René Leys

Victor Segalen

translated from the French by J.A. Underwood
Quartet Books 1990
A book review by Danny Yee © 2002
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.

August 2002

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Related reviews:
- Victor Segalen - A Lapse of Memory
- books about China + Chinese history
- more French literature
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- books published by Quartet Books
%T René Leys
%A Segalen, Victor
%M French
%F Underwood, J.A.
%I Quartet Books
%D 1990
%O paperback
%G ISBN 0704301121
%P 223pp