Once on a Moonless Night
Knopf, Aug 11 2009, $24.95
In 1978 the French student attends the University of Peking studying Chinese literature when she is hired as a translator between the Chinese representatives and a western movie crew wanting to make a film on the last Emperor Puyi. At the meeting she learns of the mysterious second century Buddhist sutra written in an unknown language that the emperor inherited. She becomes obsessed with translating this treasure. The student finds out about the sutra’s history in the twelfth century when the Japanese incarcerates Puyi; who apparently ripped it in half and tossed it from a plane.
The student further learns from street stand seller Tumchooq that his father Paul d'Ampere did some work on the half found by her maternal family; her mom is curator at the museum of the Forbidden City. D'Ampere went to prison for twenty five years until he died. The student-narrator aborts the baby she had with Tumchooq and leaves for France after he left the city motivated by to seek the missing half. She tracks him in Burma in 1990, but he is arrested and deported to Laos.
This is a complex well written historical novel that either grips the audience thoroughly with its poetic look back in time or turns off the readers with its flowery description of the past. Case in point is some of the passages go on and on and on with incredible depth like the historian looking at the ancient emperor’s love of the art of calligraphy. Character driven including the prized sutra that seems to have a life of its own, ONCE ON A MOONLESS NIGHT is not for everyone as the action in spite of imprisonment in several eras and locales is limited to musings.