Owlish — a surreal foray into repression and magical escape

In the afterword of her sinuous debut novel Owlish, Dorothy Tse describes the Occupy 2014 movement in Hong Kong: “protesters chanted with the fervour of church choirs, urging the city to wake up.” Five years later, she continues, when protesters took to the streets again, they were portrayed as “dreaming”.

It is worth bearing in mind these two references while reading Tse’s nightmarish account of an authoritarian state and a city that “exists at the intersection of dreaming and being awake.”

The 2019 pro-democracy demonstrations were in response to the Hong Kong government’s proposed amendments to the Fugitive Offenders Ordinance. Many students were concerned that it would be used to arrest political dissidents, and so widespread protests ensued; these protests were met with violence.

Chinese-born, Tse grew up in Hong Kong and has published four collections of short stories. She currently teaches at HK Baptist University. In Owlish, nimbly translated by Natascha Bruce, there are several nods to Franz Kafka and Tse offers a powerful vision of government repression.

Professor Q wakes one morning to discover that “love had rearranged his vision.” Q is a “lowly” assistant professor at Lone Boat University. He is never promoted or offered a secure contract despite always meeting the department’s targets. He is in a stultifying marriage with Maria, a high-ranking civil servant. They live in a city called Nevers, which we quickly deduce is Hong Kong: “ten years earlier, the declining Valerian Empire had handed Nevers over like a gift to the Vanguard Republic.”

Like Josef K in Kafka’s The Trial, Q is trapped by bureaucracy. At work, Q increasingly feels like a desk-bound mannequin who spends his days “applying for research funding he had no need for whatsoever.” Lapsing into a dream state offers him an escape from marital and political subjugation.

Q has recently celebrated his 50th birthday and contacts his old friend Owlish (who could be his alter-ego). After Owlish tells him he needs “a love nest”, Q embarks on a strange course involving a music-box ballerina named Aliss, a notable addition to his collection of dolls. He takes over a disused church on an abandoned island and fills it with his possessions. There he visits Aliss, spends his days undressing her and brushing her hair, and finds welcome relief from his wife’s gaze as well as from the eyes of the state.

Owlish may be too surreal for some tastes, but I loved its political edge. Tse recognises that students are often the first in the line of fire. The erosion of human rights culminates in a terrifying scene narrated in the second person by a detainee: “They take away your name and assign you a five-digit number . . . you enter an austere workshop filled with countless yous. Every you has her head bowed and is holding the kind of sign you see on streets everywhere: Do Not Enter. Do Not Run. Do Not Proceed. Do Not Retreat. Do Not Talk. Do Not Anything, Everything is Forbidden.”

Tse combines the banal and the fantastic to terrific effect. Full of striking imagery, Owlish is a vertiginous tale of a people sleepwalking into catastrophe.

Owlish, by Dorothy Tse, translated by Natascha Bruce, Fitzcarraldo Editions £13.99. 224 pages

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