There are books you read for knowledge, those you read for escape, those you read for enlightenment, those you read to be lost, those you read to be found, and then those you read again, and again. Is it because you want to inhabit that world? Or is it because they force you to reconsider the one in which you live? Dorothy Tse’s remarkable Owlish—translated with beauty, power, and nuance by Natascha Bruce—is a novel of many such levels, shadowy and direct, as striking in its depiction of the tyrannical aspects of governments and other institutions as it is of the complicated inner lives of its characters.
In Nevers, Professor Q—a middle-aged academic twice passed up for tenure and in a lackluster relationship with his wife, Maria—is poised for a mid-life crisis. Q’s many collections, including a significant number of dolls—Maria calls him a hoarder—aren’t enough to assuage his need for a passionate love affair, the kind he never experienced with his wife. A number of forces, including Owlish, an old friend whose provenance remains hidden until the end of the novel, direct him to Aliss, a mechanical full-sized ballerina who becomes the embodiment of his fantasies.
At half a century old, all Professor Q wanted was a love affair, a proper love affair, for once in his life. Now that he finally had the chance to put his desires into action, nothing should have been left standing in his way. But things had been happening in Nevers…And those of us here on the sidelines can only sigh, knowing it was precisely because of how completely he abandoned himself to romance that he remained so oblivious to the danger staring him in the face.
Beyond this desire—and desire for desire—is a larger story of Nevers and Ksana, representative of the conflicts between and within Hong Kong and China. Some will recall that Nevers is the French village where Walter Benjamin was held in an internment camp during World War II. In her terrific afterword, Tse ties together Benjamin’s “dreamscape divorced from reality” with the Buddhist concept of ksana, “the smallest possible moment” that represents spiritual awakening.
The more Q sinks into his obsession with Aliss—which includes a secret love nest on a nearby island—the more he abandons his reason and attention to his external world. He doesn’t notice what protestors are doing or even where his own students have gone. Whether it is through obliviousness or a fear of repercussions, such a loss of “consciousness”—and conscience-ness—allows the unchecked oppressions of the institutions and government of Nevers. Ultimately, Q’s indiscretions—later discovered by his wife—are used to force him to come to heel, in his personal and academic life, and as a resident of Nevers. Owlish underscores that death is not just the cessation of living: there are physical deaths—of the students and protesters—but also painful figurative ones, where one loses dreams, passion, and identity.
The political allegories are particularly compelling, especially now, and are not limited to the fraught relationship between Hong Kong and China, evoking internecine wars and persecutions the world over.
How did all this start? You try to remember. No, not because of the student arrests. Not because the government insisted on pushing through a cross-border bridge construction project that ran severely over budget. Not because the seaside sitting-out areas were turned into army barracks. Not because the history textbooks were altered and your memory warped. Not because a member of the opposition party was forbidden to run for election. Not because police bullets made protesters’ eyes bleed down their faces. Not because of manhunts inside public hospitals. Not because people are arrested and then three days later discovered with all their bones broken. Not because yet another hopeless protester has thrown themselves off a roof.
Reading this, how can I not think of the protests in my own country of birth, and the many who have “disappeared?” How many other countries can we name—and people we can’t name—are in their own Nevers? Such resemblances and echoes are woven throughout the novel, reflecting the constant nature of persecutions, and making this acutely resonant for our times.
Yet beyond exquisitely-fashioned elements—again a credit to both Tse and Bruce—what kept me reading (with dozens of colored stickers that made my copy look like a magnificently-plumed bird in search of a mate) is the enchanting prose and the world-building. Inherently, books in translation intimately embrace the nuances of language and the many shadings that can unveil or betray meaning. In addition to the deeper themes of dream-states and realities, Owlish also contends with the thin line between the truth of poetry and the falsehood of propaganda. Does language provide us an anchor in an illusory world? Or is it the source of illusion in the first place?
Amid all the lies and propaganda of this society, of all civilizations, is an equal exploration of the hidden nature of the human heart and the truths of what we strive for, what we never achieve, and perhaps, what is in front of us, all along. This is a novel that fully embraces such contrasts and frictions; what is above and below, what seems real and what may or may not be shadows or illusions. Structurally it’s equally well-crafted: despite relatively short chapters which enhance the momentum, the prose is languorous and lush.
There are two chapters at the end of the book that shift into second person, which initially bumped me out of the comfort and consistency of the third-person narration. But in the spirit of a book that bares the subtle clues we miss, that same second person made me a part of Nevers and its secrets. The direct address implies my own complicity in all I don’t or am afraid to see. On that level, this shapeshifting novel becomes yet another thing entirely, pointing out the reader’s own shadowy existence. Through the actions of Professor Q, we see how complacence, or willful blindness, allows individuals—society—the eradication of individual thought. Even worse is to accept and ignore the losses, the bodies, the encroaching walls, and underestimate the power and danger of language itself.
Paths and streams spread through this underground world, splitting like tree branches. A fork in a path is a good thing: it means you have to make a choice. And whichever direction you choose, you will have to abandon a part of yourself. You cannot remember, have been slowly forgetting, all the paths you have given up and all the parts of yourself you have had to abandon. Those given-up selves are still out there, continuing down all those given-up paths.
In Greek mythology, Lethe—the tributary of forgetfulness—is situated near Hades’s underworld palace, marking the rituals of death and forced erasure of memories, ostensibly to allow later reincarnation. Hellish institutions demand the same, leaving individuals a husk of what they were, or could be, surrounded by all the shadows they have had to surrender. There is risk to awakening, of course. There is always danger from knowing more, seeing more, and questioning what is memory, and whose memory, for that matter.
There are books you read for knowledge, those you read for escape, those you read for enlightenment, those you read to be lost, those you read to be found, and then those you read again, and again. Owlish succeeds on all of these levels, with a reminder that perhaps the most powerful way to reject oppression is through imagination, and creation.
By Dorothy Tse, translated by Natascha Bruce
June 6, 2023
Mandana Chaffa is founder and editor-in-chief of Nowruz Journal, a periodical of Persian arts and letters and a finalist for the Community of Literary Magazines and Presses’s Best Magazine/Debut; and an editor-at-large at Chicago Review of Books. She serves on the board of the National Book Critics Circle, where she is VP of the Barrios Book in Translation Prize, and is president of the board of The Flow Chart Foundation. Born in Tehran, Iran, she lives in New York.