Saturday, August 13, 2022

WITMonth Day 13 | Last Words from Montmartre by Qiu Miaojin

I appear to have never written a full review of it on the blog, but when I read Notes of a Crocodile several years back, I enjoyed it quite a bit. Qiu Miaojin's novel (translated from Chinese by Bonnie Huie) was tightly written, insightful, and ultimately extremely rewarding as a general reading experience. It's a book I've frequently recommended, and one that I will likely continue to recommend. It also guaranteed that I would purchase Qiu's other book available in English - Last Words from Montmartre, translated from Chinese by Ari Larissa Heinrich.

Last Words is a harder book to classify. For starters, it hardly reads like fiction, with a deeply up-front first-person narration that is hard to separate from Qiu the author, though it also very much reads like a novel. The idea that any book with biographical elements must be a memoir is, of course, ridiculous, but there's something intensely intimate in this text that I could hardly separate what I knew of Qiu from the narrative unfolding on the page. (It's hard to call it a story, exactly, but there is certainly a narrative.) Maybe it's possible to read Last Words without the meta-knowledge that Qiu committed suicide not long after the novel concludes. Maybe it's possible to truly shuffle these letters and separate the art from the artist, but I often couldn't. Even as I read the letters that form Last Words as fiction, they somehow felt colored by Qiu's own life and, sadly, her death. When read linearly (as I did), it feels even more like a narrative that is pushing toward this final conclusion that can only be reached by the external reader. And since the book is comprised of letters which the reader is basically intruding upon (or being invited into?), there emerges this sort of unique conversation between author and reader that both defines the novel and breaks it down into little pieces.

I liked Last Words, though I cannot say I liked it nearly as much as Notes of a Crocodile. In many ways, it's a much more complex work, certainly in terms of what it demands of its reader. As translator Ari Larissa Heinrich writes in the fascinating and insightful afterword, it's an almost relentlessly dark book, challenging its readers and raising extremely difficult, ugly topics. If Last Words is meant to be a conversation with the reader, it is one that is shaped by the narrator's anguish, depression, and even violence. Slim a work as it may be, it is heavy. That's not necessarily a bad thing, but there's a bleakness to the entire reading experience that I don't think existed in quite the same way as in Notes of a Crocodile.

It's also a fascinating text in how it addresses relationships and sexuality. For a work written in the 1990s, it feels astonishingly modern in its approach to bodies, sexual desire, and romantic love. Parts felt like they could have been written just a few weeks ago, and shared on a Tumblr blog. Qiu also delves into cultural topics, frequently looping back to discussions of particular films and artistic narratives that the narrator admires. It's one of the few spaces in which the book gains a little distance from the internal darkness that dominates it. It wasn't necessarily my favorite part (I can't say that I really understood what Qiu was going for, not being familiar with many of the films cited), but it provides an interesting dimension to an already complex, multifaceted work.

Ultimately, this isn't as easy a book to recommend as Notes, because it's much less straightforward. At the same time, this is probably what makes Last Words such a unique, lasting piece of art: I can't think of many other novels, memoirs, or even poetry collections that managed to convey such intimacy and depth in so short a time. On just about every technical level, it's hard to find fault in Last Words. Its brutal honesty can be uncomfortable at times, and there were certainly aspects that I didn't connect with as much, but that has little to do with how the book is built on the whole. No, it's not easy, and no, I can't say that I found it to be as globally rewarding a reading experience as Notes of a Crocodile, but I did like and admire the work. I suspect others will too.

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