Friday, September 02, 2016

Taiwan: The Man With the Compound Eyes, by Wu Ming-Yi

Alice is a Chinese professor who is grieving the disappearance of her Danish husband and young son when on a rock climbing expedition. Atile'i is a youth from the mysterious island of Wayo Wayo. On Wayo Wayo, all second sons must put to sea on reaching a certain age, as a sacrifice to the sea god. Instead of the usual fate of second sons, which is to perish at sea, their spirits turning into sperm whales, Atile'i washes up on a huge floating island made of garbage - the Trash Vortex. After a tsunami, a part of this trash vortex is thrown up on the coast of Taiwan, bringing Atile'i with it.

The story of the meeting of Alice and Atile'i is at the heart of this book, which also encompasses indigenous Taiwanese culture in the form of two other characters, Hafay, a Pangcah, and Dahu, a Bunun. Then there are Sarah and Detlef, a marine biologist and an engineer, and the mysterious Man With the Compound Eyes of the title, who does or does not exist somewhere in the mountains of Taiwan.

The story of Alice and Atile'i is the most imaginative, convincing and novelistic part of the book. Some of the other elements felt a bit spurious particularly the introduction of Sarah and Detlef. I am not against novels that deal with contemporary issues, but I felt Sarah and Detlef were there just to push the environmental message home, and I don't really like to be preached at in fiction. (Was it necessary to add "a novel" after the title of the book on the front cover?)

Also, I wondered if it was a translation problem that made the language of the book seem a little stiff, in a way that I couldn't quite put my finger on. It was all in perfectly good English, and yet something seemed a little off and unnatural.

The worst passage of the whole book describes Sarah:

"She was always able to pierce the criminal subterfuges of state agencies or capitalists hiding behind the letter of environmental protection regulations or pseudoknowledge, no matter what the issue: the exploitation of polar oil or methane ice or excessive whaling in the name of research..." and so on.

Nevertheless, in spite of its flaws, I enjoyed the book very much, and appreciated the imagination of the main story line which is like nothing I have read before. The elements that dealt with indigenous culture were fascinating as I had always thought of Taiwan as populated by Chinese. (Although I did know that they had settled there on fleeing communist China, the fate of the original inhabitants was something I had entirely put to the back of my mind).

Wu Ming-Yi was born in Taiwan in 1971 and still lives there. He is a writer, artist, professor and environmental activist.

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