Friday, October 26, 2012

Book 108, Taiwan: "Notes of a Desolate Man" by Chu T'ien-Wen

I've actually been holding on to this book for ages - got it while I was in Columbia, not long after my Modern East Asian Literature course (our token Taiwanese text for the class was Chang Ta-Chun's Wild Kids.) 

Was considering other options for this segment, though: tempted by the thought of doing something untranslated, like that copy of Wang Wenhua's 蛋白質女孩 we have lying around. But life is short, and my excellent translator/author/actor friend Jeremy Tiang recommended this.

And it's a gay experimental novel - by a woman, too. What's not to like?

Oh, but this isn't a casual read - takes a lot longer than the 166 pages of its contents might suggest. There's no real plot: we're wandering with the mind of the narrator (he's too passive for me to really call him a protagonist) Xiao Shao, an ageing Taiwanese gay man, as he contemplates the death of his friend Ah Yao from AIDS.

Ah Yao's the kind of guy you'd expect to be a hero: he's introduced as an extrovert, an ACT UP rights activist who's worked in the US, and a precocious sex maniac. Our narrator nearly humped him in his youth, before he was out himself, but held back. Now he's sitting in his friend's house, observing the decay of Ah Yao's body, contemplating the wastage of his own life - no love, no family, no longer even a real desire for sex.

And yet as the tale wanders, we find there's very little about Ah Yao - most of the story is about his own love affairs and near misses, mostly with a photographer named Yongjie and a dancer named Jay - both absolutely gorgeous men, we're told, even though Shao is a mere academic, with neither fortune nor glamour to his name. And though we witness despair and yearning and heartbreak and the absolute pathetic-ness of aged singlehood (what is the noun form of this word? Internet says patheticalness but that sounds awful), what we're also left with is genuine love, obsessive and romantic and stupid and all, but observed from a distance, like everything else in this tale.

See, Xiao Shao's mind joins up Fellini and Tripataka and Nijinsky and the Rubaiyat and Hayao Miyazaki's Nausicaa, just to describe what he's feeling - not to show off or be politically correct, like I do. And it's paralleled by his own casual descriptions of travel to Athens, to Nara, to Kushinagar, to the Valley of the Kings in Egypt (he resists ever visiting China, which is where Yongjie eventually falls in love with a young farmer on the Silk Road).

All these expanses contrasting with the severe limits of his childhood, growing up in the shadow of the Chiang Kai-Shek dictatorship, and the shadow of his adulthood, his loneliness in the public toilets and video arcades of Taipei and Kaohsiung.

Oh, I won't go on too long about this. Must do some writing of my own. But it is such a different book from most of the works I've been reading - a story that meanders and is lost, and is comfortable being lost.

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Representative quote:  
And so I felt that life and death shared the same face, right in front, looking down at me.

It was often there, when I crossed a street, or when I was in an elevator, or right now, while writing. The face wasn't all that scary; it even had the hint of a smile, like a Noh mask hanging on a wall looking down on me - or that's how it felt. If it had grown more vivid, it would have been the picture of an Indian goddess, a sword and a human head in two of her outspread arms, while the other two promised blessings and protection. I was right in front of her, coexisting with her. Therefore death is not the Angel of Death, who wore a black cape and a black robe and played chess with a knight in Bergman's The Seventh Seal. It was, instead, life, who looked down on me.

The ancient Greeks said, You can never place your fee tin the same river twice.

Yes, the kalpa gone, the kalpa now, the kalpa to come.

The past, the present, the future.

Next book: Kyung-Sook Shin's Please Look After Mom, from South Korea.

Friday, October 19, 2012

And the Nobel goes to…

I know I’m late on the uptake and all, but I did want to say a little something about the Chinese novelist Mo Yan winning the Nuo Bei Er.

It’s come out of the blue for most people. Folks were putting money on Haruki Murakami, that Japanese wunderkind of mildly surrealist, disaffected hipster fiction.

And while I would’ve been perfectly happy if any Asian writer had won the prize, I’m actually rather happy that Mo Yan won out.

Y’see, back in ‘05, I did my Comp Lit BA thesis on Gabriel García Márquez and Mo Yan, so I had to do a bunch of reading up on both of ‘em – ingesting what books I could, either in their original language or in translation.

So I’ve a bunch of the laureate’s works: Red Sorghum; The Republic of Wine; The GarlicBallads; Shifu, You’ll Do Anything For A Laugh; Big Breasts and Wide Hips (not my favourite, and the translation corrupted the plot somewhat), and the one I focused on in my thesis, 41 Bombs. (As yet untranslated, to my knowledge.)

Reason I chose him was because his work’s been specifically compared to Gabo’s before: he too uses techniques of magical realism, attributing his inspiration directly to the Colombian master – though it’s not slavish imitation by any means; coming across One Hundred Years of Solitude was merely a licence to go ahead and be true to his own folk tradition of tall tale-telling, same way as Gabo was liberated by Kafka.

Mo Yan’s most famous work is Red Sorghum, which was made into the groundbreaking Chinese New Wave film of the same title by Zhang Yimou. The ‘90s were actually the heyday for Chinese novelists, between perestroika and the invasion of TV and blockbuster film. So he’s actually been on the Nobel watchlist for some two decades. Give him the 8 million krona; he’s waited long enough.

But that’s not the only reason why I’m glad he beat Murakami. I mean, look at the Japanese guy’s works: they explore the world of middle-class jazz aficionado Gen X-ers, revisiting so many old tropes that you can actually play Bingo with his books.

(Disclaimer: I’ve only read Sputnik Sweetheart and Dance Dance Dance in full, both of which I enjoyed.)

Mo Yan, on the other hand, is the son of Shandong farmers. He writes in peasant Mandarin (this is why I was able to read his works), and is enjoyed by a broad base of proletariat countrymen as well as by East Asian Studies majors in Stockholm.

He’s come a long way since the nostalgia of Red Sorghum. He’s documented the crazy collectivist/industrial/capitalist transformations of his nation, from famine to gross excess, utilizing a dazzling range of realisms and surrealisms to get past the Communist Party’s censors – god, you should check out the Faulknerian stream-of-consciousness at the end of Republic of Wine. He changes, just as China does.

So basically, we’ve got a populist peasant with a penchant for experimentation, versus an ageing hipcat who’s stuck in a rut. Also, China’s never had a Nobel for lit before. Who’re you gonna pick? (Also helps that Mo Yan's using his leverage to say nice things about Liu Xiaobo.)

And sure, sure, Murakami’s populist too. Give it to him another year. He'll live.

By the way, I've set up my poll for my Japan book on the right. Any Harukists who're mad at me can sentence me to finishing 1Q84.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Holiday stash!

Haven't moved on to my Taiwanese book yet because I've gotta write an article about The Hobbit movie for the children's newspaper I work for. Trying to read the original novel in a hurry.

Of course, this just means it's a good time to take stock of the books I've accumulated over recent travels. A recent bus ride up to KL had me at Silverfish Books, where I was promoting the poetry collection I translated, The New Village. Also popped over to the Annexe at Sentral Market for Art For Grabs.

Here's my harvest after the events:

Look at 'em!

Silverfish Malaysian Classics Series: 
1. Marong Mahawangsa: The Kedal Annals
2. Sejarah Melayu
3. The Epic of Bidasari (and other tales)
4. Malaysian Fables, Folktales & Legends

Farish Noor's essays:
5. The Other Malaysia
6. From Majapahit to Putrajaya
7. From Inderapura to Darul Makmur: A Deconstructive History of Pahang
(-). What Your Teacher Didn't Tell You (actually I bought this ages ago, but added it to complete the set)

8. Salleh ben Joned's Adam's Dream
9. Bernice Chauly's Growing Up With Ghosts
10. Afi Noor's Ten Poems

I have rather fewer books from Laos, because of the bigger language divide. One British lady resident in Luang Prabang (who ran a book exchange) even told me there's a serious dearth of Lao literature, pre-colonial and contemporary, because they just aren't a very literate culture. Folks go back to the village and forget all the English they learned, she said; they even forget their own Lao alphabet.

Anyhow, Monument Books did supply me with a couple of treasures:

1. Outhine Bounyavong's Mother's Beloved
2. Steven Jay Epstein's Lao Folktales (published in Thailand)

There was even a book of condensed Lao epics, Volume 2 - but this was wafer-thin and the writing just wasn't very good. I figured I'd bug the National Library to buy Volume 1, or else just wait for a proper publication to come out.

In other news, I finished an awesome novel over the hols: Zhang Yueran's The Promise Bird, translated by my friend Jeremy Tiang. But that deserves a post of its own.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Book 107, Hong Kong: "The Unwalled City" by Xu Xi

I'm currently on holiday in Laos, and on holiday from my reading project. But three hours before I left, I managed to finish off my Hong Kong book! Of course I considered Jin Yong (since he's probably HK's most successful writer), but none of his swordfighting novels take place in the city. Also Eileen Chang, but she only spent a couple of years there, it seems - she was essentially Shanghainese.

But Xu Xi's as Hong Kong as Hong Kong noodles - born and bred and teaches at the university there, though she's hopped around Asia and North America in the course of her career. First met her at the Man Hong Kong Literary Festival in 2007; read her Daughters of Hui and really liked it. 

Wrote to her to ask her which one of her works she'd recommend for this project. Of course, she had to suggest the only one which the National Library doesn't stock. Read this on the Kindle, which I didn't want to run the risk of losing or breaking while backpacking.

But I had trouble with this book at first - truth is, the characters float from scenario to scenario with little visible motive force. They're all these lost, good-looking privileged men and women, living in Hong Kong on the cusp of the 1997 handover. They're not even particularly scared of the prospect of going back to Red China. If I were marking this for my creative writing class, I'd have been asking where the thrust was, what made us *care* for these characters.

Still, as time wore on, the story grew on me. It's interesting reading this in the wake of The Bewitching Braid, or that classic Hong Kong romance The World of Suzie Wong, both of which are about race and class relations clashing, then becoming happily reconciled in an age of colonialism. The Unwalled City is determinedly postcolonial - no, that word fails to encapsulate the theme: it is post-postcolonial, occupying a world where global capitalism has collapsed the importance of race and gender.

Look at Colleen, a white Bostonian who speaks Mandarin and Cantonese, married to a Hong Kong Chinese guy but having affairs with loads of men, white and Asian. Look at Gail Szeto, divorcee offspring of an American pilot and a Hong Kong prostitute who's climbed her way to the top of the corporate ladder, caring for her senile mother and more Chinese-than-ever son Gu Kwun. Look at Vince, the Brooklyn photographer and low-caste expat who goes from being an HK newbie to a Cantonese-spouting old hand; Andanna/Lei You Fun who dumps her jazz career to become a Cantopop singer.

These figures whose lives intersect, whose actions frustrate one another (Xu Xi will shift perspectives from one character to the next without warning, so that the follies and misperceptions of the characters are clearly visible to us). They have affairs and dates and epiphanies, but nothing happens, not really, we don't know where their lives are going by the closing chapter as Andanna sings on the stage of the handover ceremony.

The story drifts. We drift. The characters drift, even geographically, from Wan Chai to Singapore to Shanghai to New York. Is this how tales are told today? With no deaths, no marriages, no births, with only pre-planned unhistorical historical events? I'm thinking aloud, of course. Just wondering how people do it - put enough words together, call it a novel. 

Me, I can't finish writing anything right now. Ah well. Maybe the nights in Laos will inspire me.

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Representative quote: "You are privileged to be here in our city at this moment of historical change." Albert spoke as if he were some kind of elder statesman for Hong Kong, with a possessiveness that conferred distinction to utterances on high. "In a way, Vincent, you are in a slightly better position than some to appreciate it because you originate from a city that once almost defined a new order for what a city was and should be. Of course, New York is somewhat passé now."

Proclaimed not as an opinion but as a fact.

Next book: Chu T'ien-wen's Notes of a Desolate Man, from Taiwan.