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.
Basically this is an attempt at a modernist masterpiece, something on the lines of Ezra Pound's Cantos or － the closest parallel － a Taiwanese prose version of The Waste Land. Unacknowledged extracts from classic and other texts are incorporated, in this translation helpfully in italics and with Eliot-like notes, but in the original Chinese apparently without any such assistance. Lost idylls are juxtaposed Eliot-style with modern horrors, one of which is the MRT station of Jiantan (something I've always rather admired). Prosaic guidebook information is slung in alongside poetic laments, and a series of refrains deceive the by now confused reader into believing he's finally grasped some handy means of orientation.
This, in other words, is a text that's pleading aloud to be catapulted fully-dressed into the academic literary canon. Even so, there's much for the ordinary reader to enjoy, especially if you know Taipei well. Exact addresses are detailed － 7 and 9 Ln 91, Renai Road Sec 2 , for instance, are offered the chance of literary immortality on the grounds that their owners haven't chosen to cement in the ox-eye openings in their courtyard walls or their skylights. The habit of Taipei sausage-sellers of offering customers the chance to gamble double-or-quits on their snack is lovingly pasted in. Gusts of fetid wind and St Christopher's Church needn't necessarily evoke Eliot, and you learn there were massive protests when Da-An Park was created over a previously residential area.
Even so, much of The Old Capital is so reminiscent of Western high-art classics of the early 20th century that it's hard to take seriously as a contemporary work. But to give credit where it's due, nothing else like it has ever appeared locally, certainly not in English translation. And as Taiwan has opted to mimic the West so extensively, and Taipei is now in so many ways "Asia-meets-the-US," you can hardly expect its writers to remain wholly immune to such copy-cat tactics.
It may, of course, be that Chu is unaware of her debt to the past. But given the highly allusive nature of the other four items in this volume, this remains unlikely.
Despite these reservations, the entire book is an important, and indeed a major contribution to Taiwanese literature in English, and at the same time an unusually fascinating read for any Taipei resident.
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