The Last Lover opens in a provincial town located in an unspecified western nation known as “Country A”. We are introduced to Joe, manager at a local clothing company, who spends his time reading books when he’s supposed to be totting up sales figures. His wife, Maria, amuses herself by embroidering tapestries and conducting psychic experiments on her two cats. The couple sleep in separate rooms in their cottage overlooking the sea. Joe’s room is decorated with yellowed photographs of walking sticks and false teeth; he keeps a collection of small bones, removed during an operation on his knee, in an ashtray on his bedside table.

So far, so weird. But this novel by Chinese avant-garde author Can Xue keeps getting curiouser and curiouser. Joe becomes embroiled in a domestic dispute between his boss, Vincent, and Vincent’s wife, Lisa, which appears to centre on a) Lisa’s all-consuming obsession with Chairman Mao’s Long March and b) Vincent’s unhelpful tendency to transmogrify into a tiger during sex. Joe takes refuge from their arguments in his office, immersing himself in his books, and eventually finds himself unable to separate fact from fiction: “Everyday life transformed into a dreamland, one that was like a chain of interlocking rings.”

And so the novel itself becomes a sort of dreamland, in which it is difficult to tell whether the events described take place in the ostensible reality of Country A or merely in the troubled minds of its characters. As Joe, Maria, Vincent and Lisa embark on separate, solitary journeys into the country’s hinterland, the book develops into a phantasmagoria – less a coherent narrative than a parade of fantastical images. Its ingredients include riddling dwarfs who appear out of thin air; human-feline sexual relations; ghosts; mythical beasts; loquacious parrots; warriors who ride leopards as if they were horses; and chefs who ritually disembowel themselves before serving up the evening meal.

If it isn’t already clear by now, Can Xue (the pseudonym of Deng Xiaohua) is a rather unusual writer. She is a prolific author of novels and short stories, of which only a handful have been translated into English. Reaching for a point of reference, the publishers of this edition describe The Last Lover as “Kafkaesque”. A more apt comparison might be Pu Songling’s 18th-century classic Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio – itself an influence on Kafka – with its talking animals and air of oneiric eroticism. To my mind, the book also recalls the work of Hermann Hesse, in the way it combines eastern and western elements, and in its implicit disdain of literary conventions.

Born in 1953, Can Xue and her family were persecuted as rightists during the Cultural Revolution. But despite its allusions to Maoism, her experimental fiction does not seem to be intended as a vehicle for social criticism. Joe’s obsession with stories points us to the fact that The Last Lover is more concerned with the act of reading itself, in the way literature can conjure evanescent images in our minds and transport us through time and space.

Whether this reflexive conceit is sufficient to sustain one’s interest is another matter. Some scenes are powerfully atmospheric. Joe visits a castle owned by a Korean farmer and spends the night bothered by cats and horny female ghosts in a sequence that has the flavour of the uncanny fables of Haruki Murakami. The chapters recounting Vincent’s sojourn in a rubber plantation in the southern regions of Country A, infested with snakes and rodents, have a prickly, nightmarish quality.

But, considered as a whole, The Last Lover proves exhausting. The crispness of Annelise Wasmoen’s translation notwithstanding, much of the prose is irritatingly fey – “[Joe’s] pale green eyes sometimes have a blank expression, either because he’s absent-minded or because he’s eccentric”; “Every time he swung his head . . . ever more incredible animals ran out . . . ancient Chinese qilin, dragons, and so on . . .” – and few of Can Xue’s strange visions are described in sufficient detail for the reader to picture them. This means that, for all the novel’s occasional exuberance, Country A appears for the most part flat and featureless – and traversing it comes to feel like a long march indeed.

The Last Lover, by Can Xue, translated by Annelise Finegan Wasmoen, Yale University Press, RRP£9.99/$16, 352 pages

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