Professor Q is a somewhat dull academic, apathetically teaching literature at a middling university and uninterested in his wife, Maria. She, in turn, is just grateful that Q appears to have lost any carnal urges. Supposing that the andropause has come for him, Maria is unaware that her hitherto predictable husband is in love with a mechanical music-box ballerina. Her name is Aliss and he is willing her to life. Both a political allegory and a deep dive into the recesses of the human psyche, Owlish by Dorothy Tse is a subversive and exhilarating affair.
Motivated by the years of political unrest in her native Hong Kong, Tse’s dreamlike tale is set in the shiny city of Nevers, flanked by neighbouring Ksana, a thinly veiled Hong Kong and China respectively. In Buddhism, the word ksana denotes a spark or nano-second of awakening, and gives notice of Tse’s intent, although readers may initially suspect that nothing short of a defibrillator could enliven Q’s moribund existence.
But the advent of his 50th birthday can do strange things to a man, and the professor celebrates with a gift to himself. Amongst the ‘peculiar magic’ of an antique bric-a-brac store, he finds a slyly beautiful ballerina doll and is compelled to buy her, although keeps her hidden in his eternally locked secret cupboard. Odd behaviour, but not quite as odd as his subsequent trip back to the store.
On this revisit, Q happens upon a street theatre troupe outside the antique store. The troupe magician presses a card into his palm, advertising a performance by a doll named Aliss. She is a mechanical doll, a replica of his little ballerina, except she is life-size and alluring in a womanly kind of way. He has to have her.
And now, Professor Q’s love life becomes ‘far from boring.’ Confessing infidelity to his friend, Owlish, (a shadowy character who acts as the devil on his shoulder), Q takes the proffered advice and sets up a love nest. Every spare moment is given to his inanimate love. Reading aloud and reciting poetry to her, Q feels his mind has never been so sharp.
However, out in the real world, he is oblivious to changes around him, unaware of the destruction of the student newspaper offices, the gatherings of protesters, police raids and rumblings about ‘troublemakers’. During one absent-minded lecture, he suddenly realises that only three students are in attendance.
In her government administration job, Maria remains wilfully blind to the sudden disappearance of colleagues and sweeping urban planning directives that will push the poor and elderly out of the city.
An ‘impatient wind’ is brewing, whispering a wake up call. In Professor Q’s secret cupboard, two long-lashed doll eyes open.
A multi-layered read, the themes of political upheaval, repression and identity, are encapsulated in the character of Q, a loner whose curious past bears great significance. Beautifully translated by Natascha Bruce, this surreal and inventive novel is guaranteed to keep your brain firing on all cylinders, as befits any book published by the excellent Fitzcarraldo Editions, independent publishers extraordinaire.
Owlish by Dorothy Tse is translated by Natascha Bruce and published by Fitzcarraldo Editions, 224 pages.