Sat, Jul 30, 2016 - Page 14 News List

Book review: Love from a different era

Set in post-war Taiwan, this astute novel by the author of ‘The Butcher’s Wife’ narrates the trade-offs a woman makes to marry into wealth

By Bradley Winterton  /  Contributing reporter

The Lost Garden, by Li Ang

If readers have read anything by novelist Li Ang (李昂) it’s likely to have been The Butcher’s Wife. This sensational novella, describing how a persecuted wife murdered her sadistic husband, was an enormous success when it was first published in 1983, and was equally successful when it appeared in English three years later. It’s consequently somewhat of a surprise that her 1990 novel The Lost Garden has taken 26 years to appear in English, though it was translated into French in 2003, a year before Li was made a Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et Lettres in France. Is this because this work is less good? On the evidence of this translation, not entirely.

Li Ang (real name Shih Shu-tuan, 施叔端) was born in Lukang in Changhua County and was educated in Oregon in the US before returning to Taiwan. This translation is by another Taiwanese, Sylvia Li-chun Lin (林麗君), with enough advice given by her US translator-husband Howard Goldblatt (who translated The Butcher’s Wife) to qualify him for a joint credit on the title page.

The novel has some slightly unusual features. It’s the story of the life of a woman called Zhu Yinghong, from when she was a child to when she has a long relationship with a property developer, Lin Xigeng, who she eventually marries. As a child she’s much involved with an antique garden assiduously cultivated by her father in a town in central Taiwan called Lucheng (clearly Lukang). The relationship with Lin, by contrast, takes place almost entirely in Taipei. What is unusual is that the story switches from past to what we must see as the present without warning.

NARRATIVE TWIST

In addition, each part of the story is told both from Yinghong’s point of view, in a first-person narrative, and from the novelist’s all-seeing third-person perspective. As with the switches between past and present, these switches between first-person and third-person narratives happen at the blink of an eye. These features aren’t sufficient to make this in any way a modernist novel, but the jolts delivered are startling until you get used to them.

Publication Notes

THE LOST GARDEN

By Li Ang

Translated by Sylvia Li-chun Lin and Howard Goldblatt

236 pages

Columbia: Modern Chinese literature from Taiwan

Paperback: UK


The book is set in the post-war period of the Chinese Nationalist Party’s (KMT) one-party rule, and the translator remarks in a preface that this was “the first full-length novel to re-create in fictional form the White Terror Era, reference to which was a political taboo for more than four decades.” But the reality is that references to oppression, and indeed political references of any kind, are extremely thin on the ground. Yinghong’s father is taken away by some soldiers at one point, though eventually released, and so is her school-teacher. Yinghong watches both these events happen, and each is described in almost identical terms, the men having their hands tied together and then led away by two soldiers, each of them holding one end of the string. Perhaps the child confuses them, but anyway there’s little to warrant the book’s being called a depiction of the White Terror.

The KMT’s rule, though it’s never made explicit, appears to be seen as having had its benefits as well as its shortcomings. At one point Yinghong’s mother remarks: “It’s ironic when you think about it. The regime ruined your father’s life, but their policies, right or wrong, brought him new wealth.” And when Lin Xigeng is at the height of his career, Taipei is described as experiencing a real estate boom in which “an average three-bedroom, 1,500-square-foot apartment was … priced above the lifetime earnings of a midrange civil servant.”

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