Friday, 12 July 2019

My Travels in Ding Yi by Shi Tiesheng

My Travels in Ding Yi by Shi Tiesheng
First published in Chinese by People's Literature Publishing House in China in 2006. English language translation by Alex Woodend published by Alan Charles Asia Publishing on the 1st July 2019.

A 2019 New Release Challenge read, one of my 2019 COYER Summer Hunt reads and one of my WorldReads from China

How I got this book:
Received a review copy from the publisher via NetGalley

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

My Travels in Ding Yi is an epic novel told from the perspective of a spirit who inhabits an array of beings in different places and times. From Adam in the Garden of Eden, to a fish, to the novel’s protagonist, Ding Yi, an average Chinese boy in the second half of the 20th century. It’s in Ding Yi that Shi explores coming of age during the Cultural Revolution, love, lust, mortality and betrayal in language that dips and soars from crude to lyrical, often in a single breath. Unpredictable and engrossing, My Travels in Ding Yi is a contemporary classic of Chinese fiction first published in 2006 and now available to readers of English for the first time.

The flesh is a boundary, you and I are two cages.

Of all the brief lives I’ve inhabited, humans are definitely the most interesting. Poetry and painting, literature and drama, song and dance; there’s nothing they can’t do.

As I fell into this young creature named Ding Yi, a life filled with hardship, love and betrayal unfolded before me.

I’ll try to make this account as entertaining as possible, but please bear with me – it was several lifetimes ago.

I'd love to be able to claim that I completely understood My Travels In Ding Yi, but in reality - or the daylight concept of reality at least (you'll need to read the book to get that!) - I probably nodded sagely at about a quarter of it, generally grasped another quarter, and just went with the beautifully poetic flow of the rest. Shi Tiesheng's philosophical stream-of-consciousness novel runs just over 580 pages in 156 short chapters and is dense with themes and ideas. I did experience a certain euphoric relief at reaching that last chapter, but that's not to say that the novel was an unpleasant read. It definitely isn't! Admittedly it was written from a very male perspective so certain ideas irritated me. A woman who is the unknowing object of unrequited love can in no way be said to be arrogantly ignoring the man!

Shi has a strongly romanticised view of love which is cleverly portrayed by the split-identity of his protagonist. Human male Ding Yi seems only to be aware of women for their physical attributes and seeks sex at pretty much any opportunity. He is also 'inhabited' by an ancient spirit who is/was the soul of Adam and whose sole purpose is to use a succession of human hosts in searching out the soul of Eve so they can be together again forever. For all their deep philosophical discussion - and there is A Lot of this - none of Shi's characters really came to life for me. I enjoyed spending time in their company and unravelling their swirl ideas, but felt each person was more intended to fulfil a literary function than to be representative of a rounded human being.

I admit I did seriously start to lose my understanding when the plot of the film Sex Lies And Videotape was the focus of a chapter. The plotline was recounted in some detail, but as I've never seen the film this whole section made little sense within the novel and repeated later references to it were lost onme. Maybe if you are intrigued enough to read My Travels In Ding Yi, you might want to stream that film first. For the right reader, I think this novel could be a masterpiece. For me, I'm stuck on the fence! There were times when I nearly DNF'd, but then other times when I was entranced by the prose. (All credit to Alex Woodend for the translation which must have been quite the endurance feat.) I loved epic South American stream-of-consciousness novels before, so had quite high hopes for this one, but it didn't really hit the spot for me.

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  1. I never would have known this book had a science fiction sort of leaning. It sounds pretty interesting.