Wednesday 22 February 2023

"Owlish". Nicky Harman reviews a new novel by Dorothy Tse, translated by Natascha Bruce


Owlish is the story of Professor Q, a university lecturer in the city of Nevers. He is not a happy man: his wife refuses intimacy with him, his students protest, then disappear, and he is visited by sinister authority figures. He takes refuge in a fantasy world and his life is briefly illuminated by his passion for Aliss, a doll who is introduced to him by the mysterious Owlish. But as the story progresses, the sanctuary he has found for their love affair, an abandoned church, is raided, the doll is destroyed, and his wife Maria reclaims him. In the final pages, it is not the forces of political repression but Maria and their doctor who seal his fate: ‘Professor Q thought of the sky-blue pills he would no longer have any reason to take and almost felt like laughing…He was fast asleep, his upper body collapsed onto the sofa. Maria came to stand over him, regarding his body as she might a placid lake. The sleeping pill had worked quickly…’

This novel draws the reader in on many levels. It is suspenseful: can the Prof find a new life? What will happen to the doll? It is political; there is no attempt to disguise the parallels between the fictitious island, its communities and languages, and present-day Hong Kong – in that respect, it’s wonderfully cheeky. And the language is beautiful – more on that later.

Dorothy Tse has been known until now mainly for her surreal short stories – the collection Snow and Shadow appeared in 2015, and there are other stories in translation (listed on Tse’s Paper Republic page.) These are often sinister, even grim (think an elephant-sized fridge filled with bird corpses, a wife who turns into a fish, a father donating his head to his son). By contrast, Owlish, her first full-length novel to be translated, has a more empathetic feel and leisurely pace. The focus is on the hapless, sex- and love-starved professor, but there is also his wife, Maria, not a cartoon character but a woman with a life of her own: she has an important government job, she hikes with friends, she ‘was a natural leader, had been ever since her schooldays; as one of the nuns had once commented, her iron self-discipline had the effect of pulling everyone around her into line.’ The world they live in is vividly described. The professor is happily oblivious to the student protests going on around him, but the reader is uneasily aware that the police are busy repressing them, both in the novel and in real life.

What really surprised and delighted me in Owlish, however, was the comedy. There are so many deliciously funny bits that it is hard to pick one, but I laughed out loud at this passage. The professor collects dolls before he meets and falls in love with Aliss. He takes them out to admire them. “The third doll was more crudely fashioned. She was a tiny black girl in a dress that billowed in the style of Marilyn Monroe’s, her hands reaching to press it down. If he hadn’t picked her up, hankering after a glimpse of the delights that lay beneath that windswept skirt, he would never have realized she was a sauce bottle: if you poked your fingers up underneath her clothes, you reached a removable rubber stopper. Her body was porcelain but her head was made of soft, squeezable rubber; Professor Q would pinch and the sauce he’d loaded in, the ketchup or mustard or pesto…well, he could hold her up and watch those different colours gush from inside her, catching them on his finger. He would suck on the finger like a little boy, imagining he was tasting the juices of a real woman.
Maria had never seen this collection.”

No, I bet she hadn’t.

Let me return to the way Owlish is written and translated, which is extraordinarily impressive. The word that comes to mind for both Dorothy Tse and Natascha Bruce is ‘virtuosity’. There are phrases and sentences which almost made me catch my breath, they are so beautifully balanced and inventive. They invite you to slow your reading down and dwell on the beauty of the language. To give you a flavour, here is an excerpt from the scene when Professor Q finds the church which will be his sanctuary:

‘He turned, noticing a dressing-table with a three-way mirror. He went over to it and sat down. He had no interest in looking at his own ageing face; what he wanted was for the mirror to give him a clearer view of the church interior. But rather than making the room more visible, the mirror dragged everything out and chopped it up, creating a chain of overlapping images, making a two-dimensional world into something as grand and complex as a pipe organ. Perhaps the astonishing thing was not that he had lived so many years in Nevers without knowing that such an island, or such a church, existed, but rather that, in all the cities he had lived before, there had never been a place like this one – somewhere willing to accept him and all his treasures. Treasures he had been gathering like secrets, gorgeous, resplendent things, which were now in the mirror before him, replicated, larger than life. Aliss was there too, reborn many times over, watching him from inside all those parallel worlds. Her gaze no longer scared him. In fact, her eyes felt the way the sun does in dreams: encouraging, nourishing of everything that the dull, tasteless, real world chooses to forbid.’

With its sureness of touch, its steely wit and its humour, Owlish is a most welcome addition to the bookshelves of translated novels. I hope it gets the recognition it certainly deserves.