Back in 2009, the New York Times published an article headlined “Recyclers, Scientists Probe Great Pacific Garbage Patch,” which noted that a group of scientists had “set sail from San Francisco Bay ... to study the planet’s largest known floating garbage dump, about 1,000 miles north of Hawaii.”
Fast forward to 2013: Taiwanese nature writer Wu Ming-yi (吳明益) has just released an English translation of his The Man with the Compound Eyes (複眼人) that’s aimed at an international readership. The 300-page novel, which has an eye-catching cover for the new British edition, is about that same floating dump.
Wu started writing the novel in 2006 when he read about the floating trash vortex in Chinese-language newspapers. As novelists often do, he concocted a “vision” based on the vortex: An Aboriginal teenager from the imaginary island of Wayo Wayo rides this garbage island and washes up with it one day on the east coast of Taiwan. In the ensuing chaos, the Taiwanese print and TV media have a field day reporting this ecological calamity, and Taiwan — the story is set in the near future of 2020 — is never the same.
In many ways, The Man with the Compound Eyes is a Pacific novel, about a Pacific Islander identity that differs in many ways from the commonplace Han Chinese-centric novels that are published in Taiwan.
The novel stars the boy from Wayo Wayo and a middle-aged Taiwanese college professor named Alice, both of whom are thrown into Taiwan’s east coast wilderness in a search for some lost hikers -- and enlightenment. There’s a cast of characters that expats will know well from their travels along the east coast, and Wu plots the story in very Taiwanese terms. (The English translation by Canadian expat Darryl Sterk, a professor at National Taiwan University, is superb and sensitively captures the nuances of Taiwan’s Aboriginal cultures and languages.)
Wu’s rollercoaster of a story is about wilderness, wildness, wonderment, love. It’s also about “massage parlors” along the east coast where tired and drunk soldiers go for rest and relaxation, with mini-lessons thrown in about various aspects of Aboriginal culture and food.
For readers in Taiwan who have been here for a number of years and know the east coast well, Wu’s novel is sure to strike a chord. But just how this Pacific novel will do overseas with readers in Europe and North America who know little about Taiwan or the Aboriginal cultures here remains to be seen.
As a longtime expat in Taiwan, I read the novel as a critique of modern society’s disregard for our planet’s ecology and environment — a wake-up call, in other words, for Taiwan and the rest of the world.
Readers overseas might find Wu’s story merely a pleasant diversion from the daily grind. You may not have to know much about Taiwan or insect eye biology to enjoy The Man with the Compound Eyes, and the mid-book chapters about that reveal the mystery behind the man with the compound eyes are perhaps the best writing to ever come out of a Taiwan novel. Some readers have drawn comparisons between the novel and Yann Martel’s Life of Pi. Yes, it’s that kind of book, and it would make that kind of movie, too.
Wu’s work began its literary life as a mostly-neglected, unheralded Chinese-language novel in 2011. Taiwan’s Ministry of Culture and the National Museum of Taiwan Literature (國立台灣文學館) used their resources and contacts to help set the book on its way to translation and overseas publication.
Published by Harvill Secker in London last month, the book will be released in New York in 2014, with a French edition as well. The US edition of the book, for reasons that only publishing and marketing industry executives know for sure, will not be released until next year. Readers in Taiwan and elsewhere who want to order the book can use the British Amazon Web site to purchase the UK edition.
Once I started reading this edition, I couldn’t put it down, and over the course of several days I felt that I had ventured into a new, uncharted territory concocted by a Taipei visionary. Part South American magical realism, part Margaret Atwood rollercoaster of the imagination, The Man with the Compound Eyes is a wild story that’s been mashed up into art, and you don’t need compound eyes to appreciate its unique vision.
The Man with the Compound Eyes
By Wu Ming-yi
When the BBC approached Caroline Chia (查慧中) in July 2018, and asked her to make arrangements so a documentary-making team could gather footage showing how global warming may be increasing typhoon intensity, she delivered everything that was in her power to provide. Chia got permission for the BBC crew to shoot inside the Central Emergency Operation Center, film the army’s disaster-relief efforts and follow mayors around as they supervised the cleaning up. “In total, it was about one week of work for my cousin — who’s my business partner — and I,” recalls Chia, who was born in Taipei but
Taiwan’s artist community was outraged when the authorities banned Lee Shih-chiao’s (李石樵) Reclining Nude (橫臥裸婦) from the 1936 Taiyang Art Exhibition (台陽美術展覽會). The Taiwan Daily News (台灣日日新報) reported that after hours of deliberation, the officials censored the piece for “contravening public morals.” Although the government did have rules on publicly displaying nude art, the state-run Taiwan Fine Art Exhibition regularly featured naked women, allowing more revealing pieces each year. On the same page, the newspaper ran a scathing criticism of the decision by an anonymous artist. “This is completely laughable … If they really thought [Reclining Nude] contravened public morals, they
John Thomson was a pioneering photographer in the 19th century and one of the first to journey to East Asia. In 1871, while in China he met Dr James Laidlaw Maxwell, a fellow Scotsman who was returning to Taiwan, where he served as a Presbyterian missionary. Maxwell’s description of Taiwan intrigued Thomson, and the photographer decided to accompany Maxwell to the island then known to Westerners as Formosa. Disembarking at Takow (today’s Kaohsiung) on April 2, 1871, Thomson brought with him the best photography equipment of his time, along with thousands of glass plates — an estimated 200kg of equipment. The
If you think Leaving Virginia is going to be Taiwan’s modern-day version of American Pie, leave after the first 15 minutes. It starts that way, an ode to those hormone-crazed teenage years as Big D (Isaac Yang, 楊懿軒) tries to lose his virginity on his 18th birthday but his Christian girlfriend rejects his advances and storms off. His best friend Zulie (Ng Siu Hin, 吳肇軒), convinces Big D that he will be rendered impotent if he doesn’t lose his virginity by the end of his 18th birthday, setting off the course of events. It feels like the rest of the film