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'Mr. Muo' is dream come true for readers

MR. MUO'S TRAVELLING COUCH, by Dai Sijie, translated from the French by Ina Rilkie, Knopf, 287 pages, $22.

If you like wry humor, are curious about the interpretation of your dreams — and sometimes dream of love, chances are good you will enjoy "Mr. Muo's Travelling Couch."

Dai Sijie and his wonderful translator Ina Rilkie, who collaborated on "Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress," a gem of a book and a surprise best-seller four years ago, are together again.

This is the story of Mr. Muo, a Chinese-born apprentice in psychoanalysis, who recently returned from France, where he studied the teachings of Freud and Lacan. His objective is to introduce psychoanalysis to modern China. A highly eccentric and gentle man, Mr. Muo also wants to liberate his girlfriend, whose photographs of people tortured by the government have put her in prison.

Oddly enough, the surprisingly innocent Mr. Muo is 40 years old when he begins this arduous task. In the process, he comes into contact with corrupt bureaucrats, formidable women, sociopaths, a panda habitat, a virgin maiden, a Cheng du mortuary, an insane asylum and the disgusting Judge Di of Chengdu — the man responsible for the imprisonment of Mr. Muo's girlfriend.

The writing style is a splendid mix of satire, drama and fairy tale, presented in charming, detailed prose that has a delightful ambience. While riding a Chinese train, for instance, Mr. Muo accidentally meets a disarming young woman wearing a man's undershirt and baggy shorts. She mistakes him for a fortune teller:

Without warning "she takes a bamboo mat from her bag, and spreads it out under his bench. Then, yawning discourteously, she takes off her rubber shoes and, placing them next to Muo's, crouches down, and in a slow, fluid, feline movement, slides out of view under the seat. (To judge by the lack of even a toe poking, she must have drawn up her knees, and by the silence that settles over the darkened carriage, fallen asleep the moment her head touched the patched cloth bag serving as her pillow.)

"The ingenuity of this sleeping arrangement leaves Muo open-mouthed. His heart goes out to her, almost as if he is falling in love, and with a welling of tears in his nearsighted eyes, a mist spreads across his glasses, almost obscuring the appearance of the girl's bare feet when they emerge at last from under the seat. It is a hypnotic sight, those feet crossing and recrossing, languidly rubbing together to fend off invisible mosquitoes."

And so the misadventures continue from one bizarre encounter to another. All the while Mr. Muo is trying to practice his knowledge of dreams and psychoanalysis on the masses.

Once the reader goes several pages with Mr. Muo, the connection will stick. He is unruffled, his vehicle is more the journey than an actual plot, and the characters he meets are wonderfully diverse.

"Balzac" still rates number one, but this book should have a wild-and-crazy appeal to a wide audience. If you start reading and suddenly ask yourself, "Where is this going?" — don't worry about it. Let it carry you.


E-mail: dennis@desnews.com