What I’m Reading Dec 2015-Jan 2016 我最近在看什麼書?

Just a quick update on what I’ve been reading and what I plan to read over the coming months.

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I bought a book called 《斷代》 by  Taiwanese author Kuo Chiang-sheng (郭強生) after the salesperson recommended it at the GinGin Bookstore and have just begun to read it. I suspect the title is a piece of wordplay, as it can mean “to divide between distinct periods of history” and by extension hints that the book goes into the division between the older and younger generation of gay men in Taipei and the driving ideologies behind their attitudes (this certainly seems to be the case from what I’ve read so far); in addition to this, however, 「斷」 also means “cut” and 「代」can mean “successor” – which suggests the title also points to the gay experience as the final generation of a family (in that they cannot reproduce). This put me in mind of a passage from Chu Tien-wen’s (朱天文) brilliant Notes of a Desolate Man (《荒人手記》):

我站在那裡,我彷彿看到,人類史上必定出現過許多色情國度罷。它們像奇花異卉,開過就沒了,後世只能從湮滅的荒文裡依稀得知它們存在過。因為它們無法擴大,衍生,在愈趨細緻,優柔,色授魂予的哀愁凝結裡,絕種了。

《荒人手記》,朱天文,時報文化,二版,臺北市,65頁

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Book Review: The Dream Devourer by Egoyan Zheng 伊格言《噬夢人》書評

egoyan's bookI was first asked to translate an excerpt from this book by author Egoyan Zheng for eRenlai, and it was only later that I realized that it was in fact an excerpt from a full-length novel – somewhat of a rarity in Chinese language fiction. A lot of Taiwanese fiction focuses on the contrast between modernity and tradition or queer themes, which meant this intercontinental science fiction spy romp set in the future, with a serious psychological edge to it, came as a bit of a bolt from the blue for me. The book still touches on the identity issues of the “Taiwanese condition,” but in a way that can be applied to global issues.

The book is set against the background of an eerie new world order (for the Taiwanese reader this may be a not-so-subtle imaginary of expanded Chinese power, although for Western readers it finds more resonance in the NSA prism spying scandal.) The book employs the science fiction trope of an enslaved and persecuted sub-race of “biosynthetics”. This has been seen a lot in science fiction movies, but instead of a robot race, or artificial intelligence, the subjects are clones educated and emotionally stunted through the use of dreams. The author’s brief stint as a student of psychology at National Taiwan University, before he dropped out and read Chinese Literature at Tamkang University stands out here, as Lacan and Freud remain popular among university professors in Taiwan and psychoanalytic theory features heavily in their literary graduate courses. The race of biosynthetics are emotionally stunted as a result of a complicated dream process with which they are educated to obey mankind.

What stands out about this book is the world built for the audience in the various footnotes – some of which extend for several pages – in a more lively fashion than Tolkien, Zheng explores everything from performance artists who genetically engineer a real life Hello Kitty, with no mouth that has to be fed through a nose tube, to a race of blind dwarfs that has seemingly been isolated from mankind for thousands of years, but suspiciously speaks a tongue remarkably similar to English, and the future of the porn industry, with porn stars becoming obsolete with heightened virtual reality. All of them relate to the story-line, however, and are not just random interruptions to the main text, and provide vital clues in the protagonist’s struggle for the “truth”.

The protagonist, K, is a double – some would say triple – agent. The world through K’s eyes is emotionally stunted, as the life of a biosynthetic should be, as dictated by the dreams that raised them. He struggles with pseudo-schizophrenic hallucinations and personality disorders however, and embarks on a major turning point in his life, when he is confronted with the mysterious Godel, and when he realizes that he is going to be discovered as a biosynthetic posing as a human, thanks to a surprise check on his agency, and a test that he is unable to cheat successfully.

K has aspects of a film noir hero, which in combination with his “shallow” emotional range, gives him an almost autistic character which leaves him disconnected from everyone. We see him struggle to rediscover the secret that lies behind his schizophrenic episodes with a hope that some depth lies behind his robotic facade. Alongside the protagonist, we begin to question his drive to become human, and cheer him on as he begins to work with the Biosynthetic Liberation Front, in their struggle against human hegemony.

Love also plays a role in the book, a key building block in K’s construction of a “normal human life”, something he has desired since he found himself abandoned in a derelict building, and later a major factor in his questioning of this drive within himself. The book’s puzzling denouement will leaves you with two conflicting opinions of what exactly has been going on and will have you thinking about it for days.

To elaborate on what I described as the Taiwanese issues brought up in the book, they include nuclear power issues, animal rights issues, identity issues and intelligence concerns.

The book includes a scene where K hallucinates that he sees a child being consumed by the nuclear explosion in Hiroshima in 1945 – a theme which he develops in his new book, Ground Zero, set in the wake of a modern nuclear holocaust. The issue of nuclear power, and specifically the opening of a fourth nuclear power plant on Taiwan, which has been pushed for by  the ruling KMT, has been a hot button topic in Taiwan, with large-scale protests occurring in the wake of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster in Japan, including the participation of prominent scholars and activists. The stop-start progress of the fourth nuclear plant is summarized here, although the referendum has still failed to materialize. An alternative look at the nuclear issue can be seen at eRenlai, in their No Nuke No Future focus.

Another issue which features prominently in the book is animal rights. This pertains not only to cruelty to animals, but also to genetic manipulation and the murky line between animals and humans. Animal rights are an important issue for many Taiwanese people, as Huang Zong-hui states in an interview she did with me for eRenlai:

The anti-China tendency of the recent protests against the KMT’s attempt to force a cross-strait trade-in-services pact through the legislature is representative of a general fear of the Communist Party leadership of China, which takes shape in the novel as a new world order government, shrouded in mystery. Outside of the cross-strait context, the espionage resonates with the revelations of Edward Snowden about the US’s NSA spying program.

Overall, this book is a thrilling read, and running through it is a conspiracy that will keep you turning pages, and thumbing through footnotes.

Review: The Man With Compound Eyes – Chapter 1 《複眼人》第一章

Been planning several posts, but have been a little busy lately so apologies for the blogging hiatus, though I’ve got a translation of a short story by Roan Ching-yue (阮慶岳) and a review of the amazing Thoughts from Tribeca (《瓊美卡隨想錄》) by Mu Xin (木心) in the works . I’ve decided to review the next book chapter by chapter, so that there will be more regular content on the blog, and so I can give enough weight to each chapter as the story develops.

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On the recommendation of Dan Bloom, I started reading the original Chinese version of The Man with Compound Eyes —《複眼人》— by Wu Ming-Yi (吳明益) which has just been published in English translation. I realized later that I’d actually perused another book by the author in a bookshop in Taipei, a short story collection called The magician on the footbridge (《天橋上的魔術師》) , it had looked good but I hadn’t any money on me that day so I couldn’t buy it, and I promptly forgot about it.

The first chapter is divided into three parts. After the first fragment in which the Han Chinese sounding Li Rongxiang (李榮祥) is caught up in what I assumed was an earthquake, comes the second chapter, which tells the story of an island people. The story, seemed to incorporate adapted and more exaggerated, sexed up versions of Taiwanese aboriginal customs (like those of the Amis/Pancah) and those of other Pacific cultures – like women choosing their sexual partners by tickling them in some tribes, which is portrayed in the story through the series of sexual encounters the protagonist is compelled to go through in the bushes with women from the tribe while he searches for the girl he really likes before his departure from the island, as all second sons must depart the island when they come of age – related in a casual tone but in an anthropological register, which reminded me somewhat of the issues raised about the Han portrayal of aboriginal culture brought up in this essay by Huang Yuqian and about the private vs public duality of the famous anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski in the film Savage Memory which I watched recently at the Taiwan International Ethnographic Film Festival. Given the controversy over representation and exploitation of aboriginal people that has surfaced in the past – including that surrounding one of the curator’s of the ethnographic film festival Professor Hu Taili, when she shot a documentary in Orchid Island and was accused by the locals of exploitation despite the clearly sensitive approach her film takes (see a review of it here) – I thought it was interesting that an ethnically Han Taiwanese author would choose to take this approach in describing what is clearly a fantastical parallel to Orchid Island. Following these two parts there is another shift in time and space. Alice, who lives in H county, which seems to be more or less synonymous with Taidong county, is grief stricken and planning her suicide after the disappearance of her Dutch boyfriend and his son in an earthquake while they were mountain climbing. The calm way in which she went about planning her own death reminded me of the Singaporean film 15 in which a young Singaporean goes on a tour round the city to see if he can find a non-cliche building to jump off, so that his suicide can be cool. The character Alice brought up several points which I thought were interesting. The first was her criticism of academia in Taiwan, which she criticizes as overly bureaucratic and she criticizes academics as overly business minded. As I have first hand experience of studying a literature degree in Taiwan I recognized this character as similar to some of the people I’ve met during my studies, as she’s almost a caricature of the typical Taiwanese young woman who wants to write but is sucked in by depression and blames everything around her for her own problems. Not that academia doesn’t have its problems – the sheer amount of work involved means that reading is always hard to fit in to your schedule, and lots of professors in Taiwan seem more interested in how much grant money they can get rather than having any passion for scholarship itself.

The second issue was the idea of development in Taiwan. She mentions that the city has changed and developed into an urban sprawl – which reminded me of a ted talk i saw but can not locate, about a guy who had originally been protesting the construction of the Suhua highway, but who discovered that he was being called a traitor by the local people who saw the highway as bringing much needed development to the region.  The same dilemma is thrown up in the book when after hearing Alice’s complaints at the development being inauthentic, her colleague replies: 「照妳這麼說,那真的應該是什麼樣子?」(According to your logic then what should it really look like?). I felt this was an interesting way to introduce doubt towards the unreliable narrator, as the controversy over urban renewal projects in Taiwan often have two sides encapsulated by this statement. When discussing this issue with aboriginal students in Taiwan I came across two different points of view, some being in favour of economic development which can help the people in terms of earning enough to survive, though it erodes traditional culture, the other favoured cultural heritage but at the cost of many people’s livelihoods.

‘The Blue Child’ by Egoyan Zheng 〈藍孩子的故事〉伊格言著

ImageZheng Qianci (鄭千慈), whose pen name is Egoyan Zheng (伊格言)is a prominent science fiction writer and poet from Taiwan born in 1977. After dropping out of medical school, he completed his masters in Chinese Literature at Tamkang University. He’s won and been nominated for several literary prizes, including nominations for the Man Asian Literary Prize and the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award. This is an extract from his science fiction novel The Dream Devourer (《噬夢人》), which was published in 2010. This extract was first translated for eRenlai magazine in January 2011 by Conor Stuart (蕭辰宇`).

The Western limits of the Pacific Ocean. The island nation of Taiwan.

The North coast. The beach at sunset. Although one might call it sunset, given the low latitude, even in the midst of late Autumn, night never fell early. Although the sunlight had actually already long vanished beyond the horizon; there remained the sapphire curtain of night permeated with a milky glean hanging down from the edge of the heavens.

K walked alone away from the bright lights of the fish market beside the quay and wandered along the deserted beach, enjoying the stirring chill of the sea breeze after nightfall. In the distance, above the dark coastal highway, several blimps passed by from time to time at irregular intervals, more intermittent than frequent; one had to wait quite a while to catch sight of the circular beam of the searchlights passing by.

When there were no blimps passing, the vast space in the distance on the margins of his vision was a pitch black. Nearby the neon lights of a seaside amusement park glistened, the carousel with its colorful vaulted arches shone with an orange light in the midst of the pitch black surroundings. It was on appearance a popular scenic spot, in the day time it would most likely be teeming with tourists. Now though, even the majority of those that had loitered had already dispersed. The part of the beach K was standing on was a long way off from the fairground. He couldn’t hear any of the voices or the music. Or perhaps it was because the sea wind rose up to carry away the noise. However, in his line of sight, the fine strokes of sketched light stood out amongst the vast dark background, and the flowing multitude of people and things as they followed the revolutions of the vaulted axis, appeared at that instant to be so beautiful and unreal, like a ghostly gathering of the after images of light…

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