Chu Tien-hsin (朱天心) is one of Taiwan's most celebrated prose stylists. The Old Capital: A Novel of Taipei was published in Chinese in 1997, and now appears in an outstanding English translation by Howard Goldblatt as the 14th book in Columbia's Modern Chinese Literature from Taiwan series.
It consists of four stories followed by a novella, the last with the simple title The Old Capital. Quite where A Novel of Taipei comes in isn't clear. But this final item is far and away the most substantial, though also the most taxing, of the five texts. The first four in some ways ease you into its difficulties, though, in that they accustom you to Chu's discursive, almost stream-of-consciousness style. They're also set wholly or partly in Taipei, and that too helps brace the reader for what's to come.
Chu's method is essentially to allow her narrating voices to ramble. The first piece, Death in Venice, for instance, comes from the ill-disciplined pen of a male author. Venice turns out to be the name of a Taipei coffee shop, and death is what the writer (who's also just returned from a trip to the actual place) bestows on one of his characters while he's working there.
The second item, Man of La Mancha, consists of the garrulous musings of a gay Taipei man on either the philosophical problem of identity or whatever else happens to come into his mind. There are references to former US president Bill Clinton's underwear, penile implants and a nice attack on credit cards. What do those people who hold everyone else up at supermarkets think they're doing? Establishing their status? Can't they see, the man asks, that they're nothing better than debtors? (Do gays tend to pay cash, incidentally? Possibly).
Third comes Breakfast at Tiffany's, a meditation on wealth, money and commodity fetishization by a female member of Generation X, complete with quotes from Karl Marx's Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844. The speaker's declared intention of buying a diamond doesn't sit very easily with her awareness of what she calls "the false individualism of consumer capitalist ethics," let alone her extensive knowledge of the history of diamond mining. But the story's great fun nonetheless.
Fourth is Hungarian Water, seemingly an early name for perfume. Its narrator is a fashionable, married, middle-aged man who meets a friend in yet another Taipei coffee shop. They there embark on a dialogue about scent and scents covering the next 40 pages. Sweat-soaked army uniforms, pig manure, pickled mangoes, citronella, organic coffee, curry rice, camphor and the aroma of pencil shavings all feature, plus the idea that an extra-marital affair depends on a man finding a woman who wears a perfume his wife has never tried. Scents are claimed to unite memory and desire, an idea reminiscent of the opening of T.S. Eliot's The Waste Land － a work that will come to serve as a model for the final, highly ambitious mega-narrative.
And it's The Old Capital that makes or breaks this collection. It's essentially a montage, almost a huge scrapbook, pushed into the shape of someone's wanderings round modern Taipei － or is it old Kyoto, modern Tokyo, or perhaps Taipei under Japanese occupation? The mystification is intentional, however, because what is being conjured up is actually a surreal dream world.