Reviews / September 2016 (Issue 33)

The Paradox of Storytelling: Chang Ying-Tai's The Bear Whispers to Me

by Kerri Lu


Chang Ying-Tai (author), Darryl Sterk (translator), The Bear Whispers to Me, Balestier Press, 2015. 184 pgs.


Taiwanese writer Chang Ying-Tai's The Bear Whispers to Me (translated by Darryl Sterk,) is a poignant novel about the transformative power of storytelling and the beauty and danger of letting stories lead us too far from the truth. With lush descriptions of an imaginative pre-modern world where nature and the supernatural exist as one, Chang's work asks readers to simultaneously question and accept the paradox of good storytelling: it is a means to both escape and better understand reality.

The Bear Whispers to Me is structured as a story-within-a-story where a single narrative voice speaks from multiple perspectives. While an antisocial and lonely boy, the narrator uncovers his father's own childhood journals, filled with drawings of growing up in a remote mountain village in what is hinted at as post-World-War-II Taiwan. The rest of the text is the character's attempt to put his father's childhood story into writing, to preserve "the stories of our tribe" so that he "would no longer be lonely."

There is only one first-person voice for the entire novel, and with no names given for the four generations of male characters, the men in focus are distinguished only by their relations to one another. But this is not a novel centered around family so much as the disconnect that can be found within one. The first-person narrator that occupies most of the story (the first narrator's father) mirrors his son's isolation. While his father—whom he calls "Momo" or just "Father"—spends his days selling figurines made out of fried dough ("breadmen") to children and villagers, the boy explores the nearby mountain ranges and the village on his own, sometimes accompanied by Lotus, a girl who is a social outcast in the community.

Within the boy's family, his closest connection seems to be with his grandfather, who was killed in an air raid during the war and manifests as the "Guardian of the Celestial Spirit," which, based on shamanic lore, is a giant bear that protects the Celestial Spirit, a "glowing giant clothed in bearskin." The grandfather's presence in the story is a voice in the forest whose intentions are interpreted by the boy through sounds and movements in nature and animals. In the scrapbook album the boy creates later—which is the original source for the novel's main story—the grandfather figure is often depicted as "a ray of light, a gust of wind, a leaf or a glimmering moonshadow."

These supernatural representations are closely woven into the text. The first caption in the storybook that the first narrator finds is one that returns as a motif throughout the book, speaking to the connection between the spirits and the tribe to which the four men belong:

Our tribe was fashioned by the Celestial Spirit from the leaves of every tree. After we die our spirits fly, guided by the light of the moon up to the highest peak.

The narrator hears ritual songs sung by warriors in the forest, which begins,

i likihli likihli iui i lavahli lavahli
ina muli vengeeli iui mulilalee vuai …

While the narrator admits he does not speak this language, he understands the meaning behind the words, which tell of his people's protections from nature and the mysteries of existence, in what must be references to the traditions of the aboriginal peoples of Taiwan prior to Chinese settlement. This highly rhythmic refrain returns often throughout the novel, along with onomatopoeic sounds of the forest, which all contribute to the lyrical, musical quality of the text.

The whole work is extremely focused on the senses, particularly those of sight and sound. The prose that builds upon the original scrapbook images move in a uniquely visual way, often against any sense of time or narrative succession. Chang spends paragraphs describing the narrator's surroundings or seemingly mundane, "plot-less" events, building scenes like distinct images the narrator moves through. In Sterk's translation, the language is rich and meditative, evocative in spite of simple sentence structures and vocabulary. A good example is when the narrator describes spending an afternoon alone in the forest:

I'm enjoying the cool, refreshing breeze, which blows through the leaves and the hollows of the trees. Water and wind are like two sections in a mighty, swelling orchestra. Before I know it I've closed my eyes and drifted into a deep realm of vastness, feeling as if my body has evaporated, leaving my mind to roam free.

It is this free-flowing narrative that lends the novel its most experimental characteristic: prior to many important plot points and major events in the story, the action often simply exists before the reader is made aware of them, their having already occurred without narrative set-up or warning. Though disorienting at times, this technique is often refreshing, mirroring how sudden and inexplicable the narrator's life appears, especially in how almost everything around him is beyond his control.  

Kody, for example, is an essential character that is only introduced halfway through the novel. The narrator first meets him as the caged "bear" prop used by a snakeoil—or in this case, Ursine Bile—salesman and street performer at the annual village fair. The narrator becomes obsessed with searching for him after this initial encounter, and Kody develops into a constant off-page vision for the narrator.

As the reader wades deeper into this story-within-a-story, reality becomes more erratic, discombobulated and dangerous. What begins as an idyllic, straight narrative about village life becomes increasingly collapsed in time, as the story moves from image to image with a sense of urgency interspersed with stagnancy. The story grows disjointed and ethereal; reality slips back only in mundane or dark moments.

The supernatural, again, aids in this narrative style, in highlighting and helping readers confront the harsh realities of the narrator's own experiences of village life and the trauma that is hinted as a metaphor for post-war Taiwan. Kody's origin, when the reader finally uncovers it after the narrator forms a fast but close friendship with him, is anything from fantasy: the street performer tortured a young boy, not that different from the narrator himself, turning him into the grotesque man-bear that is Kody.

This graphic story is itself told by the narrator as he interprets a series of images drawn by Kody—a scene that mirrors the novel as a whole, which exists through ghostly figures, images and auditory chants. All of these elements confuse the reader's sense of time and space and take away both reader's—and narrator's—sense of control. Kody's story is a cautionary tale that warns of the violence that occurs when certain stories are not told or when we are distracted by stories that exist only a kind of fantasy, like the vision of the mythical, all-powerful man-bear hybrid that the narrator was seeking in Kody.

When the narrator learns of Lotus' rape by his own father, he is—like he was with Kody's story, and we are as readers—completely at a loss. We are stranded at a challenging point in the narrative. There are no stories we can tell ourselves that can help us find refuge or a solution. The narrator even struggles in helping Kody determine his own identity: Kody is stuck between being human and bear, and is unable to speak any language for himself.

In the end, the story-within-a-story abruptly ends with the father and son's move away from the village. The two narrators merge into one ambiguous voice in the final retelling of the boy's return to the village many decades later. There, the boy—now the father—finds a red chickadee egg in a cave—an object he had originally shown Kody at the place where they used to meet—and is touched by this detail, after many years of separation from his friend. The prose here is striking, even if fleeting. Throughout the novel, we experience the slow loss of magic through everyday emotions: the instruction, "Don't believe in the book. Your grandfather is dead" that comes from Momo to the main narrator in the beginning of the novel when he hears his grandfather's voice in the forest; the narrator's own subsequent apathy towards his son's writing of his story; the violence that occurs in the backdrop of idyllic village life. But in the novel's final scene, this moment of a small escape from reality returns, with its existence as simply and unquestionably astonishing as all the delightful sights and sounds that the author creates in this fantastical landscape. Reality, in this moment, feels closer and safer than it does in the rest of the story.

Chang's final message is clear: stories can illuminate reality or offer us an escape, but sometimes what is beautiful is not what is most at stake. It is a paradox key to the generous and sometime cruel nature of good storytelling. As readers, it is our responsibility to interrogate the tensions and questions that exist within and beyond ourselves, with and without stories as our guides.

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