It would have been nice to have started the Year of the Horse by reviewing a Taiwan-related masterpiece. Unfortunately this collection of eight stories by Taiwan’s Huang Chun-ming (黃春明) doesn’t really come up to that standard. Why is that, and what makes for a great short-story?
It’s hard to argue a case for the shortcomings of this book because my benchmarks for stories of staggering brilliance are all by Western writers. I’ve never read an Asian story that bowled me over in the way that the best of Somerset Maugham or Paul Theroux have done. Is the problem the translation, or are the ideals of Asian authors, and consequently the ways they are judged, somehow different?
Truly magnificent stories that spring to mind are Red by Somerset Maugham (available online) and the three rather lengthy narratives contained in Paul Theroux’s book The Elephanta Suite [reviewed in Taipei Times July 20, 2008]. I would add to these Joyce’s The Dead, many of the diffusive novellas of Conrad, Tolstoy’s Hadji Murad, and some of the stories of Chekhov. Of course there are many more outstanding examples, by Tennessee Williams, D.H. Lawrence, and a host of others.
The Maugham, Tolstoy and Theroux items are stories characterized by tension, intensity of feeling, and devastating moments, usually at the end. I could hardly breathe after finishing Red the first time round, and Theroux’s three novellas left me whooping with excitement. Joyce, Conrad and Chekhov, by contrast, go for atmosphere, the accumulation of detail, and subtle insinuation. The most gripping Taiwanese stories I know, incidentally, are by Li Ang (李昂) (author of The Butcher’s Wife, 殺夫).
By Huang Chun-ming
Paperback: Hong Kong
Why, then, do Huang’s Stories fail to equal these admittedly very high standards? Do they have other virtues that are different from those of my Western favorites? Do they, in other words, make a bid for success by pursuing completely other aims?
Of the eight stories contained in this book, five are little more than vignettes, squibs that I couldn’t, to be honest, really see the point of. There’s one about a boy who brings his grandfather a fish but drops it in the road and it’s crushed by a passing car. Another is about a dying old lady who refuses to die. Another features a street trader being questioned by the police, and another a budding romance between a bus driver and one of his passengers. Fifth is a slightly more weighty story about a grandfather who owns a European pocket watch, the envy of everyone who knows him. This story, The Pocket Watch, has the flavor of Chekhov.
The other three stories are more substantial. Set Free is about pollution in Yilan County and contains three generations of characters, a pet egret and corrupt KMT politicians. Two Sign Painters tells the initially farcical story of two men set to paint the image of a young starlet with gigantic breasts on the wall of a 24-story hotel in Qishan. This was for me the best story in the book, with bleak comedy worthy of Samuel Beckett veering into extreme tension, though combined with social commentary that Beckett would never have countenanced.
The longest story is the last. Ironically entitled I Love Mary, it’s about a Taiwanese man who takes responsibility for his American boss’s German shepherd dog, Mary, when the boss and his wife return to the US. Cultural conflicts are at the heart of this sophisticated story — Chinese versus American attitudes to dogs, and by extension Eastern and Western attitudes to just about everything. The central figure, known to his US employers in Taipei’s Tianmu district as David, is anxious to emulate the Americans’ way of life and hence is initially happy to take over the massive animal. It soon proves disruptive and more, however, and much dark comedy ensues. It’s only when you see its presence in his flat almost destroying David’s marriage that you realize it had been doing much the same beforehand to the relationship of its previous owners. The story thus comes full circle, magnanimously showing that East and West are not as far removed as we might have thought.