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Last Words from Montmartre

By
April 1, 2014

The Taiwanese novelist committed suicide at twenty-six, leaving behind the story of a passionate relationship between two young women, told through a series of letters.

https://www.guernicamag.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/03/AlexGibbs600.jpg
Image by Alex Gibbs, I Know Nothing of the Illnesses I Will One Day Have, 2012. Courtesy the artist

Letter Twenty
June 17

Bunny was tiny, maybe only fifteen centimeters long. Although Bunny’s coat was pure white, the fur on Bunny’s body, feet, paws, nose, ears, and tail was flecked with gray. Xu spotted Bunny immediately as we strolled past the row of pet shops along the Seine near Pont Neuf. We looked in several other shops and laughed at the horrifying sight of rabbits so big that on their hind legs they reached our waist. We spun joking tales of what would happen if we tried to keep one of these rabbits in Clichy, how they might put on bibs and sit with us at the dinner table, or how they could leap across the thirty five-square-meter apartment from kitchen to bedroom in a single bound, crash through the dividing wall….Then we looked at some small rabbits in a few shops but none of them really appealed to us. Finally Xu said that the most important thing about caring for a pet was karma, so we went back to the first shop. I asked the shopkeeper if I could look at one of the two baby rabbits that were only three months old. He plucked the rabbit out of the cage, telling me to take a good look as I asked many questions like how to feed it, how to take care of it, and how to tell if it was sick. Then it occurred to the shopkeeper to check under the little rabbit’s tail to see if it was a male, which we hoped, but it wasn’t. So Xu turned back to the cage and looked at the other rabbit, the one with pink eyes, and said that this was the one she had noticed first! We were jubilant and we carried the pink-eyed male and his accessories back home with us to Clichy, carrying the fifty-centimeter-long white cage down into the Pont Neuf Métro station where we took the 7 to Palais Royale–Museé du Louvre and then transferred to the 1 before catching the 13 at Champs-Élyseés–Clemenceau toward Clichy. On the crowded rush-hour train, I placed the white cage on the floor and carried three big bags of kibble on my shoulders, leaning on a pole. Xu sat down in an open seat next to me and played with the rabbit in his little paper box….Watching the two of them, I resolved that they were my companions for life and that I would fight for them on the treacherous journey of life, until death.

Could reason really prevent someone from killing himself or going mad? Could it really prevent someone from being unfaithful or from being struck dead in an instant due to infidelity? I despair.

Zoë, I’ll take good care of Bunny for you.

Oh…if one were to call this book an unintelligible collection of hieroglyphics with no words and a plot that had long since disappeared, one would be right. I am confused about whether it’s a matter of our love trying to capture me, or to capture her, or of us trying to capture our love. From the first time I saw her (before either of us had even exchanged a word), I dreamed of her each night until these continuous dreams drove me to write her a letter every day and to love her unconditionally….Xu often joked that I was terrorist and mystic combined. Was I? How could I not be? Given the irrational and metaphysical nature of human existence, did I really have a choice? Could reason really prevent someone from killing himself or going mad? Could it really prevent someone from being unfaithful or from being struck dead in an instant due to infidelity? I despair. Even now my answer is still no, and to the final day I still clearly see that I am bound by fate to love her and even more am doomed to die, struck by the lightning of her unrestrained infidelity, her betrayal and abandonment.

I’ve never regretted loving her this way. I’m still happy she came to Paris and let me give her a beautiful home, a blossoming love. I had wanted it for so long, and attained it. But I despair. I despair over my peculiar personality and fate…

She wasn’t born unfaithful, and I wasn’t born faithful.

She wasn’t born unfaithful, and I wasn’t born faithful. My life has been a journey from infidelity to fidelity, and her life has been a journey from fidelity to infidelity. Such is the journey determined by the individual materials of each life. And the instant our journey overlapped and influenced the other, my fragile personality exploded and my individual self, caught between heaven and earth, was soundlessly, breathlessly sacrificed. This is merely called Nature.

In No Longer Human, Osamu Dazai tells how an older man takes an innocent young woman as his wife after a long battle with depression. For him the young wife is like the new shoots of spring, purging his life of darkness and pollution and providing him a bourgeois existence as a newlywed. One night he witnesses his wife, whose innocence inspired him to trust again, having sex with some random shopkeeper upstairs….His wife had been raped and wasn’t to blame, but it split him open.

Human nature has its fatal weaknesses, but “love” means embracing the whole of human nature, the bad within the good, the benign within the malicious, the beautiful within the tragic. “Love” is the experience of this whole, its unfinished parts, including those of one’s own in relation to those of the other.

Bunny’s cage was placed at the foot of our bed. He was so lovely and active, and chewed through countless books on the shelves. When we ate, we lifted him up onto the table, and at night he kept us company when we worked or watched television. Most of all he loved to stretch out under Xu’s desk and nap. The very first thing we did upon returning home each day was to let him out of his cage and leave him out until it was time for bed and one of us locked him back up. Watching Xu play with him or feed him yogurt or add hay to his bedding or change his food or pet him softly or chase him around the apartment was the essence of all my fantasies of “home.” I wanted nothing more from life.

After the death of his wife, André Gide wrote Et Nunc Manet in Te, a stark confession of his failed marriage. I’ve had my copy for five years and I often turned to it while writing this fiction of human nature, for Gide’s sincere account is filled with the power of love and resentment—it consoled me during this painful process of writing. Only a spirit of artistic sincerity can console the souls of humankind.

Gide wrote: “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.”

Xu often laughingly protested at my overindulgent adoration of Bunny, as I picked him up and snuggled and kissed and nipped him. I think this was just me channeling affection for Xu onto Bunny. But I guess Bunny and Xu were always closer—they understood each other more naturally and had more in common. My disposition seemed distant from theirs. Once when we took a long trip together, Xu pleaded for me to bring Bunny with us instead of leaving him at home for so many days, but in the end it was out of concern for his safety that we left him behind. Xu worried that he wouldn’t have enough to eat while we were gone and moved one of the potted green plants next to his cage and when we returned we found he had eaten most of the plant’s leaves.

The world outside was pitch-black with faint starlight. I lit a cigarette and asked myself how I could change to keep loving her.

The morning Xu was to leave Paris, she hurriedly snapped some pictures of him before finishing her packing. Bunny hopped in circles at her feet. At one point, Xu lifted her leg as Bunny clung to her ankle with his entire little body and hung there. My heart tightened. Bunny also couldn’t bear to see her go. Bunny had a soul, too, and knew that she was about to abandon the both of us; he knew with his brief ten months of life that he would be parted from Xu forever!

Zoë, what do you think Bunny is doing right now?

I’ll never forget that moment: We were on the sleeper train from Nice, and in the middle of the night I climbed up to her bunk to give her an extra blanket and that’s when she asked me the question. I jumped to the ground and went out to the hallway. The wind howled and pushed against the glass of the windows. The world outside was pitch-black with faint starlight. I lit a cigarette and asked myself how I could change to keep loving her.

Zoë, when we get home, will Bunny greet us at the door wearing a suit and tie?

Zoë—

Of all the scenes in Angelopoulos’s films, the one that moves me the most is in Alexander the Great. Alexander, “a child of fortune,” adopts a woman in town as his mother, whom he loves. He eventually marries her, and while wearing her white wedding gown, she is shot for resisting the totalitarian regime. For the rest of his life, he loves only her. Alexander returns from the battlefield and enters his room. There is only a bed and, hanging on the wall, his mother’s bloodstained wedding gown. He says to the gown on the wall: Femme, je suis retourné. Then he lies down quietly and sleeps.

And on it flows. I long to lie down quietly by the banks of a blue lake and die…and when I’m dead for my body to be consumed by birds and beasts, leaving only the bone of my brow for Xu…like Alexander, loyal to an everlasting love.

G

Qiu Miaojin (1969–1995) was born in Chuanghua County in western Taiwan. Her first published story, “Prisoner,” received the Central Daily News Short Story Prize, and her novella Lonely Crowds won the United Literature Association Award. While in Paris, she directed a thirty-minute film called Ghost Carnival, and not long after this, committed suicide. The posthumous publications of her novels Last Words from Montmartre and Notes of a Crocodile (both forthcoming from NYRB Classics) has made her into one of the most revered countercultural icons in Chinese letters. In 2007, a two-volume edition of her diaries was published.

Ari Larissa Heinrich received a masters in Chinese literature from Harvard and a PhD in Chinese studies from the University of California at Berkeley. Heinrich and Qiu—who would have been the same age if Qiu were still alive—crossed paths without knowing each other in Taipei and in Paris. He is the author of The Afterlife of Images: Translating the Pathological Body between China and the West (Body, Commodity, Text) and the co-editor of Queer Sinophone Cultures. He teaches at the University of California at San Diego.

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