translated from the French by J.A. Underwood
Our narrator is a Frenchman in Peking in 1911, the final year of the Qing
dynasty. He is not so much interested in the politics of revolutionary
Sun Yat-sen and warlord Yuan Shih-kai, however, as he is obsessed by the
"Within", by the mysteries of the Imperial family, nested within the
successive walls of the Forbidden, Imperial, Manchu, and Chinese cities.
Seeking out anyone who might have access to the palace, he finds the
answer to his dreams in his tutor René Leys, a young Belgian boy who has
learnt fluent Chinese and managed to find himself a place at court —
a surprisingly privileged place.
Though there is little direct action in René Leys, it is nevertheless
engrossing, drawing us into the narrator's plans and imaginings.
It is also an unusual and original novel, involving storytelling
at several different levels and incorporating elements of espionage
and mystery fiction, including a murder and a twist right at the end.
It also offers a view of life in Peking, albeit through the lens of the
narrator's misunderstandings and sexual and antiquarian obsessions —
Victor Segalen lived in China from 1909 to 1918, and much of René Leys
is clearly based on firsthand experience.
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- Related reviews:
- Victor Segalen - A Lapse of Memory
- books about China + Chinese history
- more French literature
- more detective fiction
- books published by Quartet Books