Over the past few years I’ve read a handful of “novels” that seem to serve, in some way, as a suicide note. Not only are these books difficult to read but they are also difficult to judge. One may read a passage that, if pure fiction, would come across as fake or overdone, but imagine making that same claim when the work is so extremely personal the author means every word, including the title, as is the case in Last Words from Montmartre (1996; tr. from the Chinese by Ari Larissa Heinrich, 2014). Of course, many of these books examine issues surrounding suicide from another angle, a more artistic angle. It’s still hard to examine, yet I am fortunate here because it’s easy to see Qiu’s work is brilliant and she’s trying for more than a suicide note.
Qiu Miaojin was only 26 when, on June 25, 1995, she killed herself in Paris, where she had moved to in 1994 to study and where she had worked as a counselor. At the time, she had received a great deal of acclaim for her 1994 novel, Notes of a Crocodile, which is forthcoming from NYRB Classics and is, according to translator Bonnie Huie, a kind of “survival manual for teenagers” (see here). She was forthright about her homosexuality, and thanks to the revocation of martial law in Taiwain in 1987, after 38 years and when Qiu was just finishing high school, she exercised her strong journalistic voice.
We get from that brief, promising biography to early 1995 and the “letters” that make up Last Words from Montmartre. This is classified as a work of fiction, yet the book itself seems to be part of Qiu’s effort, in her last months, to examine her life and her passion, with the end goal seemingly in sight all along.
I was struck by two things when I flipped through the pages that precede the text itself. First, there is the dark dedication:
For dead little Bunny
Myself, soon dead
And then there are Qiu’s statement to whoever ends up reading the book:
If this book should be published, readers can begin anywhere. The only connection between the chapters is the time frame in which they were written.
These opening words are calculated, almost distanced from the suicide itself, giving the impression that while Qiu knew what she was about to do even if she didn’t quite believe in it yet. In the letters, to her ex-lover Xu, she describes the project:
After I returned to Paris back in March, sometimes I would walk along the Seine around ten at night and imagine myself writing a novel called Last Words to Those I Have Loved Deeply, and envisioned concluding each individual letter with the words “Save me!”
This is, apparently, that book.
And what a fascinating book it is, too, and not just because of the circumstances surrounding its composition. At first (though the order does not matter) Qiu (or the book’s narrator, but I’m going to simply call her Qiu) seems obsessed with Xu and her own loss:
I grew a lot between 1992 and 1995 and came to understand and put into practice the rules of love, didn’t I? But my heart is still on fire. Xu, you have no idea how little I care that you left me for someone else.
And yet, we can step back and see that this lost love and the pain it has caused stands for something greater, something more general. Qiu is admitting that, despite her own fights to help those in pain, she herself is going to succumb. It’s too much to accept a world that “maybe . . . has always crushed to bits anything you hoped it would not crush.” In the beginning of the book, there is a series of short notes to Yong, in a section called “Witness.” Here is one that I think is particularly relevant to the larger theme of the book:
My sorrow, my day upon day and night upon night of relentless grief is not for the mess the world is in, and it’s not for my own mortality; it’s for my delicate heart and the wounds it has had to endure. I grieve for all the suffering it has endured. I agonize over all that I have given to others and to the world, even as I’ve failed to live better myself. It’s not the world’s fault; it’s my fragile heart’s fault. We’re not exempt from the world’s injury, so we are doomed to suffer spiritual illness over time.
In this paragraph and others like it we see that Qiu is not necessarily concerned with the one love that devastated her. Rather, her devastation is magnified because she knows many others go through it every day. This world is a sea of sorrow, a sea that allows Qiu to genuinely mourn the dead rabbit the book is dedicated to. Beyond her sorrow for her lost love with Xu, Qiu examines a host of social issues that are still relevant today.
I’d like to note that there’s a whiff of redemption that comes across in the book. It’s tragic, to be sure, and the focus is definitely on her own effort to sort out her feelings, but her there’s more: another purpose seem to me to be more complex than simply ending her own sorrow. She hopes — tragedy! — that somehow this artistic project, which includes her real suicide, can make some little bit of difference to others.
Tarkovsky was right. The responsibility of the artist is to stir people’s hearts and minds toward loving others: to find the light and the true beauty of human nature within this love. Religion can rarely show us what fate means in concrete terms. Yet everyone needs to be understood and this understanding is found within each individual’s fate, one’s life journey that clarifies the way. I’m not a therapist or a philosopher or a priest. I’m an artist.
Fascinating stuff and in a (sadly) long line of similar works, Edouard Leve perhaps the most memorable for me, a staggering piece of work. This isn’t out in the UK just yet but I’ll be getting a copy.