Book review: My Travels In Ding Yi

My Travels In Ding Yi.My Travels In Ding Yi by Shi Tiesheng (tr. Alex Woodend).
My rating: 2 of 5 stars.

So, I could be a bit dim. I mean, I didn’t pursue philosophy at university beyond first year, so Shi Tiesheng’s 156-chapter stream-of-consciousness journey through life, the universe and everything – by painstakingly recounted way of Soderbergh’s Sex, Lies and Videotape – might be just be something that’s rocketing over my head, satellite style, shooting across the heavens leaving a trail of profundity that I’ll never grasp, dullard that I am.

The film had fewer dumplings, though.

Could be.

Or it could be that My Travels In Ding Yi is a bit of a mess. That it’s 156 chapters of rambling in desperate search of an editor. But who would edit the work of a man who’s a legend in Chinese literature? Who wrote as a way to explore the world following a paralysing accident? And who’s now dead?


That’s the problem. The book reads as a shaggy dog tale without the benefit of the tight rein that other famed shaggy dog wranglers exhibit. It’s not as calculated as Sterne, say. There’s no sense of planned capriciousness here; more a feeling that someone’s getting their thoughts down on paper with the intention of forming them into something meaningful. (Except they never returned to do so.)

I have the feeling that part of the aim of the book is to encapsulate a gigantic journey, a whole arc into its covers. In the way Perec’s Life, A User’s Manual tries to shovel a building’s whole history inside, or how Joyce’s Ulysses shrinks a heroic cycle into one man’s (admittedly busy) day. Here, there’s a tale that spans creation – seriously, we’re on the hunt for Eve of Eden fame – and reaches from that point forward throughout everyone who’s ever lived.

The story, such as it is, is of a nameless spirit, who’s hung around since pre-fig leaf Adam times, who enters the titular Ding Yi at the moment of his birth. Ding Yi is only the most recent stop on the spirit’s investigatory trip through life, and he acts as a constant companion, interrogating and driving the hapless bloke through his life. Is he a fate? Is he along for the ride or is he at the controls? It’s never made particularly clear.

What he is, though, is loquacious. Holy fuck can this spirit talk. And talk. He causes dreams, but also has a lot to say about sex, love, philosophy and the ideas of confinement and freedom. He also manages to namedrop a lot of authors and artists – read Borges, haven’t you? – in a manner that immediately grates. Life may be a dream, but this one’s a bad one.

(That’s not even covering the chapter where Sex, Lies and Videotape is recounted in tedious, tedious detail.

One of the neater things, I thought, was that the spirit also mentions that he’s inside Shi Tiesheng, as well. To the extent that it’s unclear who is real and who is not. Who’s writing this book? Even the book seems to not know. It reminds me of this quote by Zhuangzi, undoubtedly intentionally:

Once upon a time, I, Chuang Chou, dreamt I was a butterfly, fluttering hither and thither, to all intents and purposes a butterfly. I was conscious only of my happiness as a butterfly, unaware that I was Chou. Soon I awaked, and there I was, veritably myself again. Now I do not know whether I was then a man dreaming I was a butterfly, or whether I am now a butterfly, dreaming I am a man.

It’s a cool idea, but the book absolutely bogs down in minutiae instead of delightful questing. The sense of who is who (and whether they are constant throughout the work) is handled sloppily, and by the end of my time with the text I didn’t care. It’s a shame, as there’s a lot here to like – but the author seems intent on confounding the reader at every turn. Interestingly, Shi Tiesheng uses the spirit at some points to try and engage in some form of self-critical reflection… but it never holds.

I wish there was more of that.

An alternate translation of the title is My Sojourn In Ding Yi, which, given the languid pace and wobbly lines of definition in the narrative, would be more suitable. Everything is porous, here. Shall we throw in a play that turns into a sex game but really is a communion with nature? Why not. How about some dead artists? A lover who never knew you existed? Some videos? Nudity? Lots of drinking? How about all at once? It’s like a long cruise where the days become endless and you’re not quite sure if it’s shuffleboard or sunbathing next.

(Oh, and time is something that’s malleable at best, and an inconvenience at worst. So don’t expect that you’ll be having a strong hold on the timeline of this thing: you’ll be perfectly settled in one stage of life before being whipped back elsewhere. Or, if you’re lucky, to a couple of times simultaneously.)

Alex Woodend’s translation appears to be a pretty good job. There’s not a lot of areas where we’re left with the feeling that there’s particular things missed because of an inability to transfer them to English. There’s a couple of times where there’s probably been some insertions to explain untranslatable homonyms, but for the most part the text reasd well, and I imagine as exactly thorny as Shi Tieshing intended.

(I’m certain there’s deeper meaning to passages focusing about changes of fortune related to the Revolution, but I readily admit that my lack of knowledge in this area may be clouding the issue.)

There is undoubtedly someone out there for whom this would be a life-changing read. I’m just not that person. I found My Travels In Ding Yi to be a book that’d be more enjoyable if it would stop trying to impress upon the reader how goddamned smart and thoughtful it is.

This ebook was supplied by Netgalley in return for an honest review.

My Goodreads profile is here.

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