Columbia University Press’ admirable series Modern Chinese Literature from Taiwan has seen English versions of many fine books see the light of day. The Old Capital by Chu Tien-hsin (朱天心), My South Seas Sleeping Beauty (Chang Kwei-hsing, 張貴興), Orphan of Asia (Wu Cho-liu, 吳濁流), Wintry Night (Lee Chiao, 李喬), City of the Queen (Shih Shu-ching, 施叔青), Three-Legged Horse (Cheng Ching-wen, 鄭清文) and Notes of a Desolate Man (Chu Tien-wen, 朱天文) — each of these helped draw the world’s attention to modern Taiwanese prose fiction as well as giving resident foreigners who don’t read Chinese a taste of the best that was being produced under their very noses. All these books were reviewed in the Taipei Times over the last decade.
Now comes Zero and Other Fictions by Huang Fan (黃凡). It consists of four items: a novella (Zero) and three shorter pieces. In his preface the editor and main translator, John Balcom, makes high claims for Huang’s stature among modern Taiwanese literary practitioners. If this is indeed the case, it’s strange that this collection is appearing only now. Zero, for example, dates from 1981, whereas the short story Lai Suo, which Balcom claims has attained the status of a modern classic, is even older, appearing first in 1979.
Zero is set in the future and describes the miserable fate of one Xi De, an independent thinker in a totalitarian society. He works in a responsible position in the society’s administrative center but harbors doubts that are quickly detected by the authorities. He’s transferred to a less important city where he makes contact with a shadowy resistance group called the Defend the Earth Army. He’s quickly betrayed, however, and finds himself back facing a Big Brother with, as the story ends, the inevitable consequences.
ZERO AND OTHER FICTIONS
By Huang Fan
Columbia University Press
Echoes of earlier dystopian novels are inevitable, with Xi De a new incarnation of Winston Smith in Orwell’s 1984 and Bernard Marx in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, to name only his most obvious precursors. Looking slightly further afield, Huang having “excess populations” of “inferior races” quietly exterminated in his imagined future brings to mind Max Nordau’s Degeneration of 1895, and more specifically Sven Lindqvist’s unforgettable “Exterminate All the Brutes,” which pointed to exactly the same European attitudes toward under-developed cultures at the time Conrad was writing his Heart of Darkness.
The problem with Zero is that it doesn’t appear to add very much to earlier fictional visions of an engineered, eugenic future. Maybe it reads more persuasively in Chinese, but this seems unlikely as Balcom is one of the best translators from Chinese into English. The scientific control of human reproduction so that sexual fertility becomes an irrelevance is at the heart of Brave New World, for example. Sexual orgies as a reward for obedient behavior feature there as well, and a drug that rewards with peaceful oblivion (a “green liquor” here, “soma” in Huxley) is also common to the two books.
As for Orwell, the face of the ruling tyrant permanently on a TV screen is central to 1984, and an old lag singing a rough song lamenting the modern era is found both here and in Orwell’s book. To give Huang credit, he does tacitly acknowledge the link by giving the character who pens a book blowing the gaff on the ruling party (Xi De finds it at the bottom of a well) the name Winston.