Saturday, February 14, 2015

Book Review: "Last Words from Montmartre" by Qiu Miaojin

Last Words from Montmartre (1996)
Qiu Miaojin (1969-1995)
Translated from the Chinese by Ari Larissa Heinrich

161 pages

Unless you would studiously avoid reading the notes on the back cover and inside the front cover of the book--- and overlooked the obvious incongruity in the bibliographical and biographical information included at the top of this review --- I won’t need to bother with a spoiler alert before revealing that the book’s author, Qiu Miaojin, committed suicide in 1995, leaving behind the unpublished novel, Last Words from Montmartre. Given this background knowledge, the book’s title takes on a darker meaning, imparting a distinct sense of foreboding before a reader has even begun the story; turn then to the book’s epigraph and your breath will catch in your throat. Every line in the novel becomes freighted with potentially dire consequences.

Through a series of twenty letters written by Qiu’s narrator, Zoë, we learn about the bitter and painful aftermath of a recent break-up she has experienced with her girlfriend and lover. The letters, written to her ex-girlfriend and to other friends, reveal the depths of her feelings for her ex and that the impact of the relationship and the final break-up pass well beyond love and loss into the realms of obsession and hopelessness. In one early letter, Zoë wonders whether
Maybe the world has always been the same, maybe it has always crushed to bits anything you hoped it would not crush. But it’s not the world’s fault, it’s still the same world that keeps crushing down. It’s not the world’s fault, it’s just that I’ve been wounded; can I really assimilate all these wounds? (8)
From these early lines the reader is put on notice of how deeply Zoë’s existence has been shattered by the dissolution of the relationship.

What might have devolved into a simple story of heartsick pining over a lost love, thought, develops instead into a deeply disturbing, but ultimately compelling, look into a damaged soul. Through the series of letters she writes, Zoë ardently beseeches her ex-girlfriend and her closest friends to recognize the depth, intensity and permanence of the connections she feels grew and will forever exist between the two women, connections that she refuses to believe can be entirely sundered, even by the infidelity and breakup that have occurred. At the same time, however, she reveals, in raw and uncompromising language, the human frailties that challenged the relationship as it developed and ultimately led to its end --- her comments as unsparing of her own faults as of those of her ex. A reader can be forgiven for being both struck by the intensity of Zoë’s passions, and cringing before the harsh light of reality that she shines on her own innermost struggles. The nagging feeling that accompanies reading the story --- that it may indeed to some significant extent be autobiographical --- only heightens for the reader the import of each sentence Zoë writes.

The book includes an Afterword by the translator, which opens with a bit of a teaser, asking the questions a reader naturally wonders about Qiu: “How did she die? Who were her lovers? Did she die of a broken heart?” (149) Beyond noting, however, that these questions have been investigated and explored in books and theses on Qiu’s work and life, he leaves no hints as to the answers; we are left to explore for ourselves. The Afterword does describe some of the commonalities between Qiu and her narrator, as well as the political and cultural environment in which Qiu grew up in Taiwan, before moving to Paris to study and work in 1994, at the age of twenty-five. The translator points out that Qiu’s work became part of a queer literature movement that formed a “conspicuous … presence on the literary scene” (153) in Taiwan in the 1990’s.

In this striking novel, Qui tears away the mask of stability and practicality which people generally present to their friends, relatives and lovers. Her narrator describes her innermost passions and desires, revealing their oppressive, and ultimately destructive, impact on her life. Last Words from Montmartre is not a novel for those easily frustrated by what they consider irrational behavior in others (while believing themselves to be rational actors in what they do); here, instead, we find the roiling, irrational stew lying behind the brave mask with which people often attempt to face the world.

Other reviews / information:
This is yet another wonderful selection from the NYRB Classics collection.

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Have you read this book, others by this author, or even similar ones by other authors? I’d enjoy hearing your thoughts.
Other of my book reviews: FICTION Bookshelf and NON-FICTION Bookshelf