Translated from the Chinese by Natascha Bruce
Owlish, the first novel by the Hong Kong-based author Dorothy Tse, features a fifty-year-old scholar named Professor Q, a “hack teacher in a debased, cultureless city” called Nevers. His academic career has stalled and his marriage isn’t fairing much better. We do learn early on, however, that he’s enjoying his first extramarital affair and has recently gotten back in touch with a mysterious old friend, Owlish. Things seem to be looking up, but not for long.
Professor Q teaches at Lone Boat University, a “seat of classical Ksanese learning" founded by Confucian scholars on the Nevers Peninsula, located across the harbor from Valeria Island. “Nevers had been built up by the kingdom of Valeria and ruled by her for over a hundred years,” we learn. The Valerians were European-esque colonizers described as having blonde hair and blue eyes. Valeria Island became home to thousands of Ksanese refugees, who “came fleeing the war inland, bringing with them only what they could carry” and “cobbled together badly ventilated, two- or three-storey shophouses.” Ten years before our story begins, the declining Valerian Empire had “handed Nevers over like a gift to the Vanguard Republic, which was at that moment captivating audiences on the global stage.”
Does this sound familiar?
In a brief afterword written in June of 2020 and titled “Lingering in the Mind,” Tse makes mention of the 2019 protests in which close to two million people flooded the streets of Hong Kong to protest the Fugitive Offenders Ordinance allowing people charged with crimes to be extradited to mainland China. Hong Kong, Tse writes, is a city that “exists at the intersection of dreaming and being awake.” The same can be said of Nevers.
Professor Q, as it turns out, is a bit of a hoarder, at least according to his lovely wife Maria. He also has a particular attraction to creepy dolls. In fact, the aforementioned extramarital affair is with Aliss, a life-size version of one of those toy ballerinas you might find spinning in a music box. While I’m reminded a little bit of “A Real Doll” by A.M. Homes and “August Eschenburg” by Steven Millhauser, two of my all-time favorite stories, Tse’s vision is entirely original and wonderfully bizarre. The language of Natascha Bruce’s elegant translation surprises and delights at every turn:
“The love affair between Aliss and Professor Q existed outside the bound of the common world. There was nothing transactional about it: in all that he did for Aliss, Professor Q asked for nothing in return. But you know how it goes. Whether you like it or not, a butterfly flaps its wings and unsettles the cosmos, one ocean wave births another ocean wave, a gust of wind building, inevitably, into another gust of wind. Consider the ballerina doll, used to spending her days inside the dark, quiet confines of her music box, which the professor now opened up whenever he pleased, thrusting her into the realm of his wildest fantasies. Think of it from her perspective. Imagine the upheaval!”
Soon, Professor Q packs up his home office and creates a love nest for him and Aliss in an abandoned Christian church on a remote island. On campus, his students stop attending his lectures. Meanwhile, Maria is noticing strange changes at the office where she works. An email arrives, perhaps not intended for her, detailing the planned changes to Nevers that will displace many of her fellow residents. Thanks to her husband’s moony carelessness, she also gets wind of his affair. Through it all, she’s the character we tend to care about the most.
Owlish often feels like a dream in which Tse does a masterful job of amping up the tensions, many of which Professor Q is too distracted to notice. His students have gone on strike and he thinks little about the presence of military police attempting to quell a disturbance in the streets, which goes conspicuously unmentioned in the news. He’s also embroiled in a scandal on campus when a portrait of the university’s president has gone missing in what appears to be an anti-authority protest and gets replaced by a painting that strangely resembles himself and Aliss. Then there are the questions of who Owlish really is and to what extent is he responsible for Professor Q’s troubles. And we’re asked to contemplate: “Where was the line between a human being and a doll that could move?”
Different authority figures, real and imagined, loom large in Nevers. At one point, Professor Q is ordered to attend a special interview by the university’s Special Task Committee. Ushered into a conference room, he is questioned by the head of this department as well as the faculty dean and university present. Although they’re familiar, they’re also—like so many authorities—somewhat faceless. “The more he squinted, the blurrier the faces became.” Another time, two men dressed as postman arrive to take him away in a minivan much like the one Owlish had provided to go on dates with Aliss. They bring him to a fortress-like facility, where they interrogate him about his involvement with the student uprisings. The bureaucracy of the Vanguard Republic works in mysterious ways.
While Owlish doesn’t boast a specific or obvious political agenda, it certainly raises vital questions about what it means to live under colonial and authoritarian rule—and how easy it is for many of us to ignore the rising specter of tyranny. Like Animal Farm, it’s a novel that moves past allegory and arrives at a place that is more profound. Owlish speaks truths about the vagaries of contemporary colonialism, truths that state-run media might ignore and the historical record might not otherwise get quite right.