Thu, May 18, 2017 - Page 13 News List

Book review:Meditating on Wushe Incident

Wu He’s stream-of-consciousness novel, translated by Michael Berry, is a fictional account of the events leading up to the massacre of hundreds of Aborigines

By Bradley Winterton  /  Contributing reporter

Wu He certainly never comes to any conclusions about the Wushe Incident and what followed. He says, in one of many rambling, discursive pages, that he feels the time has come for conclusions, and hints at a few: that many Aborigines refused to take part, so the issue was controversial even before the first massacre happened, and that the state of affairs prior to 1930 was not so dire that the very existence of the communities was threatened.

But there is nothing final about such thoughts, and indeed Wu He writes that he wishes that “during my walks round this island nation I was able just to deeply observe and didn’t have to take any notes, raise any criticisms, or offer any conclusions.” There’s something very American about this, calling to mind Melville, Whitman or Thoreau, and, of course, it’s also an attitude that tends towards the literary rather than the historical. After all, no informed reappraisal of the Wushe Incident would be hailed as literature in the way Remains of Life in its original Chinese form has been.

Traditional novels contain a chronologically-developed plot and characters who are defined, among other things, by the way they speak, and Joyce retained elements of both in Ulysses. There is no trace of a developing plot in this book, however, but there are characters — among them Girl, a grand-daughter of Mona Rudao; an affectionately depicted half-wit initially called Mr Weirdo but later referred to as Deformo; and a Buddhist nun, simply called Nun, who has set up a makeshift shrine in a freight container on mountain land designated by the government as out-of-bounds.

My conclusion about this novel is that, a classic though it may well be in Chinese, it doesn’t quite have that quality in English. Reading it didn’t give me much pleasure, for instance, and great literature always gives pleasure. But it’s important that such a major work in contemporary Taiwanese fiction should be accessible to English readers so we can at least have some idea of what all the fuss is about. And maybe some readers will get more from it than I did. Even so, anyone embarking on Remains of Life should be prepared at the very least for a rough ride. I wasn’t that surprised to read that Michael Berry took over 10 years to complete this translation.

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