The fine line between endearing and irritating is crossed multiple times in writer Dai Sijie's ("Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress") second novel...

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“Mr. Muo’s Travelling Couch”
by Dai Sijie, translated by Ina Rilke
Knopf, 287 pp., $22

The fine line between endearing and irritating is crossed multiple times in writer Dai Sijie’s (“Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress”) second novel, “Mr. Muo’s Travelling Couch.”

Sijie’s protagonist Mr. Muo is a 40-year-old scholarly gentleman woefully lacking in sexual experience. Muo has returned to his Chinese homeland after 11 years living in Paris studying Freud. His mission is to rescue his old girlfriend, Volcano of the Old Moon, now locked up in a Chinese prison.

It’s not going to be easy. His nemesis is Judge Di, the man who put away his sweetheart. To placate the heartless judge and win his paramour’s release, Muo must find Di a virgin woman. That’s pretty much the plot — virgin looking for virgin.

Advertising himself as “a travelling psychoanalyst,” an “INTERPRETER OF DREAMS,” Muo bicycles into the modern Chinese countryside on his dubious quest:

“He took out his banner and hoisted it on the fishing rod, firmly secured to the back of his bike, and then jumped on the saddle and shot off like a rocket with his banner streaming in the wind. Destination: the southern suburbs.” Sijie has the ingredients for a zinger of a satire: the innocent abroad in his own country, chock full of Western ideas, who is always one step from disaster. And many of Sijie’s scenes have a gentle, absurd humor or an over-the-top outrageousness that is highly entertaining.

But Sijie, who has lived and worked in France since 1985, might have taken a lesson from that greatest of absurdists, Voltaire: Keep it brief, keep it moving; don’t linger on your main character.

By the end, Mr. Muo has outworn his charm and our patience.