Book review: Behind the masks

Set in turn-of-the-century Seoul and Taipei, Shih Chiung-yu’s novel depicts what it means to be a woman reconciling the scars of a tortured past with living in a globalized era

By Dana Ter  /  Staff reporter

Sat, Jul 23, 2016 - Page 14

Masked Dolls (假面娃娃) starts off trite, as if it were a sappy love story: “Perhaps I’ll call her Judy. That’s the name of the girl my ex-boyfriend got together with after we broke up.”

The novel does explore various types of relationships — romantic, familial, friendships — but they serve as a mere device to draw out larger, interrelated themes such as globalization, nationalism and patriarchy.

The protagonist, a 30-something Taiwanese writer Li Jiaying, meets Judy, a young, bubbly Australian woman with an affinity for Asian culture, at a Seoul youth hostel around the turn of the 21st century. Jiaying is running away from her British boyfriend in Europe and Judy from her abusive Chinese boyfriend she met while studying in Tokyo. While Judy relates memories of her boyfriend, Zhou, Jiaying comes to terms with events in her past that led her to wander the world aimlessly.

Translated into English by Wang Xinlin and Poppy Toland earlier this year, the original Chinese text was published in 2002 by journalist and documentary filmmaker Shih Chiung-yu (師瓊瑜). Allusions to a new millennium brimming with the promise of economic prosperity are interspersed throughout the novel: Internet cafes are portrayed as hubs connecting global citizens. Descriptions of old streets mixed with sparkling skyscrapers in Asian capitals such as Taipei, Seoul and Tokyo, embody the perennial conflict of reconciling tradition with modernity.

Wang and Toland do a good job at interpreting the narrative voice, particularly Jiaying’s matter-of-fact attitude. When Judy recounts her story, Jiaying thinks to herself: “perhaps being in a new environment had taught me to just observe and say nothing.” She listens to Judy’s ramblings and offers no opinions, just as she used to listen to her father’s stories of fighting alongside the Chinese Nationalists in World War II and his subsequent exile to Taiwan, and tales of her uncle’s exploits fighting for the US army during the Korean War.

Jiaying is not indifferent. She’s just someone who has lived long enough to experience the depravity of human nature including deceit and betrayal, but who’s also aware that dwelling on the past is harmful — not just to oneself, but to those around us. That being said, she does not become a likable protagonist until one-third of the way into the novel when we find out that she was considered an oddball growing up in Taipei. She defied the rules set by her mother and teachers and refused to conform to what her literature professor coined “herd mentality.”

Masked Dolls mimics the way our minds recall the past. The narrative advances through flashbacks to different points of Jiaying’s life and those of her family members. Each chapter is called a “conflict,” which suggests, from the onset, the destructive (and self-destructive) tendency of human nature. This belief is made clear by Jiaying who tells Judy: “Maybe it’s in our genes to gravitate towards conflict and destruction.”

Shih’s own family history is embedded in the novel. Her father, like Jiaying’s father, had fought in World War II against the Japanese at the Yunnan-Burmese border. Shih grew up surrounded by family members who bore the scars of war, and similar memories are also passed down from Jiaying’s father to his children, who find it hard to relate to their parents’ generation, especially the nostalgia for China.

It’s the male characters in the novel who are driven by hatred. They lash out violently, spew nationalist ideologies and seek to rectify past injustices committed against their ancestors. Jiaying’s father is obsessed with “national salvation,” which seems silly to Jiaying’s mother who complains: “What’s the use of national salvation if you can’t even save your family?” Needless to say, he still pens letters to the Queen of England asking her to return China’s national treasures despite his wife’s pleas to just let it go because “the Opium War was a hundred years ago.”

In similar vein, Zhou forces Judy to scream, “I love this Chinaman,” while having sex at Yasukuni Shrine, a site commemorating Japanese war heroes in Tokyo, and Fat Luo, Jiaying’s childhood friend, tells her, “return to your people,” when she dates Lawrence, her “blonde haired, blue eyed” boyfriend.

The book’s title is not just a cynical take on human nature, but alludes more generally to how people are not what they seem. There is depth and complexity to characters that appear farcical on the surface. The so-called racism of the male characters is not completely unfounded, but the bigger point is that hatred begets hatred and that it’s better to remember and not dwell. This is something that the female characters understand.

What Shih does best, however, is demonstrating the elusive nature of identity. It’s immensely refreshing to read a book that does not harp on what it means to be “Taiwanese” vs “Chinese.” Rather, Taiwan is situated in the broader context of contemporary world history. Jiaying continually asserts that she is “from Taiwan,” though, at times, she does not believe herself. She is somewhat envious of Judy’s idealism, in particular, the younger woman’s romantic notion of a “borderless world” and her assertion that “nations have absolutely no meaning to me.” But being “a black-haired, yellow-skinned Asian,” Jiaying feels compelled to ascribe to some sort of identity.

This brings into question whether or not it’s easier for Westerners to be global citizens because their parents or grandparents weren’t robbed of their identity by foreign powers. It’s a lot to chew on, and the book does not reach a definitive conclusion. What it does do is show that history is a tangible force that’s alive and well. Whether we realize it or not, it shapes who we are and influences our decisions.

The narrative is as beautiful as it is tragic, though the final conflict is a little far-fetched. It is unclear if the author is being hyperbolic here. Although Shih tries to steer clear of absolutisms, the ending is too open-ended. If these events had taken place today, 15 years later, perhaps Jiaying would have come to the realization that she can be both a global person and Taiwanese. Moreover, she can choose to not let conflicts solely define who she is.