Sun, Mar 09, 2003 - Page 18 News List

Deconstructing Taiwan's gay scene, from a woman's perspective

Named one of 1994's best books by the `New York Times,' `Notes of a Desolate Man' is an ambitious meditation on one man's experience of gay life in Taiwan

By Bradley Winterton  /  CONTRIBUTING REPORTER

Notes of A Desolate Man
By Chu Tien-wen
169 pages
Columbia University Press

This novel isn't new, but it has recently become accessible online in digital form in two different formats, as well as being issued in paperback.

As it has never been reviewed in the Taipei Times it seems appropriate to take a closer look at it now.

When Howard Goldblatt was in Taipei last month he pointed to this book as the most challenging he'd ever translated (he tackled it along with his wife, Taiwan-born Sylvia Li-Chun Lin). This, and the fact that it's a Taiwanese novel about gays, written by a woman, that has been voted one of the best books of the year by the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times, makes it something we should sit up and take note of.

Chu Tien-wen (朱天文) is famous for her vividly-etched short stories set in Taipei, for instance the title story of Fin de Siecle Splendor which features fashionable young women taking drugs in hot-springs and exchanging chat about apricot scrub creams and rose blushers against a brighter-than-life subtropical background.

Notes of a Desolate Man is rather different. It's narrated by an initially timid gay teacher, Xiao Shao. His youthful gay friend, Ah Yao, lies dying of AIDS in an American hospital. Ah Yao has pursued a wild life and is also a committed activist for gay and lesbian rights. Strongly contrasting with him is the narrator's devoted lover, Yongjie, a man with a perfect body and a faithful disposition to boot. The couple would like to embark on a gay marriage, a state they enter mentally while attending mass in St. Peter's Basilica in Rome.

When Yongjie goes away on an assignment to Yunnan province, Xiao Shao experiences loneliness and begins to feel his age. His meditation on the nature of the young in the mid-1990s, the "Fido Dido generation" as he calls it, is one of the best things in the book.

What contributed to this novel's early fame when first published in Chinese in 1994 was the very wide range of cultural reference it contained. There are discussions of Foucault, Levi-Strauss, Goethe, Johann Sebastian Bach (as well as Bach flower remedies), the movies of Naruse Mikio, Fellini and Ozu Yasujiro, and much more. There are also lengthy passages describing Miles Davis's trumpet playing, a failed attempt to set up a thriving fish tank, and society's hypothetical evolution to patriarchy from matriarchy. The concept of a feminine, humane, and by implication quasi-homosexual Age of Aquarius, superseding the materialist and war-oriented masculine culture that has dominated the last 2,000 years, also makes a surprising reappearance.

What also initially caught the public's eye was the list of innumerable color shades in the text, and the accompanying sense of the author positively trawling for rare words, whether they were herbs, colors or scents, especially when they carried a strong sensory association. This was at the time a signature tactic of this particular writer, something she was known for and that was therefore expected. In a book as theoretical as this it also provided some very welcome oases of relief.

In addition there are passages set in Egypt (Karnak), Italy (Venice), Japan (Kamakura), as well as references to maybe 50 classic writers, 30 famous films, and an uncountable number of abstract ideas.

The picture of male gay life this book paints is simultaneously a sympathetic one and one of addiction. The gay man who reverses day and night, goes to gay saunas five times a week, and has so many casual partners there's no way he can remember them all, is set side by side with the social radical who's intent on breaking the line of biological descent.

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