Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Are there false churches, too? A review of The Man With The Compound Eyes (複眼人)

The Man With The Compound Eyes (復眼人)
Wu Ming-yi
(available at eslite)

As I plow through books on Taiwan before my leaving date (about a month from now), I've been intentionally alternating between fiction and non-fiction. After finishing Accidental State (and breezing through The Mapping of Taiwan), I came upon this small volume with a gorgeous cover. After hearing high praise for the quality of the translation, I decided it would be the fiction filling to my Accidental State / Taiwan's Imagined Geography sandwich.

And it's true, the translation is wonderful. If I hadn't known it hadn't been written originally in English, I wouldn't have guessed as much. It's engaging and eminently readable, in fact, I'd say it is a pleasure to read on nearly a conscious level.

The characters, especially, are well-drawn, their backstories draw you in, although I had to smile at the trope of the novelist making the main character of their novel an English professor who is also a writer - write what you know, I guess. I appreciated that, for a novel set in Taiwan, most of the characters were in fact not ethnically "Chinese": the novel was heavily, and purposely, aboriginal and yet not exclusively that.

I'm not quite sure what to make of the story, so I'll start with this: it was engaging. I only actually give books perhaps 50 pages to draw me in; if I'm not hooked by then, I usually don't finish. I have better things to do than read a book I'm not that interested in. The Man with the Compound Eyes had me from page one.

But what was it about exactly? I'm still not sure. The clearest theme seemed to be that of god as nature, and different people's relationship to it - the god of this novel is one that not only does not live up in the sky and have a beard and rain down hellfire, but rather who lives in the mountains, the jungles and the oceans, but also one that is not an active creator or intervener. Somewhat simplistically, those with the strongest relationship to nature/god seem to be the Taiwan indigenous and fictional island characters (I'm not saying this is necessarily wrong, although I don't believe in god, it's just something of a well-worn trope), with Westerners and ethnically "Chinese" Taiwanese being furthest from.

Caution: ahead there be spoilers

I'm also not sure, other than another "untouched natives living simply with nature and no knowledge of the outside world" narrative what the journey of Atil'ei was really supposed to mean for the larger story: did his meeting with Alice, at which point he as a fleshed-out character nearly disappears from the narrative, serve to bring her to some deeper understanding of nature? If so, perhaps that could have been explored a bit more. I am generally a fan of subtlety but rather than picking up subtle cues about the point of the story, I ended up feeling mostly confused, as though a missing, hidden chapter I was supposed to have read, but didn't. A lot of ancillary characters seem to do a lot without really adding much to the narrative if you don't make big metaphorical leaps in trying to consider what it all means. I felt in one case it really could be boiled down to "engineer who helped build the Xueshan Tunnel heard a weird sound back then, returned to Taiwan, and decided he should not try to find out what that sound was". Okay, I guess?

Overall, I felt the backstory leading up to the arrival of the trash vortex on Taiwan to be the most satisfying, and the most engaging in terms of reading about how another person views and sees certain aspects of life in Taiwan, most notably, I felt a lot of my own sentiments reflected in the description of the east coast town, the shantytown by the river in Taipei, and what it means to have a "homestay". The characterization was likewise enjoyable - the friends-or-more relationship between Dahu and Hafay was handled with subtlety and grace. Backstory was well-handed: engaging, thoughtful (each person has their own 'island'), not overly cumbersome but deep enough to count.

I was less satisfied with the story of Atil'ei's island love, Rasula. Her story felt like it hit a big random dead-end and served no real narrative purpose other than to keep her in the story a bit longer. I had expected they'd either meet again or she'd encounter some sort of worthwhile adventure, or that we'd find out what happened to Atil'ei as he left Taiwan and began sailing back to an island that (spoiler!) will no longer exist by the time he gets there, if he ever does. Neither comes to pass. It just ends. It doesn't feel like that story thread ever fully gels with the rest of what's going on in any satisfying, conclusive way. I especially feel that we're forced out of Alice's headspace - even in a first-person narrative told by her! - for that part of the novel, and never really get a sense of the impact Atil'ei has had on her.

Yes, this story comes with a twist - but I'm writing about it at the very end because it probably had the least impact on me in any deeper emotional sense. It could have worked in a longer novel, but here it felt unearned, like Wu felt he needed something like that to happen, so *poof*, it did. Alice's experiences after finding the cliff where her husband died felt rushed through, the realizations not supported much by the narrative that had come before.

All in all, The Man With The Compound Eyes is worth reading (and honestly, it won't take you long. It is not a tome by any means). It feels very Taiwanese, and very connected to this country and the experience of living here, and specifically very 21st-century Taiwanese, with its focus on local, non-Chinese culture, environmentalism, small towns and everything that sort of embodies a post-industrial Taiwan that is so very over Taipei, choosing instead a smaller city or one's hometown.

It also feels very Taiwanese in its narrative subtlety. It is entirely possible that I didn't feel I fully understood the integration of the storylines because so much was left purposely unsaid, and I was meant to connect the dots in a way that someone of this culture might perhaps be able to do, but which eludes this straight-to-the-point, no-stone-unturned New Yorker.

By all means, read it, and if you figure out What It All Means on a deeper level than I've tried to express here, let me know.

1 comment:

Harrison said...

I read this book too (in translation, by Darryl Sterk -- translators don't get enough credit IMO). I read one of his short story collections (天橋上的魔術師, The Illusionist on the Skywalk, which is untranslated) and started his newer book The Stolen Bicycle. The former is a collection of linked short stories about kids who grew up in one of those big department store complexes (not the fancy ones, the ones where the stores are owned by a family who lives in the back), which I thought was a great setting.

Apparently the rights to the latter got bought up recently, so it might get a translation (I have no idea how publishing works). It's about a guy who decides to look for a bicycle that was stolen from his father. It's a bit more musing than his earlier books. Anyway, I've been meaning to finish it, but I've been busy lately and reading in Mandarin is somewhat more work for me.

The new Ministry of Culture has been actively pushing Taiwanese lit, which I think is great (previously, I think the only books from Taiwan that have gotten translated have been due to a project at Columbia University, which tended to translate more well-established authors). See: Well, I'm a big believer in world literature, and I also think that Taiwanese lit, like that of *any* country, has something to offer the world -- it definitely follows a very different tradition than Chinese literature, in particular I think the Lu Xun influence is just not there at all.

Anyway, about the book, it was awhile ago, but I remember really liking the imagery and how he described the trash island. I found the Alice character really annoying -- she had a lot of complaints about Taiwan but had this really fatalistic attitude toward it. I actually hear this kind of stuff sometimes from people who immigrated to the U.S. from Taiwan -- about how Taiwan has all these problems which will never change. I feel like maybe her character changed toward the end, but I honestly don't remember.

I've been reading a translation of Remains of Life by Wu He recently. Just started it, I'm enjoying it so far, and I like the translation.