My South Seas Sleeping Beauty (我思念的長眠中的南國公主) marks the English-language debut of Taiwan-Malaysian novelist Zhang Guixing (張貴興). It goes, as it were, directly to the Number One slot, appearing in Columbia's Modern Chinese Literature from Taiwan series, currently 14 titles strong. In Valerie Jaffee's superb translation into idiomatic yet eloquent English, this colorful and intriguing novel effortlessly justifies its new-found status.
The book was published in Chinese in 2001, and like most of Zhang's novels is set in Malaysia's North Borneo, formerly Sarawak, where the author was born in 1956. It's an ultra-exotic world of crocodiles with wrist-watches in their bellies, giant bats, hot-air balloons, owls knocking wine-glasses from the hands of party-goers, dogfights that are a cover for orgies with pubescent Dayak girls, and vegetation and weather that are replete with luxuriant sexual imagery whatever the El Nino-twisted season.
Everyone writing about Zhang invokes the South American magic realism of Garcia Marquez. Magic realism arguably stems from increasing globalization and the decline of local individuality. With belief in spirits declining (though not in Taiwan) and endangered species drifting towards extinction (tragically still the case here), it re-ignites the world of the exotic and the strange. What may no longer be there in life is alive and well in the imagination, as indeed it has always been.
The narrator, Su Qi, is the young son of affluent Chinese settlers. The family lives within sight of the river dividing Malaysia and Brunei, something the boy watches though binoculars from his tree-house. He sees a lot else as well — tigers in the grass, Communist insurgents, and most notably the infatuation of both his parents with non-Chinese locals. His mother bears a son by a Dayak lover, while his father is enchanted by a woman in white sent by the forest-based Communists to extort money from the Chinese bourgeoisie.
Central to the story is a garden, lovingly tended by Su's mother but in reality little different from the riotous jungle that surrounds it. It quickly becomes a version of the Garden of Eden, and a place that tempts a guilt-free sexuality to flourish. The Bible-gripping mother and the shot-gun-toting father — together with a pipe-smoking neighbor adept with an electric cattle-prod with which he herds 14-year-old Dayak girls who he persuades to act as "maids" — are all trying, and failing, to resist the lure of the primitive and the unrestrained. Sex is everywhere in nature, including their own human nature, and as they try to fight it with violence and recriminations, these in reality alternate with wild parties attended both by a Brunei prince in disguise and Communist insurgents posing as government ministers.
Storms and fires inevitably erupt, mocking the strutting and moralizing humans, while tigers roar in the overgrown garden and bees assault the drunken revelers.
But this extraordinary world alternates with a sedate version of 1970s Taipei where the narrator goes (following in the novelist's own footsteps) to study European literature. There he meets a beautiful folk-singer and fellow student from Tainan called Keyi. She's had an abused childhood, attracting the attentions of both men and women, something that both parallels and contrasts with the freewheeling world Su Qi has known. And Taipei too is presented in marked contrast to Borneo. There is almost no local detail offered, just the narrator's daily travels from home to coffee shops, and to clubs where Keyi is singing.