‘Last Words from Montmartre’ by Qiu Miaojin
Author: Viet Dinh
June 8, 2014
I know this letter will reach you too late. Almost 20 years too late, since you died at the age of 26 in 1995. This is the first of your novels to be translated into English, and before reading it, I hadn’t known of your influence on the gay and lesbian culture in Taiwan and in the Chinese-speaking world at large. I wonder what you would have thought of the ascendency of the Internet and the instant globalization of art, literature, ideas.
Ah, but you were already ahead of the times, weren’t you? The global outlook of Last Words from Montmartre looks beyond Taiwan and presents a Chinese lesbian living in Paris and travelling to Tokyo, finding and losing lovers along the way. And yet, for all the globetrotting, the book’s focus never veers far. It’s aimed square at the narrator’s heart, a magnifying glass, and the light that comes through sharpens like a laser.
It’s tempting to read this book as autobiographical—you, yourself, were studying in Paris with Hélène Cixous at its writing—but I know this is the wrong approach. I get the sense that you blend these elements together—fiction, autobiography, aphorism, journal entry, poetry—to disorient the reader. You want us to inhabit the narrator’s headspace so fully that her feelings of dislocation become our own.
And what a dislocation it is. Though you insist that the 20 letters that comprise Last Words can be read in any order, I had to resist piecing together a timeline, organizing your lovers, men and women, in their proper sequence. I apologize: as a reader, I’m used to the comforts of chronology and of psychological causality. But I realize that, for this book, it’s a futile task. You don’t mean to present a standard narrative. You don’t mean to offer the back-and-forth of the traditional epistolary novel. Instead, these letters constitute an eternal present—a pain so palpable that it seems to have no past and no future. It can only be felt now.
Can I say that I often could not read more than one letter in a single sitting? Not because of the language—your translator, Ari Larissa Heinrich, has made an excellent effort, rendering your work into colloquial English—but because the emotional intensity can get overwhelming. The depths of your heartbreak seem limitless, and as I plunged deeper and deeper into it, I felt as if the letters were not meant for their intended recipients, but were instead a last will and testament. Indeed, as Heinrich points out, the title can also be translated literally as Last Testament from Montmartre.
But here I go again, conflating your narrator with you. Maybe there never was that separation to begin with. Maybe this book exists in the intersection of text and author, just as you lived in the intersection of genders and cultures, in the intersection between Eros and Thanatos. But as your narrator spirals out of control, the letters becoming more disjointed and fragmented, recounting not only her emotional state but her increasing violence towards herself, I think about your own death, at your own hands.
Miaojin, I know that you cannot read this letter. I know that time continues on its forward trajectory and that I cannot diverge from it to speak to you directly. But know that I am thinking about your book and that you speak through it still.
Last Words from Montmartre
By Qiu Miaojin
New York Review Books
Paperback, 9781590177259, 176 pp.