Reviews / December 2015 (Issue 30)

Qiu Miaojin’s Last Words from Montmartre: A Celebration of Life and Death Through Art

by Kerri Lu


Qiu Miaojin (author), Ari Larissa Heinrich (translator), Last Words from Montmartre, New York Review of Books Classics, 2014. 176 pgs.


Qiu Miaojin's Last Words from Montmartre contains the main narrator Zoë's final meditations on her relationship and eventual breakup with her former lover, Xu, before her planned suicide. Through twenty letters addressed to former lovers, friends and herself, set against the backdrops of Paris, Tokyo and Taipei, the reader is taken through a series of reflections that are unwieldy, at times rueful in their rebellion against structure and linear time, but which nevertheless offer exacting and controlled analysis. Last Words is an undeniable force, a fully immersive experience unrestrained in its experimentations in form and its fearless explorations of the intimate, violent, ecstatic and all-consuming aspects of love and art.

It feels inadequate to offer a critical interpretation of this work without first addressing its fraught context. Just as the letters document the narrator's progression towards suicide, the work is itself Qiu's Last Words, written shortly before her own suicide in 1995, at the age of twenty-six. As one of Taiwan's foremost modernists and its most well-known lesbian writer, Qiu Miaojin was at the forefront of the country's postmodernist movement that she grew within and helped to create. Though her body of work is small, she has been recognised in her lifetime and posthumously with several literary honours and a large readership in the 1990s, firmly establishing her as a Chinese countercultural icon.

The parallels between Qiu and Zoë are conspicuous and chilling: both are from Taiwan and studied abroad in Paris during their mid-20s; both show a deep interest in film theory; both are involved within feminist literary activist circles. With the final words of the novel, both kill themselves. This blurring between fiction and reality is intentional and assertive, as Qiu consistently conflates her own voice with that of her narrator's. Even the novel's dedication to "Myself, soon dead" belongs equally to both author and narrator. The credibility and power Qiu gives to bolstering the reality of Zoë's fictional life is certainly false, but it nevertheless extends the powerful illusion into which readers are reeled: to substitute this fiction for memoir and suicide note not just for the character of Zoë, but for Qiu as well. Perhaps this instinct is justified. In his afterword, Ari Larissa Heinrich, the translator of this edition, aptly coins Last Words as a "fictionalised artifact": it is meant to contain the essence, not necessarily the facts, of this time period in Qiu's life as depicted through her own literary perspective.

From the beginning, the act of reading contains a burden of bearing "witness"—as Qiu titles the bookend chapters of her novel—and readers themselves play a role in enacting the inevitable end through their act of reading. Last Words is not meant to be comfortable; the book is demanding in terms of its content. The narrative questions and challenges the reader to interrogate deeply this relationship between art and life, a mission that Qiu commits to with little hesitation. Her language is excruciatingly honest, expecting readers to engage with jarring passages describing the intense fluctuations of Zoë's emotions. Zoë's self-destruction is outlined in vivid detail, as are her deliberate plans to commit suicide early on in the novel. As she says, almost as an encouragement to the reader, "Only suffering and death can tell you what's real." And so, we as readers become hyper-aware of each turn and nuance of the text, anticipating the discovery of what is "real" while knowing that with each word, we are reading towards the narrator's—and author's—death.

The narrative itself is aware of its self-fulfilling prophecy, and the reader's role of "witness." To position the reader, Qiu transforms the text into a heightened form of immediacy: readers are required—forced, even—to give up their emotional detachment and critical distance through the fervent and remarkably intimate prose, thus fortifying the connection between their lives and this particular work of art. While Zoë addresses and speaks to other lovers and experiences, the epicentre of the letters is Xu, for whom Zoë displays an overwhelming range of love and repulsion, from erratic obsession and justifications to tender, calm declarations of love, sometimes changing within the same page or letter. Qiu does not shy away from showing all of Zoë's emotions, even the petty and self-deprecating: Zoë obsesses over Xu's cold attitude in short phone calls and declares that she wants an unnamed figure to "eat up [her] rational brain" in the same voice through which she sings that her "eternity" has "stopped expressing itself within [Xu]." The language in Heinrich's translation is intense and often poignant, fulfilling the ambitious scope of Zoë's reminiscences and perceptions of a love that is all-consuming and filled with pathos.

Qiu's technical agility shows through her wide-ranging formal experiments. Initially unnamed and ungendered, Zoë continues to be an ambiguously gendered narrator throughout the novel, often being described in male terms and even questioning herself the extent to which she is "female" or "male." It is likewise difficult to pin her down in space and time. In a note to readers prefacing the book, Qiu breaks free of chronology: "readers can begin anywhere. The only connection between the chapters is the time frame in which they were written." Even within these chapters that share a time period in common, there are events that carry the reader forward and backwards in time, breaking linearity and challenging any geographical placement in their fluid movement across three cities.

Often, without being defined by these other markers of reality, Zoë becomes a mere voice that repeatedly contemplates her own self, unrestrained by the bounds of reality, constantly returning to pivotal moments in dizzying recursive reflections. These shifts in the narrative highlight her changing perceptions of Xu and herself, as well as the truly gravitational pull of her love for Xu. However, while the narrator's transience might be a form of relatability to all readers, especially through her abstract, non-defined presence, Qiu nevertheless protects Zoë from speaking for anyone but herself (ambiguity intentional) by constructing a highly specific character through Zoë's intellectual interests, her obsessions with particular objects from past relationships, as well as through obscure cultural references to film theorists and directors, Greek myths, Japanese landscapes, Parisian political activism and Chinese idioms.

In creating a simultaneously ambiguous and definite identity for Zoë through manipulations of narrative time and space, the narrative becomes impossible to pinpoint and process. Through her emotional, temporal and physical fluctuations, readers feel the pressure of the present more strongly in its ever-shifting state, as well as the need to remain in Zoë's ever-changing perspective in the present. Through these technical moves, Qiu exemplifies the quotation from André Gide's autobiography Et Nunc Manet in Te she includes in her novel's final pages: "What's unique about our story is that it has no obvious contours. The time involved is too long, spanning my whole life, a continuous play, invisible, secret and the story true." In line with Gide, Qiu tries to show the narrative shape of a story that is honest and attentive to all the minute, complex fluctuations in a single relationship and a "whole life."

It is in navigating this paradox of a personalised love affair through an ambiguous identity, space and time that Qiu manages to create what Heinrich refers to as "an inner conflict that transcend[s] the confines of identity politics, gender, race, nation and age." In relying on figurative language—of souls "expressing" themselves in lovers—and metaphysical language—of the splitting of different kinds of love—the text becomes necessarily vague and abstract, almost larger than life, extending to the realms of mythology and metaphor. In doing so, the novel claims that the intense experiences of love are impossible to define, except through literary and artistic abstractions.

While immersed in the conflated world of Zoë and Qiu, to be bogged down by this question of the "authenticity" of the text—to speak on behalf of Qiu beyond fiction—is to miss the point. As Zoë writes in the beginning, "the letters I write to you [Xu] are themselves a fierce form of desire." The work, whether fictional or not, is an act of love, an active portrayal of one person's wishes and a testament to a passionate love affair from a biased perspective which nevertheless attempts to be honest to each shifting present moment. Heinrich argues that Qiu's death should be understood "as a kind of speech act, as the ultimate means of sealing the connection between art and life." This can be extended further: that in the transience of human relationships, time, love, politics and life itself—all of which Qiu depicts through the ambiguity surrounding Zoë—art and text are able to, and in fact may be the only medium, to truly bear "witness" to all these changes.

In Last Words from Montmartre, art becomes the highest exaltation and representation of life, separate from the control of even its own creator. Towards the end of the novel, the ambiguous narrative/authorial voice refers to the work as a "fiction of human nature" and reflects that the letters now express "more than what I'd wanted to convey to you," with "you" in this moment referring either to Xu or the reader. Qiu's art takes on a presence of its own, transcending beyond the petty details of the life and death it depicts, to celebrate the "everlasting love" that Zoë, with her last words in the novel, promises to remain "loyal" to.

Art, life, love and death all connect in this novel, in a momentous and consequential way that underlines Qiu's whole work and is shown, almost whimsically, through Zoë's quick postscript in one of her letters: "with someone by my side with whom I could share the beauty of such a movie, I could die that night ... Movies are like that, life is like that, and love even more so, no?" And so it is, with this casual ease of understanding for Qiu Miaojin, that the celebration of art and love—and the beauty from sharing in both with others—becomes the ultimate fulfillment of life.

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