The characters in Dai Sijie’s Once On A Moonless Night are obsessed with stories. They’ll spend hours on end lecturing their fellow travelers with stories that morph into other stories that disappear into other stories, like a shirt being constantly turned inside-out. It’s an interesting tactic for a book about the power language and myth can hold over people, but it often creates situations where these assorted narrators become difficult to keep straight.
In Night, the stories are of varying quality and interest. Some, like the tale of a sort of Chinese Atlantis that disappeared beneath a desert, take on the mythic power Sijie wants them to bear. Others, like assorted digressions into the life of the final Chinese emperor, Puyi, gain their enjoyment almost entirely from how skillfully Sijie’s overwrought prose wraps or doesn’t wrap readers in its embrace.
All this is supposed to add up to a story of how a scroll Puyi held in his collection, written in a strange, unreadable language, came into the hands of a Western scholar and damaged a variety of lives as its mysteries came up against the iron wall of China under communist rule. While the search for this scroll and the man who bore it seems a promising spine for the novel, Moonless Night’s narrator-protagonist, an unnamed French girl in search of a purpose, is more likely to have the pieces of the puzzle fall into her lap than she is to actively pursue them.
As such, the novel never adds up either to an adventure tale with mythological elements, or a character study of the girl and the land she adopts. When a novella-length portion of Moonless Night is turned over to the girl’s further world travels, it comes alive in spurts, but mostly collapses under the weight of her poorly defined character. Similarly, the story of her love for a Chinese boy named Tumchooq never works, since their trysts become mere sentences that get lost between lengthy stories of China’s past.
Sijie can be an intoxicating writer when he gets his blend of myth and poetry under control, as in his Balzac And The Little Chinese Seamstress, but here, he too often overindulges in one or the other, offering long, languid descriptions that never go anywhere. Once On A Moonless Night ultimately suffers because its characters, like the scroll at its center, are simply indecipherable.