October 27, 2005

Translation of "The Captured Gunman" from Hou Wen-Yong's "Short-Short Story!"

Undoubtedly one of the most popular writers in Taiwan, Hou Wen-yong (候文詠) has been writing since 1990. His most popular work is "The Hospital" (白色巨塔, or "The Ivory Tower" in Chinese). Before tackling that book, I decided to start with one of his shorter works. "Short-Short Story!" (候文詠極短篇, or "Hou Wen-Yong's Extremely Short Pieces" in Chinese) is a collection of sixty short-short stories. This is the first time I have read a collection of stories this short; most of them fit inside of four pages. The literary form that stories of this length most remind me of is the stories in forwarded emails. But whereas most of the stories in forwarded emails make me cringe or leave me asking "Do they really expect me to believe that?", the stories in this collection are consistently entertaining. The stories are divided into the followings sections (in English) hospital, life, love & sex, reality show, work, growing up, money, and here & there. Instead of commenting at length about this book, I translated one of the stories.
* * * * *

The Captured Gunman
By Hou Wen-yong

A friend of mine was once a reporter. We were probably discussing what makes a good reporter when she told me this story.

When I graduated from college, more than ten years ago, I stumbled into a job as a reporter at a gossip tabloid. As a female who had just left school, I understand nothing of the world, but due to the requirements of this job, I had to visit every corner of the sex industry and every crime scene, often making a fool of myself in the process. There was one time when the police had captured the chief suspect in a shooting. When my publisher assigned this case to me, I honestly knew nothing about it. I just briefly heard that this gangster was behind ten major shootings and had killed innumerably many people, many of them brutally.

I arrived late at the police station. As I entered the station, I found it packed with reporters, all of them pressed around the criminal. The police must have notified every reporter they could. For the sake of doing my duty, I braced myself and squeezed into the crowd, burrowing to the very front.
With great difficulty, I made my way to the front, directly in front of the gangster. He was cuffed and bound, hand and foot. He sat heavily in a chair, hair disheveled. The atmosphere was of deadlock. What had probably happened is that one of the reporters had offended the prisoner by asking a question he considered taboo, and now he would not speak.
I thought, as long as I'm here, if I don't ask a question it would be a disgrace, so I ventured a question with the spirit of a newborn calf too ignorant to fear the tiger. "How were you captured?" I said.
As soon as I asked, I knew that it was a stupid question. To my surprise, he raised his head and looked at me. I nodded to him as if respectfully waiting his instruction. "I just told everyone," he answered coldly.
"But I got here late and didn't hear you," I said. "How about answering the question one more time?"
"If you didn't hear, that's your problem. Why should I answer the question again?"
"Come on," I said. "You may never have this kind of opportunity again--to be able to talk to me and all these people."
I don't know what it was that stirred him. He was at a loss briefly, and then he looked at me, and to my surprise answered the question a second time.
"I heard that you killed your own younger brother," I said.
He nodded. "I was afraid he was getting too flagrant, so I forbid him from carrying a gun. But he disobeyed me and tried to hide his gun."
"So you killed him just for that?"
"It's not a question of whether or not to murder," he said. "It's about discipline."
He was calm and clear-headed, which is what frightened me most about the whole situation.
"What about your brother's girlfriend, did you kill her too?"
He nodded. "I know my brother loved that girl, so I let her keep him company."
The funniest thing is that as this went on, he refused to answer the questions asked by others. He would only allow me to interview him. Other reporters could only relay their questions to me, and ask me to ask for them. I became more and more drawn in, until at the end the police came up to me and said into my ear, "Ask him if he was responsible for the homicide in the public restroom."
I asked him. He nodded.
When the interview was just about finished and the photographers began taking pictures, he suddenly started jumping around hysterically, constantly struggling and twisting. A number of officers were startled into action. They came forward and tried to bring him under control.
"Don't you think that this will make a terrible photo?" I suddenly remembered that he was a ranking gangster.
He nodded. We hurried to find a jacket to cover his handcuffs and foot shackles. I used my hand as a pick to comb his hair. He finally calmed down.
The next day, this photograph appeared in the leading pages of every newspaper. The gangster looks fine, and there I am, standing by his side, appearing in all of the photographs with him. At the time, I was just concerned with helping to make him presentable. I never thought that I would be part of the picture. My hair had already been a mess, and after squeezing through that crowd of reporters, I looked even worse.
I heard a photographer who did not recognize me point at the photograph and say, "That woman to the side, with that afro going everywhere, she's the gangster's woman, isn't she?"
Later, the gangster was executed by shooting. I feel a little regret when I think back on that incident. My sorry figured had robbed him clean of any impressiveness or stature.

October 25, 2005

Comments on reading Watership Down

On a friend’s recommendation, I decided to dust off the old copy of Watership Down from by bookshelf, and actually read the book. I was a little skeptical of his recommendation, because this is a friend who has read a thousand-page novel about talking cats, and who generally likes to read any book about cats, so I thought he might have just liked Watership Down because it is about talking rabbits.

Because of the humid climate of my apartment, I had to do more than dust off the book before I could read it. I had to wipe off a layer of mold that had grown on the book. Used books grow mold easily, and this book looks like it has been read a few times.

The book turned out to be very good. Searching on amazon.com shows that over 800 readers have commented on the book, so I will not write a review, just make a few comments. On the negative side, one thing about the book that annoyed me is all the plant names that I’ve never heard of. Observe these examples:
Along its further side the riparian plants grew thickly, so that it was separated from the river by a kind of hedge of purple loosestrife, great willow herb, fleabane, figwort and hemp agrimony, here and there already in bloom.
The damp grass along the edges of the paths was dotted with spikes of mauve bugle, and the sanicles and yellow archangels flowered thickly.
The ditch was thick with cow parsley, hemlock and long trails of green-flowering bryony.
The author, Richard Adams, has evidently spent some time with his plant guidebook, so these phrases were full of meaning for him, but for those of us without an illustrated plant encyclopedia, it is just annoying. “Enough, Mr. Fancy-plants!” I wanted to tell him. “We acknowledge you as the master of all things plantish. Now get on with the story.”

One of the comments on amazon.com tries to justify this style:
People who blindly lump all plants together in their minds as "extraneous green things of little or no importance in our very important human world" may have difficulty understanding the importance of plants in Watership Down, and indeed the importance of plants to life itself by virtue of their fundamental place in the food chain as the primary producers on earth. Richard Adams knows and values plants, and describes them beautifully and individually, quite possibly in an effort to cure this plant blindness in much of modern society.
That may be a noble ideal, but the descriptions in the book do not leave behind any impression. Fleabane still sounds like something to put in a witch’s brew. If Adams had wanted to be truly groundbreaking, even more revolutionary than writing a book about talking rabbits for adults, then the book should have included a plant appendix with drawings.

On a more positive note, I thought the rabbit mythology was great. The rabbits in the story enjoy listening to stories, and their favorite stories are those about El-ahrairah. The story describes him this way:
What Robin Hood is to the English and John Henry to the American Negroes, Elil-Hrair-Rah, or El-ahrairah—The Prince with a Thousand Enemies—is to rabbits. Uncle Remus might well have heard of him, for some of El-ahrairah's adventures are those of Brer Rabbit. For that matter, Odysseus himself might have borrowed a trick or two from the rabbit hero, for he is very old and was never at a loss for a trick to deceive his enemies.

I thought these stories were so great--a mix of adventure, wit, and fantasy--that Adams should write a whole book of these stories. But on second thought, I realized that there was something extra that came from having these stories told in the context of the main story. A book of myths isolated from the rabbit storytellers, listeners, and their outside world would lack some of the magic.

On amazon.com, another reviewer remarked on the frankness of the writing, which describes rabbits mating and eating their feces. But it wasn't until I read this comment that I realized that the rabbits were actually eating their droppings. The book described the rabbits eating "pellets," and I kept thinking, "Where do these pellets come from?" As for the descriptions of mating, I laughed out loud when I read the passage from the book, "there was some mating." Adams was careful to keep the names the male rabbits who did "some mating" a secret. That's just part of the balancing act of describing rabbits with very human-like personalities. The rabbits were so human, in fact, that for most of the book, I could not help but imagine them standing on two legs, a kind of humanoid rabbit. And yes, I could not help but imagine General Woundwort as wearing a general's uniform. Years of watching television have left their mark.

October 24, 2005

New Indian Restaurant, Missing Thai Restaurants

There is a new Indian restaurant called Indian Curry House near Tsing-Hua University in Hsinchu. Since I saw it a week ago, I had been counting the days until I went to the restaurant. (Eating at a buffet requires more careful planning than a normal restaurant.) Before eating there, I had thought, “how can you go wrong with a non-Chinese buffet for only NT$99?” It took about ten hours after finishing my meal to be able to answer that question.

For $99 a meal, plus $15 for white rice, my expectations for this restaurant were not high, and the food exceeded those expectations. There were many different kinds of curries with some Taiwanese cooking thrown in. There were deep-fried hard-boiled eggs, curry with corn in it, mashed lentils, broccoli curry, and plenty of things that I could not identify. There was no bread (nan). Not exactly fine dining, but I left satisfied. My intestines, on the other hand, had a much more negative opinion of the food. They turned up their noses at the Indian food and sent it along its way as fast as they could manage for the next day. My friend’s intestines had gone through more extensive diversity training, and so were able to tolerate the curry a little better—a mere two trips to the restroom were enough.

After coming down with this case of Indian curry, I skipped breakfast, and for lunch I had a steamed bun. Still not recovered, I was too hungry to go without eating any longer, so what stomach-soothing cuisine would be appropriate? I went to Taichung, looking forward to some Thai curry and hot-and-sour soup. Fortunately for myself, none of the Thai restaurants were open. The last time I visited, the industrial district in Taichung was home to three Thai restaurants. Now, only one remains. It seems to be closed often and irregularly on Saturdays, and it was closed on this Saturday.

Next, it was off to the park. Thanks to my curry, I was able to have my first experience with a squat toilet.

The next stop was Yizhong street (一中街). After another quick trip to the restroom (that's quick as in running), it was time for some mala (spicy) stinky tofu. It was very good; I only wish I could have had more. I had been mulling over the idea of getting some curry, but the stall closed up while we were eating the tofu, probably saving myself some grief. While looking around for new places to eat, I noticed a new Thai restaurant (泰國小吃) near the used CD shop. It was already closing when I saw it, so I did not have a chance to try it out. But this story has a happy ending because there were many other new food stalls, and I tried plenty of things, including fresh-squeezed orange juice for only NT$25.

October 19, 2005

Taiwanese documentary: Jump! Boys

I just caught “Jump! Boys” (翻滾吧!男孩) on DVD. “Jump! Boys” is a Taiwanese documentary about of a group of boys who train in gymnastics daily under the supervision of a stern coach who is the director’s brother. The film is a success by simply capturing a good share of human moments. The boys cry, fight, horse around, get scolded by their coach, win, and get better at gymnastics. The film premiered in 2004, and additional footage of the boys that shows how they developed in the following year was added in 2005. The DVD has English subtitles, which is such a pleasant surprise that I won’t complain about their quality.

I found an article from the Taipei Times about recent Taiwanese documentaries. There is a quote from the director of “Jump! Boys,” Lin Yu-hsien, in which he tries to explain the success of his documentary. Like it or not, I think he’s on the mark:
Lately everybody feels that documentaries are popular and great and that they can save Taiwan's film industry, so we should all just stick to making documentaries. But this is wrong," Lin said. "I think we were noticed because we provided a different style of movie. Taiwan's movies are too depressing: Life is hardship and people don't to go to the theater to see more hardship. Our film is energetic and funny, and that's why people noticed it -- not because it is a documentary.

October 16, 2005

Roadside Mural: Don't Eat Raw Foods

This roadside wall mural near Neiwan reads "Don't eat raw foods. Prevent dysentery." (勿吃生食 預防痢疾) In the middle is a painting of a woman in aboriginal dress with face tattoos. She is holding a fish in one hand and some red meat in the other hand. In her body, mischievous bacteria are running wild.

Warning against eating raw foods seems like overkill to me. I don't know why the sign didn't just warn against eating raw meat.

October 13, 2005

Tales of Intercultural Communication

I had a great time in Neiwan (內灣) last weekend, and should have some photos to post in the week or so. While stopping to eat a barbecued turtledove off a mountain road, I met an aborigine man, and we had a nuanced discussion of Taiwan politics. He began by telling me that he is an operation. I smiled and nodded my head knowingly. I am naturally skilled in the communication skill of mirroring; I will pretend to understand his speech at the same level as he expects me to understand, and will speak Chinese (or not speak Chinese) as well or as poorly as he expects me to speak. (I later understood that he is an aborigine, not an operation.)

He began the discussion something like this: "Cities are bad. I live in the mountains. I like the KMT. You know the KMT? The Kuomintang? Blue is good. Green is very bad. Blue is about being together, friends. Green is about being alone, like this dog here. [Points to dog.] Green i s lonely." At this point, he began struggling for words (in English), but we managed to continue the conversation for five or ten minutes. We could have continued this discussion in Chinese, but I felt that I should play the part of foreigner who can't speak Chinese, and I was eager to begin eating the barbecued "little bird" (小鳥).
* * *

Yesterday I was sitting in a meeting, wondering if there were any possible way to spend two hours more meaninglessly. As the man who was speaking looked at me, probably seeing me there for the first time, his speech began to slow and he took on the expression of a deer caught in headlights. His speech was sputtering, and sounded like it would soon crash to a halt. Although his comments had no connection with my work, he looked at me as if his words were meant for me alone, and as if he needed some confirmation that I could understand him. It seemed that only I could save him from crashing mid-sentence. I nodded encouragingly. That seemed to do the trick. His speech began to return to normal. I turned away and laughed to myself, happy to have averted a disaster. If it weren't for my agile interpersonal communication skills, I might have had to introduce myself, or worse yet, explain why I was at the meeting. I was at the meeting because I was invited. No more, no less.

October 04, 2005

Book Review: To Live

To Live (活著)
By: Yu Hua (余華)
ISBN: 9867252098

Yu Hua's "To Live" is one of those tragic stories in which life is one loss after another. Most lives are a combination of ups and downs, but in a novel like "To Live," the moments of idyllic happiness are just preludes to another loss. Such a consistently tragic story runs the risk of sounding hackish, but there is a case to be made for this kind of story; After all, what life doesn't end in death? What happiness doesn't end? Your ability to stomach a whole novel of tragedy will determine whether or not this is a book for you.

“To Live” is the story of Fugui. As an old man, Fugui tells his life story to the narrator of the novel. Fugui's story begins when he was the spoiled son of a rich land-holding family. He gambles away his family's land and home, leaving him a pauper. The rest of the book follows the life of Fugui as a peasant (and as an unwilling soldier), which includes the death of all his past and future family members.

This novel was made into an award-winning film by director Zhang Yimou. Where the film departs from the novel, it is usually for the best. Highlighting some of these differences will indicate some of the flaws of the novel.

The first difference is Fugui's personality. In the beginning of the film, Fugui is obsessed with gambling and is cold toward his wife. In the novel, the early-period Fugui is plain evil. His vice is not limited to gambling; Fugui tells us that frequenting brothels goes hand in hand with gambling. On his way back home from the brothel, he rides on the back of a prostitute, and makes a trip by his father-in-law's shop just to humiliate him. When his wife comes to stop him from gambling, he slaps her twice and has her dragged away. When he loses his family fortune, Fugui is not worthy of sympathy. After that loss, the Fugui of the novel undergoes a miraculous change. He may not be a model father, but we see not a touch of the selfishness of the early Fugui. It is as if Fugui's vices were a product of his family's wealth, and not something intrinsic in his personality. Fugui's rapid transformation makes the first part of the novel ring false, a dramatic story tacked onto the life of a peasant. This transformation seems too amazing, not just in his personality, but also in how he adapts to becoming a peasant. In the film, after losing the fortune, Fugui makes money by performing shadow puppets plays. This is visually interesting, and is more believable than his new profession in the book, in which the spoiled young master apparently had no problems in the transition to being a farmer.

The second major change in the film is in the personality of Jiazhen, Fugui's wife. Jiazhen in the novel is persistently supportive of Fugui. She is a thoroughly flat character who does not really come to life until two-thirds of the way through the book. In the film, Jiazhen, played by Gong Li, is a stronger character. Some of Fugui's lines in the book are given to Jiazhen. We also see a playful side of her that is never shown in the book, when she and her son play a trick on Fugui, substituting vinegar and pepper sauce for his tea.

The greatest difference between the book and movie is simply that the movie is much shorter. The movie ends before Fugui has lost everyone, thereby leaving the audience with hope for Fugui. I don’t think this would have been a better film if it had been an hour longer.

Another difference between film and book is that political movements are more visible in the film. This might make the film more interesting, especially for foreign viewers, but this change does not reflect a flaw in the original story, it is just a change in focus. For example, in the movie, Fugui’s daughter Fengxia dies as a direct result of the Cultural Revolution. Some critics see this as a sharp criticism of communism, and indeed, the film was banned in China. However, criticism of the Cultural Revolution does not necessarily mean criticism of the modern communist party. In my opinion, the book makes a harsher criticism in its description of the death of Fugui's son Youqing, which comes as a result of literally bloodsucking toadyism. Doctors draw Youqing's blood to aid the wife of a county official, drawing his blood until he collapses. This criticism is not linked to any specific political movement; it's not even necessarily linked to communism.

I've focused on the flaws in the story, but there is plenty to praise in the book. One of the best parts of the book is the characterization of Youqing and his relationship with his father, Fugui. We see Youqing pursuing his own interests, namely goats and running. Fugui uses his primitive methods to guide his son to more practical things, struggling to be a good father when he is mostly clueless as to how fathers should act. In this context, the death of Youqing is the most painful death in the book. The well-portrayed father-son relationship extends to Fugui's grandson, Kugen. In one amusing passage, Fugui has the blacksmith make a child-size sickle for the young Kugen. However, like all the relationships in the book, it comes to an end by death, this time by choking on food, leaving this reader also a little fed up by the relentless tragedy.