Sun, Mar 29, 2009 - Page 14 News List

[HARDCOVER: US] Remembrance of things past and political

Guo Songfen’s stories have much in common with chamber music, with themes appearing, disappearing, and then re-emerging when you least expect it

By Bradley Winterton  /  CONTRIBUTING REPORTER

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Guo Songfen (郭松棻) was Taiwan’s shy modernist. Born in 1938, he published only a handful of short stories before his death in 2006 in the US, where he’d been living for 40 years. Because he’d been to China to get support from Zhou Enlai (周恩來) for Taiwan’s protests at the US’ 1971 decision to return the Senkaku, or Diaoyutai (釣魚台) islands to Japanese jurisdiction, he was denied re-entry to Taiwan. He took a job as translator at the UN in 1972 and stayed there for the rest of his life.

He’d been brought up in Taipei and studied and taught at the National Taiwan University. Some of his colleagues eventually became celebrated Taiwanese modernists, but Guo was always diffident, and a fastidious perfectionist. This volume of six stories marks a welcome reappearance, in persuasive English translations, of this elusive figure.

What was literary modernism? It’s helpful to think of the equivalent movement in painting where 20th century modernists did everything except paint things as they actually appeared. Similarly, the literary modernists wrote in all the ways they could imagine other than telling a gripping story with a beginning, a middle and an end (the way stories had been told for thousands of years).

To do this, they had to invent devices to replace the attraction of the traditional narratives. James Joyce, for instance, linked different colors, scents and parts of the human body to each section of Ulysses. Guo employs many non-traditional stylistic devices as well. One story in this book, Moon Seal, consists entirely of isolated sentences, each printed as a separate paragraph. In another, Clover, the two characters are presented as “you” and “he,” as in the following: “You saw a face full of life’s perplexities. He was not yet thirty years old.”

The title story, Running Mother (奔跑的母親), is characteristic of Guo’s writing. A man is talking to a psychiatrist, a friend since school days, about a recurring dream of his mother running away from him. He also has an obsession with the line where the night seascape meets the sky. There are many Proust-like evocations as well — musty odors of mildew and camphor, memories of the narrator’s mother soaking her long hair in cold tea, the scent of osmanthus flowers and the sight of egrets.

The story circles around itself, themes rising to the surface and then sinking from view, but the perpetually running mother never entirely leaves the scene. The story is thus very like a dream in which nothing gets resolved, but certain preoccupations nonetheless refuse to go away.

It’s full of memories of Taiwan’s era of Martial Law and White Terror. The psychiatrist’s father had “unexpectedly been shot dead in the [Chiayi] Train Station,” and the narrator’s father similarly goes out one day and never comes back.

But these political references aren’t taken up by Guo to form part of some wider social protest. Instead, they’re scattered through these stories as startling, shocking interpolations, stumbled on and then passed over, though the author can naturally rely on his reader’s knowledge that such events were in fact only too real.

Guo has been called unusual among modernists in including such routine political allusions in his stories. He may be untypical in this in the Taiwanese context, but many Western modernists were highly political in their concerns. Joyce himself put a lot of recent Irish history into his early books, and Ezra Pound included ill-organized material about Italian economics in the Renaissance period in his Cantos.

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