Rene Leys, by Victor Segalen, translated and with an introduction by J.A. Underwood, preface by Ian Buruma. New York: New York Review of Books, 2003, 210 pp. $14 (paper)

“Who is this lad, this Belgian youth, who forbids Manchu princes possession of their future concubines? . . . . Who . . . has attained the heart of the center of the Within — nay, better than the heart: the bed!” Thus rhetorically asks the author.

The bed belongs to the empress; the adolescent is Rene Leys, who with his good looks and his enterprise opens all doors, including those of the Forbidden City, to become a major political power in still-imperial Peking.

In actuality the adventuresome young man was a 19-year-old Frenchman named Maurice Roy, whom author Victor Segalen had met upon his arrival in the Chinese capital in 1909. He engaged the talented youth as his tutor and listened to the increasingly interesting adventures he was told.

These tales are unfolded in this novel, published posthumously in 1922, which is about that romantic figure: the foreigner who penetrates the cultural barrier and understands the natives better than they understand themselves.

In recapitulating Maurice Roy’s stories, Segalen writes: “He arrived in China before the age of puberty. He learns a language known to be a difficult one. He finds his way into the Palace known to be hermetically sealed. He becomes the chief of a secret organization, the friend of the Regent, the lover of the Dowager, and the only European adviser to the Empire in the most critical moment of its entire existence since the first enthronement!”

Such picaresque plotting, however, serves only to dramatize Segalen’s real intentions. He wanted to illustrate something his own life had taught him. As beautifully paraphrased by Ian Buruma in his excellent introduction to this edition: “We try to penetrate other cultures, or other people, to lose ourselves, only to find ourselves more sharply defined in contrast to the others.”

Segalen was a true romantic in that he was trying to understand another culture, and to express himself about it, without falling into pedantry, prejudice, imperialism or orientalism. He necessarily believed, and hence found, China to be completely different from himself. Thus the need for penetration and at the same time his infatuation with differences.

These were necessary, for as Buruma explains: “You want to penetrate the other, but can never succeed, for otherwise the attraction . . . would vanish. This is true of the enchanted traveler in a strange land, of the poetic scholar of other cultures, and of the lover too.”

There are other allied interpretations of this strange and memorable novel. The French critic Henri Bouillier says that it is primarily, like Franz Kafka’s “The Castle,” “an allegorical novel of Being,” that “beneath the mask of irony Segalen poured into this book all the anguish of man in thrall to his limitations . . . this is the novel of the Impossibility of Knowing.”

It is also the novel of trying to find out. Like Kafka’s messenger, our hero roams the Forbidden City. “I encircle it, dominate it, square my eye to its form: I comprehend it . . . laid out with schematic symmetry like the cells of the honey-comb . . . the whole hive has worked the wax for one of its inhabitants and one alone — the Female, the Queen.”

And it is to the queen that Rene makes his romantic bee-line, closely followed by our adulating narrator.

Or does he? Is he lying? Or is it our narrator who is untrustworthy. One of the things about gathering knowledge is that you can never be absolutely certain — there is always room for doubt. It is this ironic reverberation that is so admirably captured in this long neglected and now republished novel.

Segalen (1878-1919) was a member of Stephane Mallarme’s literary circle. He was a friend of Claude Debussy’s and wrote a libretto for him, “Siddartha,” on the life of Buddha. He admired and wrote an essay about the sometimes-Orientalist painter Gustave Moreau, and went all the way to Tahiti to visit the grave of Paul Gaughin. All of his short life he was enamored of Asia — so opposite to his native France, so exotic.

He wrote a fragmentary but influential “Essay on Exoticism,” in which diversity was championed and differences were praised. Our vaunted “one world” of similarities and “shared values” would have been unlivable for him. That his position is not very practical is indicated by the tragic Rene and his noble if mysterious fate.

Segalen met the real-life model, Maurice Roy, once more in 1917 and found the lad turned into a fat middle-age man who looked like a banker and who had forgotten all about his romantic and imaginary past. But Segalen had seen the truth in his lies and has left them this beautiful endorsement.

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