Reviews / December 2014 (Issue 26)

Lost and Found: Huang Chunming Stories

by Lu Jin


Huang Chunming (author), Howard Goldblatt (translator), Huang Chunming Stories, Rendition Paperbacks, 2013. 176 pgs.


In this collection of eight short stories by the Taiwanese author Huang Chunming, lost objects and persons abound. A boy loses a precious fish bought for his grandpa. A son loses his pet bird before he himself is lost to his father. A bus driver loses sight of a beloved passenger. A family is lost in exchange of a dog. At times, what is lost is found, such as a war trophy eventually returned, in heaven, to its former owner. Other times, not.

Huang unfolds these tales of regrettable losses and meandering returns with well-crafted realism and lasting poignancy, casting a sympathetic, occasionally dark-humoured look into the insignificant moments of the ordinary and lowly. Drama develops between loving, obstinate country grandpas and aspiring yet clueless youngsters. Dialogues capture aged rural couples in their quarrelsome albeit solid marriage. Dilemma emerges when despondent young migrant workers dream for a better day. Huang's stories are mostly set in obscure surroundings such as villages, little towns or the seams of cities, and his range of characters is lively and diverse, his gaze tender and honest.

Sympathetic portrayal of marginalised people is no novel practice in literature. As the pages turn, what Huang exquisitely paints of Taiwanese society could easily merge with other memorable, "forgotten" characters in world literature. (Huang is said to be influenced by Shen Congwen 沈從文 and Anton Chekov, although the reader could compile his/her own list of other echoes.) To present forgotten lives effectively and evocatively is in fact a tricky business. How is one to restore the forgotten into vivid presence, and at the same time, preserve a feeling of forgotten-ness? How can a story both allow for the centrality of the characters in the text and embody their marginality in and out of the story? My experience reading some of the best works in this literary tradition has shown me that a careful, skillful narrative can indeed embrace these conflicting aims and create the powerful, paradoxical effect of a "present absence" that haunts its readers.

Huang's narrative skills have achieved just that. In using lost objects as a recurring prop and theme, Huang acclimatises the reader to the prevalent feeling of absence embedded in the notion of loss. Beneath his deceptively plain text, lost objects delicately morph into an atmosphere, then a structure, and finally an allegory of loss. His loud, ever-present constellation of incidents and personages turns out to be conveying an overarching consciousness of loss that stays with the reader long after reading.

"The Pocket Watch" may best illustrate this narrative design. In it, we first encounter a lost object—the pocket watch of the title—during Second World War Singapore as it is taken from an English soldier's body by a Taiwanese man who has been "dragged off to serve" in the Japanese army. After the war, the man brings the watch back to Taiwan to give his ageing father as a gift. The foreign watch becomes an immediate source of envy in the little town where the old man now holds it like a diamond. Later, we see in great detail how a funny pact about the watch plays out between the old man and his grandson: if the boy helps clear the old man's itchy ears as often as the old man wants, the grandpa will show the watch to the boy's curious little friends. Good humour is on display as so much seriousness is given to trivial, almost naive matters. But when the author reveals how the pair truly "[need] each other" in this bilateral manipulation across generations—the elder partner for a bit of belated attention, the younger for building self-esteem—we realise that an awkward loneliness in both characters has been lurking in the lines and this makes us ask: what might be missing? Who might be missing? Instead of turning into a farcical drama, however, the humour here is succeeded by a lonesome sequence in which the old man parades daily to the town's train station to set the watch, until one day it stops. The watch's mechanical failure sets off a series of breakdowns in the old man's life—surpassed by automatic models on the market, the watch loses it's cachet as a treasure; the pride it brings the man gives way to haunting images of it's previous owner and finally the man passes away in a quickly narrated accident. The death is so quick that it seems the author couldn't wait to let him go. Yet such an abrupt collapse of order and pace, in both the story and the storytelling, could be seen as necessary and powerful—reflective of how the watch's functional loss snowballs into the speedy and sweeping loss of all things.

By this point, the story has created, to quote from the narrative itself, a "hard-to-describe sense of loss." But it is not over yet. A curious posthumous section then follows and serves as an almost symmetrical reversal to the earlier, gripping sequence of loss which leads to the man's death. Now at the funeral, the old man's soul will not let go without the watch placed next to him. Then watching the long funeral procession, the townsmen will not forget and gradually "revive" their memory of the man's life. On the verge of oblivion, there surprisingly emerges the desire to fight against it. What is lost strives to be found.

The most curious part then follows:

After travelling through layers of clouds and mist, the old man's spirit was taken into the Western Heaven, which, strange to say, appeared to also be the Christian heaven. The proof? The old man was thinking about the rightful owner of the pocket watch […] when he was greeted by a friendly, smiling old Englishman who walked up and introduced himself …

I admit I was quite taken aback by this sudden, blunt turn from plain realism to fantastical Chinese folklore (with all the "clouds and mist"). Although the old man's "soul" makes quite a scene during the funeral, it still takes some effort to adjust to a coda in which he fully reappears in heaven. Here he gets to know the Englishman, who turns out to be the young soldier's grandpa and who had given the watch to his grandson as a keepsake for the war. Having returned the watch to its rightful owner, the old man, now a happy, heavenly figure, voices something like a moral: "Down in the mortal world and not just in heaven, all you need is a change in time or space to turn enemies into friends." Although perhaps sounding a bit out of place, it must be said that this is just what an amusingly pompous, out-of-place character like the old man would say. And his plain lesson, on a second thought, proves important. The old man's life and circumstances are indeed a result of displaced time and space—as Taiwan's colonial subjection to Japan acts behind the ebb and flow of the watch's fate—and of discarded time and space as well, as society's advance leaves behind people, things and ways of life that are no longer essential. In this way, the story reveals itself to be an allegory of loss with wider historical and cultural implications.

Reading the very last bit of the story, I was at a loss again. The old man now in heavy, heavenly mist is looking for his long-dead wife, a character who confusingly has not previously appeared. How relevant is it to introduce her here? But strangely enough, after a little chewing, it began to dovetail nicely with the loneliness we'd sensed in the man. The accompanying questions of what and who have been absent from the man's life now receive a hint of an answer. In a final gesture that might have otherwise been easily viewed as flawed, Huang patiently pieces together the puzzles and concludes with a poignant suggestion of the man's and his generation's emotional deprivation.

Elsewhere, Huang's tongue can be bitter and biting in explicitly critiquing Taiwan's social and economic development. Readers who enjoy satire will revel in stories like "I Love Mary" and "Two Sign Painters," pieces which demonstrate with chilling effect the ills and absurdities of a transitioning capitalist society caught up at the same time in a self-inflicted colonial mentality. He weighs the gains and losses of Taiwan's modernisation/westernisation and lays bare the agonies felt by both interested and disadvantaged parties, and through these explorations poses sharp questions to other Chinese societies undertaking a similar path. 

For these stories about loss, something is surely lost in translation. But the translator, the great Howard Goldblatt, is not to blame. Huang's occasional colloquial style, which represents the most unique element of the Taiwanese dialect, can hardly find a satisfying English equivalent. In rendering his translation as faithfully and literally as possible to the original, the translator has done a great job. The translated stories are eloquent in themselves.

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