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Thursday, 11 June 2015

Last Words From Montmartre - Qiu Miaojin (translated by Ari Larissa Heinrich) - 2015 Best Translated Book Award

The sleeve of sets the tone, “When the pioneering Taiwanese novelist Qiu Miaojin committed suicide in 1995 at age twenty-six, she left behind her unpublished masterpiece, Last Words from Montmartre.” As I wrote in my review of Eduoard Leve’s “Suicide”, a work he delivered to his publisher ten days before taking his own life:

There is no escaping the fact that this fictional work’s subject matter and Leve’s own suicide lurks large as you read through the work. Although it is meant to be an homage to the narrator’s friend who had committed suicide twenty years earlier you cannot help to be constantly drawn to the tale of Leve’s own death at his own hands less than two weeks after he delivered to manuscript to his editor.

It is a very similar story with Qiu Miaojin’s work, as our translator, Ari Larissa Heinrich, eloquently says in her afterword:

Knowing that an author writing about suicide has in fact committed suicide naturally complicates the reading of any book. If nothing else, it suggests that no matter what the author’s claims may be to artifice or character development, there is a degree of “realism” or autobiography to be accounted for that differs from the range of what usually may be called the “semiautobiographical”.

In other words, I’m approaching the last words with a predetermined thought pattern. And one cannot underestimate the powerfulness of this work.

Qiu was a published author and celebrated lesbian icon in Taiwan before her death, so our work is not attracting attention purely based on her tragic final act.

Our story takes the form of twenty one letters and introduction and conclusion, as our author points out “If this book should be published, readers can begin anywhere. The only connection between the chapters is the time frame in which they were written.” In fact the “letters” do not follow a strict numerical sequence with “letter five” appearing after “letter seventeen”, which in itself is repeated twice (as a heading) and appears after “letter ten”.

Please don’t feel burdened by this. It’s just that I still have so much to give. I want to give you everything there is to give. The sweet juice has yet to be completely squeezed from the fruit. All the hurt has not yet severed the cord I’ve tied to your body, so I’ve returned to your side to sing for you. You nearly severed it, but a gossamer filament is still suspended there. I don’t know when you’ll make the final, lethal cut, but before that happens I will cling to you and sing with all my heart.

This is from “Letter One”, a love letter to her ex-girlfriend Xu. And the letters about her love that will never waiver continue. The waves from elation to depression, from obsession to rejection are presented to us as raw as a French steak tartare. This is a work where you are watching a train wreck about to happen and you simply do not have the power to look away:

If I told you the truth, Yong, would I have to drown myself as Osamu Dazai chose to do upon finishing No Longer Human? Remember that time when we went to the Institute of Modern Literature and saw photographs of the recovery effort for Dazai’s body and you promised to take me to the river where he drowned himself. I was thrilled by your suggestion. Yong, when will I die? For a long time I’ve appreciated Dazai, as you know, in a different way than other artists. He didn’t reach his potential, he died before he could become a great name, and Yukio Mishima made fun of him for having “weak vitality.” But this is irrelevant, really. People can make fun of him all they want, and yet the ones who do are often the same ones trying to hide some sort of corruption or hypocrisy, even Mishima. Dazai and I basically share the same nature. Yong, I’d like to go to Tokyo to see the river where he drowned before I die. Will you take me there, to the place you didn’t have time to take me last time?

Although twenty-one “letters” they are not all addressed, some are to her ex Xu, others to Yong, some even appear to be simply noting events in her own life as though self-addressed, this gives us the context of her break down, of her current state of mind and builds the tension and explains the events in her life. A country girl from Taiwan, who is exiled in Paris for study, although fitting in, not being able to retain her own culture, a girl who travels to Japan, a girl who loves the movies of Russian and Greek greats. What is presented on the page is a melding of cultures of sexuality of being a woman of simply being human.


Maybe this letter doesn’t fit with the book as a whole. When I’d written as far as the tenth letter the book had already taken on a life of its own. It had its own aesthetic style, its own themes, plus the content and ideas were already mapped in my head. I’ve written nearly half of it and the prose has found its own style organically. It seems I can’t speak honestly to you through the book anymore. IT now expresses more than what I’d wanted to convey to you: it has grown denser, more beautiful, and you won’t be able to appreciate its whole value until I’ve finished writing it. It won’t be a great work of art, but it could be a book of true purity: the detailed, thorough excavation of one very small field of a young person’s life.

This quote is from “Letter Five”, placed after “Letter Seventeen” (as explained above) and until this stage of the work it didn’t read like a “novel”, being engrossed in Qiu’s private thoughts and feelings as though I was a “peeping Tom” on her world, this work is very voyeuristic in style. And besides the inner machinations of Qiu’s mind, we also get an understanding of her deep education and reverence for fine art, film, sculpture, and writing.

If we revere and celebrate Karl Ove Knaugaard’s ramblings through his “My Struggle” series, his examination of the minutiae, his self-indulgence, then there is no reason why we shouldn’t indulge Qiu Miaojin and her ramblings.  

It is not until page 89 of a 146 page work when suicide is explicitly discussed, although there have been many many deep ruminations on death itself, “Yes, this time I’ve decided to kill myself not because I can’t live with suffering and not because I don’t enjoy being alive. I love life passionately, and my wish to die is a wish to live…”

Although “branded” as “queer literature” I personally feel this could potentially restrict the readership of this work. Whilst the gay references are startling in their obviousness, this book is more a celebration of life, an examination of obsession, of love, of a broken heart, of a young girl taken outside of her comfort zone and culture. Again, as our translator points out in the Afterword:

Although Qiu was celebrated in Taiwan as a national prodigy, she saw herself as part of an international community of writers and artists both living and dead and, crucially, as part of a community unconstrained by conventional labels and categories such as “lesbian,” “Chinese,” or even “woman.” Like the Japanese and French writers she revered, Qiu saw herself in dialogue with “classic, albeit mostly avant-garde, world art and literature.

Personally this work was a revelation, one that I am disappointed did not make the Best Translated Book Award shortlist. This leads me to commit to a post once I’ve completed the reading of the longlist, announcing my favourite ten works which I feel should have made up the shortlist, as I can guarantee quite categorically this would make my final ten, at the expense of at least four works which did feature.

If you want to be pushed into a rollercoaster world of love, elation, depression, self-harm self-deprecating behaviour and then celebration of life then get a copy of this novel. Quite simply (again) a revelation.

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