birth of modern China in the May Fourth movement—the 1919 protests by thousands of Beijing students against the international weakness of the Republican government—young students have been granted a privileged political role in China. According to both Communist and Nationalist official ideologies, the revitalizing energy of young people, particularly students, is the essential basis for the continued survival and development of the Chinese nation. Chen Duxiu, the founder of the Chinese Communist Party, compared the role of the youth within the nation to that of "a fresh and vital cell in a human body." When thousands of students took to the streets for democracy—in Beijing in 1989, and in Taipei in 1990—they posed a significant ideological threat to the establishment. Qiu's refusal to hide or negotiate her queer identity resonated with a generation of Chinese students who refused to quietly accept the social roles offered to them. The back of this edition features a generous quote from the Tiananmen student leader and exiled dissident Wang Dan, who declares that he "felt a secret intimacy with Qiu Miaojin from the first page."

Yet the political interpretation of this work highlights its ethical problems. For the youth politics of Tiananmen and the Wild Lily movement are also the politics of martyrdom. In an interview with an American student, the Tiananmen student leader Chai Ling famously declared, "What we actually are anticipating is bloodshed, the moment when the government is ready to brazenly butcher the people. Only when the Square is awash with blood will the people of China open their eyes." The narrator of Montmartre is similarly clear that her journey will end in suicidal self-sacrifice: "I've chosen suicide with a clarity I've never possessed before, with a rational resolve and sense of calm, in order to pursue the ultimate meaning of my life, act on my belief about the beauty between two people."

This martyrdom may demonstrate political and philosophical seriousness, it may even be necessary, but it is also selfish. This novel records not only forbidden passion, but also passion's reverse: depression. Depression is not an idle state, but an active compulsion towards misery. Like qing, it overwhelms, to the point that it suffuses the whole world. Such intensity leaves little room for other people, even those you purport to cherish the most. The narrator of Montmartre does not spend much time considering how Xu, her beloved, might react to her suicide. In fact, Xu's desires are given short shrift throughout the novel. Reread the long passage quoted above as if it was written by a man pursuing a woman, and you will discover a familiar story of a woman being told how she should feel and what she must do in response to someone else's desire—or else.

To convert suicidal depression or the fevered mania of youth into an aesthetic politics is an awkward task—perhaps one best not attempted. I found myself drawn to the passages in Montmartre that described the details of the narrator's quotidian life in Paris:

I left a message on Weng Weng's answering machine to tell him my impressions of Chungking Express and Vive L'Amour. I returned home around dusk and made scrambled eggs with beef and onion and macaroni, and some rice. After watching the news on TV, I went back to my room and stuck the stamps on envelopes already addressed to you while listening to the arias you had sent me.
Last Words from Montmartre is undoubtedly powerful. It is clear why it has mesmerized the Taiwanese queer community and a generation of Taiwanese rebels and outsiders, and thanks to this skillful translation, I expect it will enthrall a whole new community of readers. But what moved me most in the novel was not the poetry of Qiu's suicide, but the prose of her life. There is another counterfactual story buried in the novel: a brilliant young writer who, oppressed by a society that would not accept her, pinned under the weight of staggering depression, nevertheless struggled every day and survived to see the next one. This too could have been Qiu Miaojin's legend. Unfortunately for all of us, this was a legend that never got a chance to be made.

Zhuxin Zhang and Chi Xu's translation of the essay, also presented here, is authorized by the author.