‘Wavering on a Mountain Path’ Book Review 《山徑躊躇》書評

A woman travels to the east of Taiwan in the wake of her husband’s suicide in an attempt to discover the mystery behind a charitable donation he made before his death. Despite the charitable donation leading to somewhat of a dead end, she decides to stay on in the largely indigenous village. Her son, who suffers from autism, flourishes in this new environment, however her new romantic attachment, an indigenous man who helps her rebuild her house and teaches her son to hunt, may not be all he seems.

Screenshot of Unitas video (see link below)

Through most of the course of reading this book, I was expecting it to make a dramatic revelation, whether about autism, the dodgy dealings of the man she falls in love with in Taitung or the mystery behind her late husband’s charitable donation, but it never came. The book, as readable as it is, rejected my attempts to read it as a crime novel or psychological thriller. Nor does the author feel the need to resolve any of the questions thrown up by the narrative; instead of narrative resolution, the main character achieves a vague sort of spiritual resolution in the end, through the prism of her autistic son.

The book does pose some interesting questions itself, however, about autism, the experience of indigenous people and migrant workers in Taiwan and even about the healthiness of modern urban life.

I first became aware of this novel when the author asked me to translate an excerpt for a short video performance:

The short excerpt he provided, however, was quite different in feel from the novel in its entirety, as it was a brief venture into the mind of the protagonist’s autistic son.

These brief sojourns into an autistic mind (the author uses the term Asperger’s) didn’t capture an autistic voice for me with the convincing style of Mark Haddon’s book, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, but rather endowed the child with some kind of spiritual mysticism, evoking for me the lasting controversy over the “idiot-savant” portrayal of autism in the film Rain Man.

We spend most of the time in the novel observing the child from the mother’s perspective. At first she resists the diagnosis and seeks out a “cure” or some way to access the “real child” hiding under the façade of the autistic child:

當兒子被診斷確定患有「亞斯伯格症」,男人和自己都深深地被震撼驚嚇了,先想著自己當初究竟有沒有犯了什麼有心或是無意的錯誤,才造成這樣的結果。譬如有人說孩子出生下來接種的某些疫苗,可能會造成嬰兒腦細胞的傷害,因此才造成這樣生來後的缺憾;傅憶平甚至因此對疫苗產生恐懼與懷疑後,聽從某個醫生的建議,採取了所謂「生醫療育」的方法,就是認為留在小麥和乳製品裡的蛋白質,小孩因為接種了某些疫苗的影響,不但無法好好的吸收這些蛋白質,有時還會反過來滲透腸壁,經由血管進入大腦進行破壞。

Whenever her son’s diagnosis with Asperger’s syndrome was confirmed, she and her husband were deeply shaken. First of all they thought of what mistakes they’d made, whether deliberate or accidental, that had resulted in this state of affairs. For example, some people say that when a child is first born and receives certain vaccinations, they can damage the infant’s brain cells, resulting in this regrettable situation after birth; Fu Yi-ping even started to fear vaccinations and on the suggestion of a doctor, she took up ‘biomedical therapy’. This consisted of the belief that after children are vaccinated they are unable to absorb the protein in wheat and milk products, and that sometimes this protein will seep through the wall of the intestine, and cause damage to the brain through the blood vessels.

This worrying anti-vax sentiment isn’t directly challenged throughout the novel, although her husband tries to get her to accept her child:

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‘Your Name Engraved Herein’ Review: No Means Yes 《刻在你心底的名字》影評

The message this film seemed to want to convey was of a tragic unrealized potential of love between two high school guys because the time (1988, just after the end of Martial Law in Taiwan) was not yet right for their love to flourish. The narrative that it seems like we’re supposed to read into the film is that, out of his love for Jia-Han, Birdy pretends not to love Jia-Han back and pursues a female classmate called Banban in order to try and give Jia-Han the opportunity to live a “normal life”.

If we examine the events that actually take place in the film, however, it’s clear Jia-Han crosses boundaries on several occasions, kissing Birdy when he’s asleep. Birdy, in appearance at least, is in love with a female classmate called Banban and is increasingly uncomfortable with Jia-Han’s jealousy and attempts to intervene in his love life.

This culminates in a scene in which, under the pretext of helping Birdy shower, Jia-Han forcibly masturbates him when he’s unable to defend himself due to his injury. The narrative it seems we’re supposed to read into this is that Birdy’s erection is a manifestation of the love he has for Jia-Han that he’s sacrificing for Jia-Han’s own good. This is not a reasonable deduction to make, although it may be a major theme of Japanese porn. Birdy did not consent and repeatedly tries to fend off Jia-Han’s advances. Even if this is some (rather convoluted) act of gallantry by which Birdy sacrifices his own feelings for Jia-Han so that Jia-Han can live as a model straight citizen in society (this is a major break in character for him given his constant impulses throughout the film to defend gay people, including a younger Chi Chia-wei), no means no. From Jia-Han’s perspective at this point in the movie, Birdy could very well be a straight man who is sympathetic to the disgusting way gay characters in the movie are being treated.

The film romanticizes an obsessive jealous idea of what love is, although to some extent the Canadian priest tries to deter Jia-Han from the pursuit of this unrequited love.

The ending of the film echoes this dynamic of teasing and violation of consent, with a middle-aged Jia-Han asking Birdy to come up to his hotel room, only to be refused, but then insisting on walking to Birdy’s hotel room instead, despite the rejection being quite clear.

In my imagination of the end of the film, Jia-Han walks with Birdy to his hotel, asks to come up and is politely rejected again, roll credits. This film left me uncomfortable and to some extent I think if Jia-Han had been cast as a less jaw-droppingly handsome actor, the creepiness would have been more noticeable.

It’s definitely worth a watch, but perhaps we can read it as the unreliable narration of a stalker, rather than a romantic film.

OK, so I couldn’t let a film go by without spotting an interesting bit of Taiwanese. One phrase which stuck with me was 「坩仔」 khaⁿ-á (lit. crucible) which is a contraction of 「坩仔仙」 khaⁿ-á-sian (fairy of the crucible) which is a derogatory term for a male homosexual. You can read a debate about what the term used actually is on ptt here.

Revisiting 「佛系」 with the GooAye and Commute for Me Podcast

It’s always fun to hear a piece of vocab you’ve learned previously in the wild.

When listening to the 「股癌」 (GooAye) podcast I heard the phrase 「佛系」 (Buddhist/noninterference approach) which is a variant of the 「佛系……法」 (Buddhist/noninterference approach to…) phrase I featured in a previous post here.

At the 8:56 (-33:19) point roughly, he says:

「你不要幫上漲跟下跌找理由,但是我發現有些人會去把我講的話有點極端化,就變成說完全不找理由。好像完全是佛系自由。」

“Don’t try and explain rises and falls, but I’ve found that some people have taken what I said to the extreme, and they don’t try and look for reasons at all. It’s like they’re dedicated to noninterference and freedom.”

Here he is cautioning people not to try and try and explain short term rises and falls in stock prices, but then qualifying this by saying that they can look for longer term reasons for price rises and falls.

From listening over the last few months, I found out that the guy behind the podcast was hopeful that Trump would win the election, although his reasons are largely to do with financial policy. The podcast is definitely worth listening to for insights on Taiwanese society and the business world as well as analysis of trends in stocks and shares.

In the same week, the phrase also came up in the 台通 (Commute For Me) podcast in an interview with the spokesperson of the Taiwan Statebuilding Party (台灣基進) Chen Po-wei (陳柏惟), who led the recall petition movement against Han Kuo-yu (from 12:33 or -41:31):

Host: 那你有得到正面的回饋啊。
陳柏惟:對啊。所以那個不是自我說服唉,我覺得那個是有時間的過程。那個不是坐在家裡瞑想佛系態度。
Host: So you got positive feedback.
Chen Po-wei: Yes. So I don’t think it was me convincing myself, I think it happened over time. It wasn’t like I was sitting at home meditating hoping that things would just fall in my lap.

This is also a reference to the 佛系 memes, which play on the Buddhist concept of noninterference that I featured in the previous post.

Chen also used the Taiwanese word 「𨑨迌/企投 」 chhit-thô featured in a previous post as well at the 21:57 (-32:07) point. Although I only mentioned these two, there are lots of gems in this interview and it’s definitely worth a listen.

‘The Face Changer’ by Wu I-Wei in Unbraiding the short story

When I was still a student at the Graduate Institute of Taiwan Literature, an American professor came to visit one of my professors and, as one of the two resident foreigners in the department, I was enlisted to see what it was he wanted over dinner. The professor was Maurice A. Lee (see picture second left) and he was hoping to organize a conference in Taiwan, unfortunately our research institute didn’t have the funds to make it happen, but we had a nice chat.

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Some years later, Taiwanese author Wu I-Wei (吳億偉) asked me to translate a short story for him called ‘The Face Changer’ (〈換照者〉), which it turns out has been published in a new anthology edited by Maurice A. Lee called Unbraiding the Short Story, which includes short stories from all around the world. Looks like an interesting read, here’s a quick sample of Wu’s story:

The face changer had been born without a face. His mother said that he’d wanted it that way. Back when he was in his mother’s womb, she was unable to make him whole, and he had to face the world lacking. The only favor his mother granted him was helping him decide which part of his body to go without. Floating in his mother’s amniotic fluids like a corpse, he saw his arms, his two feet, and his body, he felt reluctant to part with the bits he’d already seen, but that only left his face, the only thing he couldn’t see, after his tacit response to his mother’s question, he cried out, and then came into the world.

 

He scared the doctors and nurses in the room when he was born, each of them guessing as to what the child would look like when he grew up. This would be the reason that he would later change his face so much, but it wasn’t because he wanted to shock everyone, with a face that could never be pinned down, but rather that he wanted all their guesses to come true, to satisfy all of their imaginings. Before his face-changing days, back when he was young, he faced a lot of challenges. His mother was worried that he’d scare people, so she drew a face for him. Lacking in imagination as she was, however, the eyes, nose and mouth she drew were those from your average picture book, his features all curved in shape, with eyes like rainbows, and a mouth like an upturned rainbow. If his mother had remembered, she would have drawn a little dot for his nose too.

 

What a splendid face she had drawn him, it always looked so happy that whenever his teacher saw him, she would pinch his cheeks, asking him why he smiled all day long. He couldn’t open his mouth to say anything, so he could only smile in response. As his expression was dictated beforehand, he became the nice guy in his class, and gave the impression of having a particularly good temper. If people hit or cursed at him, he’d still smile away. Sometimes a teacher would intervene, then seeing that the look on his face hadn’t changed a fraction, they would say how innocent he seemed, like an angel…

 

換照者一生下來就沒有臉。他母親說這是他自己要求的,早在娘胎的時候他母親便無力給他一個完整的身體,他得缺陷的面對這個世界,他母親唯一能幫忙的,就是讓他決定要缺少哪個部份,像個浮屍般漂在母親羊水中的他,看到自己的雙手,看到自己的雙腳,看到自己的身體,這些看得到的他都不想放手,只剩下臉了,他唯一看不到的東西,悄悄回答母親的問題後,哇的一聲,就見到這個世界了。

 

據說剛出生的時候他嚇到在場的醫生護士,大家紛紛猜測這小孩長大之後會長怎樣,這可以說是他日後之所以換照的遠因,但絕對不是因為他想要跌破大家眼鏡,擁有一張他們猜不到的臉,而是他要大家的猜測紛紛成真,滿足每一個人的想像。在這之前他年幼當然也受到了一些挑戰,他母親怕他嚇到大家,幫他畫上了一張臉,只能怪他母親想像力貧瘠,他的眼睛鼻子嘴巴就是那種在一般畫冊中看到的,臉上五官都由弧線所構成,眼睛像彩虹,而嘴巴則是反過來的彩虹,若是他母親記得的話,會在彩虹的中間補上一點,那是鼻子。多麼燦爛的臉啊,看起來永遠那麼快樂,學校老師看到他,總喜歡捏捏他的臉,摸摸他的眼睛,嘴巴,你怎麼一天到晚都在笑,他沒有辦法張口說話,只能微笑以對。由於他的表情使然,成為班上有名的好好先生,沒有脾氣,不管別人怎麼罵他打他,還是笑容滿溢,老師幾次幫他解圍,看到他表情沒有一絲一毫的改變,直呼他真是天真,如天使般……

Wu has won numerous awards including the United Daily Press Literary Award for Fiction, the China Times Literary Award for Fiction and Essays, the United Literature Monthly Literary Award for Fiction, and the Liberty Times Lin Rungsan Literary Award for Short Essays. He published his new collection of essays, Motorbike Days (《機車生活》), in 2014 and is now a PhD candidate at the Institute of Chinese Studies at the University of Heidelberg in Germany and regularly reports the latest German literature news for Taiwanese magazines and newspapers.

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Still working on reviews, not given up on the blog, expect more content soon.

Translating Taiwan

I’ve been inTaiwan for a few years now and have been translating a variety of short stories and essays on an amateur basis. I hope to use this blog to post some of the translated work and some translations that I’ve done for fun. Would be happy to take submissions from other amateur translators with an interest in China or Taiwan.

我已經在台灣侍(呆) 了六年,對翻譯文學一直有興趣,也翻過幾篇短片小說、文章等等,因此創造這個部落格的目的便是po一些最近翻譯的或我覺得有趣的譯作給大家參考。我也歡迎對台灣或中國有興趣的讀者寄給我你們的翻譯作品,或在這邊合作。