Once on a Moonless Night
This latest novel from the author of Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress is another tour de force of intertwined language and love. The unnamed narrator is a young French woman studying languages in Peking in the late 1970s; a young greengrocer, Tumchooq, introduces her to some of the local customs, and, as their relationship deepens, to the story of his lifelong search for the lost language for which he has been named.
Legend holds that when Pu Yi, the last Chinese emperor, was exiled to Manchuria in 1924, he took with him a silk scroll containing a Buddhist sutra in an unknown language. The scroll was torn and the last segment of the sutra was lost. A French linguist, Paul d’Ampere, illegally obtained the first part of the scroll, and successfully translated the beginning of the sutra, but the missing piece of the tale torments d’Ampere, Tumchooq, and the narrator in turn, as each devotes a lifetime to locating and translating the missing segment. They all suffer for their efforts, whether their prison is emotional or physical.
The interconnectedness of the three characters, and the larger meaning of the sutra, makes for a captivating and well-told story. The strictures of China during the mid-20th century, the history of the emperors and their collections of treasures, and excursions to France, Africa, and Manchuria, are revealed through flashbacks, diary entries, and inserted chapters of scholarship. Together, these tales weave together a powerful story of love, language, and heritage which will follow the reader long after the last page is turned.