Last Words from Montmartre

By Qiu Miaojin

Translated by Ari Larissa Heinrich

Reviewed by Petrus Liu
MCLC Resource Center Publication (Copyright January, 2015)

Qiu Miaojin. Last Words from Montmartre. Tr. Ari Larissa Heinrich, with afterword. New York: New York Review Books Classics, 176 pp. ISBN: 9781590177259.

Qiu Miaojin. Last Words from Montmartre Tr. Ari Larissa Heinrich, with afterword. New York: New York Review Books Classics, 176 pp. ISBN: 9781590177259.

Does “art imitate life” or does “life imitate art”? The familiar question—with a venerable history from Aristotle to Oscar Wilde and into contemporary popular culture—finds a philosophically and emotionally complex answer in Qiu Miaojin’s 邱妙津 Last Words from Montmartre (蒙馬特遺書), a Taiwan postmodern novel dedicated to the narrator’s “soon dead self,” with instructions for readers, and written in the form of epistolary meditations on her death. In 1995, Qiu completed the manuscript with her own suicide, an act that rendered her art and life finally one, and finally complete. In China and Taiwan, Qiu is a monumental figure. Known as a prodigious pioneer who broke new ground in Chinese literature with her experiments in narrative form, syntax, and structure, Qiu was particularly inspirational to a new generation of queer people. It was under the influence of her 1994 novel Notes of a Crocodile (鱷魚手記) that contemporary lesbians in China and Taiwan started calling themselves lala (拉拉) and lazi (拉子), after the nickname of its protagonist, Lazi 拉子.[1] Ari Larissa Heinrich’s exquisite translation of Qiu Miaojin’s Last Words from Montmartre brings to English-speaking audiences a masterpiece of Chinese-language literature that is at once a cultural milestone, a riveting tale, and a philosophical manifesto on the reflective pursuit of the self. Scholars of comparative literary modernism, gender/sexuality studies, and modern Chinese history will be eager to teach this powerful text, for which we are indebted to Heinrich. But more than its appeal to specialized scholars, Last Words will speak to any reader with an ear for a passionate story about love and the transformative power of words.

The novel’s real achievements lie in its literary value—its lyrical and dazzling prose, its complex emotional grammar, and its philosophical insights—all of which Heinrich renders with brilliance and subtlety. It would be worse than a tragic mistake, therefore, to read the novel for its sensationalist shock value—as a reflection of Qiu’s personal pathology and hence as an opportunity to peek voyeuristically at the suicide notes of a Chinese lesbian woman. It would be equally counterproductive to read the text as a window to the cultural particularities of Taiwan or China in contrast to the West, for the literary moment that gave rise to Qiu’s creativity, as Heinrich explains in the afterword, was truly global, cosmopolitan, and irreducibly plural. We should avoid the naïve mistake of conflating fiction with autobiography and historiography, but in the case of Qiu, whose own suicide was—as Heinrich puts it—“so deliberate, and so deliberately documented,” we do need to reckon with the event; we do need to “try to understand [it] as she wanted it to be understood: as a kind of speech act” (156). The question is how. To unravel this enigmatic genre- (and gender-) defying text, we need to first understand what kind of performance or speech act it is when art and life become fused with each other. Independent of what became of its author, Last Words already contains an important statement on the problem that provides an entry point for our assessment of its aesthetic achievements and global significance.

Throughout the text, Qiu develops a dichotomy between linghun (靈魂) and shenti (身體), which Heinrich translates as body and soul, respectively (13). The body is carnal, mortal, precarious. It shapes and is shaped by longings, sexual and otherwise, that Qiu explores and captures with her rhapsodic musings. The body is a contact point between impassioned hearts and a vehicle for how we express our emotions, articulate our identities, and find our places in the world. As the narrator puts it beautifully: “Without this body, I’d have no visceral knowledge of Xu, how she loves me, what I mean to her, how unstained, how fragile, how beautiful she is” (67). Qiu’s choice to explore these thoughts through the novelistic form of long-distance letters foregrounds the absence of bodies. The reader is compelled to “intercept” these letters, as though they were lost or still in transit, between disembodied voices. But the act of letter-writing already connotes a certain distance between author and recipient, and between the present and future senses of the self. To speak of an “I” implies a “you”; the self changes in relation to its addressee and becomes an object of reflection by virtue of the act of letter-writing.

Qiu’s novel takes the reader on a journey that is multifarious in form. Last Words from Montmartre—a Chinese reader would not miss the awkwardness of the foreign-sounding transliteration of Meng-ma-te in the original title—and that the novel beckons one from an unfamiliar location (as opposed to Paris) in a way that implies a strangeness as well as a transcultural intimacy. The destinations and the recipients of the letters change without notice, while their textual organization forms a vertiginous web (letter five comes between ten and eleven, following a duplicative letter seventeen). Letters, of course, register a shift in temporality, as products of a conversation bearing the indelible imprints by a time lag. As Heinrich also notes in his afterword, in the age of our electronic communication, these traditional handwritten letters have a “slow tech” flavor (159). The Chinese edition of the novel in fact contains facsimiles of Qiu’s handwritten letters/manuscript, which further dramatize the novel’s experimental textuality. Not only is time and space both fragmented, the narrative voice, too, takes on multiple and sometimes contradictory forms of existence, switching back and forth between the female narrator to Zoë, an alter ego with unspecified gender and age, who arrives unannounced to usurp the narrating role at the least likely places. Qiu’s preface recommends that, “If the book should be published, readers can begin anywhere. The only connection between the chapters is the time frame in which they were written.” Not the order or even the time frame in which the events take place—but the occasion of writing. With this preface, Qiu draws attention to her ultimate rejection of the naturalness of a linear, chronological perspective: the invocation of a time lag between her writing and its only posthumously possible publication, which both Qiu and her narrator knew would bind together readers of different walks of life, generations, expectations, and experiences.

While the letters emphasize the emotional, temporal, and physical disjunction between bodies, the story’s central occupation with the “infidelity” of the narrator’s lover Xu conveys the idea of the body as a material possession that one can give or take. The first letter identifies Xu as the only person she has “given her [body] to” (獻身). The novel subsequently expands to numerous encounters and affairs, with both men and women, in the story’s past and present, in which bodies endow sight, senses, and touches with the capacity to define sexual roles and gender identities. Despite the narrator’s recommendation that the book be read in any order, this dynamic text undergoes a development, as it were, and comes to encompass both the narrator and Zoë’s perspectives on these questions. If the beginning of the text seems attached to a more naturalistic view of bodies and genders, the novelistic consciousness eventually ceases to view the body as an anchor of identity and learns to disarticulate body from soul. In letter sixteen, the narrator writes: “Passion. It’s not a male body’s, and it’s not a female body’s. It’s not the penetration or reception of sex organs, and it’s not how powerful a body is or the amount of its sexual secretions. It’s not how a person expresses their strengths or weaknesses to other people. Passion is a quality, a quality that is an energy resource that someone can tap into within themselves” (112). On this note, what the narrator calls passion seems to have moved away from the dichotomous but correlational model of body and soul that inaugurates the narrative.

Both body and soul are components of a “self” the narrator is constantly searching for but never finds. Other people’s art inspire her and give expression to her self: “Beethoven, Landowski, Angelopoulous, and other artists are teaching this, and in this life what I really want to become is an artist like Angelopoulous—to become a ‘shaman’” (96). In turn, her own writing assumes a redemptive, therapeutic function that transcends not only the physical finitude of the body, but the limits of individual existence. The “letters” that make up the core of the novel are bookended by two brief sections that Qiu calls “witness” (見證). In this way, Qiu mobilizes the novel’s implied reader as a constitutive element of the novel’s meaning-making, incorporating that figure into the story proper. The body is mortal, but Qiu’s novelistic consciousness persists through her writing. In my reading, the most valuable aspect of Qiu’s writing comes from her insight into how the self, through a process of artistic reinvention, becomes a site of collective memory. The life that art imitates or is imitated by is not personal, singular, or individual; it is collective, social, and historical. Part of that collective history is specific to the tumultuous years of 1990s global queer culture among Taipei, Tokyo, and Paris, which Heinrich’s afterword illuminates. Rereading the novel in 2016, and now in translation, I cannot help but feel struck by its timeless quality, its precocious insight, and the vitality that seeps through despite its dark brooding vibe.

At the same time, we cannot escape an undeniable sense that the text was bound to its time. Like Notes of a Crocodile, Last Words is a historical artifact that helped facilitate a literary and, later, sociopolitical movement, by providing a rallying point for the symbolic identification of voiceless people. From today’s perspective, though, it is rather difficult to say what kind of queer politics this novel embodied and expressed. At critical moments, especially in the first part of the book, the narrative voice seems to endorse (and bemoan her loss of) an idealized model of relationships that can only be described as heterosexual, monogamous, and even procreative. This model is “hetero” or difference-based in the sense that the narrator imagines that while love can exist between two women, it must be between an “active” (陽) partner and a “passive” (陰) partner (letter eleven, esp. 81-82; the narrator uses both the English and Chinese words in the original). Butch/femme relationships are by no means reducible to heterosexuality or complicit with its ideology, but whether Qiu’s literary vision subscribes to a static, binary model remains a controversial topic in the scholarly field.[2] As mentioned, the narrator is haunted by Xu’s “infidelity” because Xu is the person she has given her (spiritual and physical) virginity to (獻身) (7)—at this point at least, she does not imagine a polyamorous relationship to be either possible or fulfilling. She describes their pet bunny as “the crystallization of [their] three years of marriage” (婚姻的結晶, a standard phrase in Chinese referring to children conceived in wedlock) (7). In letter seven, she returns to the question of virginity, comparing Xu’s betrayal of her trust to the violation of a virgin girl whose “purity” has been “stained” (40). Her vocabulary relies on and reproduces a naturalized equation between virginity and purity, one that we know is problematically and selectively applied to women only—Qiu is unambiguous in her word choice, chunü 處女, virgin girl. In such moments, I do not share Heinrich’s (and some reviewers’) sense of the novel as a radical imagining of gender-crossing possibilities that “transcended the confines of identity politics, gender, race, nation, and age” (157). Rather, I tend to think of Last Letters from Monmartre as a courageous and impassioned text that was both ahead of its time and painfully circumscribed by unexamined assumptions about bodies and sex, all of which place it at the center of a continuous, collective struggle that we cannot take for granted.

Translating Qiu’s experimental work—a work that consciously explores and exploits linguistic oddities in Chinese while fusing French, English, and Japanese influences—poses many challenges, but Heinrich always comes up with creative solutions that are both elegant in English and faithful to Qiu’s original mind. Both Qiu and Heinrich are master wordsmiths, and the product of their labor is a literary achievement of the rarest kind.

Petrus Liu
Yale-NUS College

[1] Commentaries on Qiu’s influence include Petrus Liu, Queer Marxism in Two Chinas (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2015): 41-42; Fran Martin, Situating Sexualities: Queer Representation in Taiwanese Fiction, Film and Public Culture (Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2003): 224-235; and Tze-lan Sang, The Emerging Lesbian: Female Same-Sex Desire in Modern China (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003): 261-274.

[2] For an assessment of these debates, see Naifei Ding and Jen-peng Liu, “Crocodile Skin, Lesbian Stuffing, Half-Man Half Horse Qiu Miaojin,” in Naifei Ding, Jen-peng Liu, and Amie Perry, Penumbrae Query Shadow: Queer Reading Tactics (Chungli: National Central University Center for the Study of Sexualities, 2007): 83-105.