The subtitle of this small book of essays is "Taiwan, As It Seemed To Me." I was immediately impressed by the comma. Here, I thought, is a stylist, and the book's contents soon proved me to be right.
The important thing to ask of someone attempting a book of this kind is "Does he get under the skin of Taiwan?" I think Steven Crook does. He's by turns sardonic, wry and appreciative, but mainly he's astute, and in the last analysis, just.
Keeping Up With the War God makes very enjoyable reading. For a start, it's fun, but it's tough-minded as well. The author doesn't waste words, nor does he mince them. He likes Taiwan, warts and all. Indeed, sometimes it looks as if it's the warts he's especially fond of.
The title itself is as quietly ironic as much of what follows. It refers to the Plague Expulsion Festival that takes place in the small town of Yenshui two weeks after the Lunar New Year when celebrants parading an image of Kuankung subject on-lookers to what Crook calls "trial-by-fireworks."
Crook's quietly ironic statements are in fact a delight throughout the book. At one point he remarks: "The only Taiwanese who expect gratuities, it seems, are prostitutes, policemen and politicians." Elsewhere he comments on the widespread amnesia surrounding the Christian faith of Chiang Kai-Shek, and the habit he had of nevertheless taking part in local rites "difficult to reconcile with Methodism."
Crook also has a taste for seemingly measured but actually radical assertions. Individuals can start businesses here far more easily than their British counterparts, he points out, adding that the stifling of grassroots entrepreneurism in developed countries serves to protect established companies and ensure them a steady supply of labor. In Taiwan, by contrast, "economic freedom has resulted in severe congestion, noise and pollution, but great vitality."
No churchgoer, he nevertheless goes out of his way to praise the contributions of individual missionaries to Taiwan's social scene, generously ignoring the harm they surely do in spreading superstition. He's even at one point relatively charitable to Mormons. "The devout believe that ..." is a typical Crook introduction to the description of a religious rite.
The book, though short, has considerable range. Its author considers the history of surname exogamy (not being allowed to marry someone with the same family name), climbs Yushan in November, "circumnavigates" a police check-point, and spends an unremarkable night in a remote temple. "I expected no epiphanies," he comments, phlegmatic as ever, "and so did not leave disappointed." Some of the chapters have appeared before as articles in newspapers and magazines, but there's no sense of this being a collection. Instead, it feels like an impressionistic jigsaw. The strength of the author's style easily holds the book together, and allows him to clear all obstacles with minimal effort.
This is the best account of life in Taiwan I know, and by quite a long chalk. The author is clearly a learned man who is content to wear his knowledge lightly. As a small amusement on the side, he takes pleasure in exercising his vocabulary. "Viridescent," "mountebanks" and "extirpate" distinguish his pages, not to mention "stele," "stasis," "locus," "enucleated," "ataxic" and "animatronic."
But then Crook is a natural stylist. "At the heart of Chinese religion lies a frank reciprocity," he asserts, ever intent on the epigrammatic judgment. What he means is that you make offerings to the gods only so long as they appear able to give you something in return.
Essentially, Crook is a kind of philosopher, and like many philosophers he gains pleasure from high mountains. He admits his curiosity is usually insatiable, and has a thinker's natural aversion to dogma. He concludes his research in one area with a measured judgment worthy of Solomon: "No rule in Taiwan, it appears, is hard and fast." He also knows Taiwan's history, explaining for instance that Keelung was once a treaty port. Only in one instance would I take issue with him. He extracts from James W. Davidson's 1903 book The Island of Formosa a horrific description of the sale of Aborigine flesh by some Chinese merchants. But he should have gone on to mention that Davidson's book is driven by anti-Chinese sentiment, and that it uses this to justify the then recent occupation of Taiwan by Japanese forces. The reality was that Davidson had previously been a war correspondent with the Japanese, was presumably in their pay, and lost no opportunity to blacken the image of Chinese people throughout his massive and (to borrow for a moment Crook's characteristic even-handedness) nevertheless fascinating tome.
Crook is also an unostentatious satirist. He writes of "penny-dreadful demons with bug eyes and collar-length eyebrows", and then of the historical celebrity Liu Min-chuan (
Typical of his approach is the phrase "This may well be true, but at the same time ...", and it's a sure sign of a good mind. "No thesis drives this book," he asserts at the beginning. I should hope not -- the adoption of dogmatic theories is a certain indication of a narrow mentality. Unfortunately, the humanities departments of universities, which should be bastions of disinterested thought, are currently full of such impostors.
Crook, by contrast, has the enormously valuable quality of being able to hold two points of view in his mind at the same time without coming down firmly in favor of either of them. Indeed, he appears to relish the paradoxical and the contradictory. This is precisely what produces the astute, ironic tone and the quietly skeptical, sardonic remark, and is in the last analysis why this book is such a pleasure to read.
"I have always regarded," he concludes, " the extremes of beauty and ugliness on this island as an entertainment -- a freak-show, almost -- guaranteeing that I should never feel bored." All in all, this is a book that ought to be bought up in large quantities by the Taiwan authorities and distributed free to all English-speaking visitors. They would not be disappointed.
Keeping Up With the War God
By Steven Crook
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