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Unknown quantity rich in quality

by David Cozy

ZERO and Other Fictions, by Huang Fan. Translated by John Balcom. Columbia University Press, 2011, 152 pp. $19.50 (paperback)

Huang Fan, translator John Balcom informs us, is “a literary phenomenon” and “a bright star among Taiwan’s so-called new generation of writers.” He was, according to Balcom, “such a prolific author during the 1980s that the decade is often referred to as the Age of Huang Fan.”

It goes without saying that a literary star whose light shines brightest in Taiwan will be all but unknown to Anglophone readers due both to the paucity of translations and to the general lack of interest in literary solar systems distant from our own. Thus Balcom’s high estimation of Huang’s place in the Taiwanese literary firmament will be, for many of us, the first sighting we have of this Taiwanese supernova.

Though Balcom certainly hopes that his explanation of Huang’s stature will draw readers in, it is just as likely to repel readers not normally attracted to literary superstars who crank out text at so prodigious a pace. If it does repel such readers that would be a shame, because the novella and three short stories that constitute this collection indicate that Huang has managed to avoid the trap into which popular and prolific authors often fall: repeating themselves.

Between the covers of this thin book we find, for example, one short story that is realist in its concerns and mildly modernist in its stream-of-consciousness, time-skipping methods, another that employs the exaggerations typical of satire, another that puts to good use the freedom and high-spiritedness that are often subsumed under the vague term “post-modern,” and finally a dystopian science fiction novella that is almost fusty in its adherence to convention and the hovering presence of an illustrious precursor.

“Lai Suo,” published in 1979, is the story with which Huang, according to Balcom, “burst onto the literary scene.” The story follows the life of the titular character, a weak-willed and not terribly shrewd Taiwanese man-without-qualities, from the last days of Japanese colonial rule though the economic boom of the 1970s, and elucidates the connections and disjunctions between the eras through which Lai lives by skipping nimbly back and forth between them.

Sensational in Taiwan for the manner in which it is critical of both the authoritarian Taiwanese government, but also of currents that opposed it, “Lai Suo” will impress even those unconcerned with Taiwanese politics for the skill with which Huang has structured his tale, the weaving together of key moments in Lai’s life: seeing his former history teacher, a Japanese, selling trinkets in the street; his 1963 wedding, an event from which relatives working for the U.S. military think it best to absent themselves; his stumble into the Taiwan Democratic-Progressive Alliance, and the prison sentence he receives for his inept organizing on their behalf; his anti-climactic confrontation with the leader of that party, Mr. Han, when Han returns after decades in exile to renounce the beliefs that Lai had, when young, pledged to support. The relationship between the leader and his one-time follower — between one who is powerful and one who is not — is summed up in Han’s final statement to Lai: “I don’t know you.”

In “The Intelligent Man,” Huang again uses the life of an individual, a man named Yang Taisheng (“Taiwan-born Yang”), to tell a story about the life of his nation. Yang emigrates to the United States, works in a relative’s restaurant, becomes a successful businessman and expands his operations to include China and Southeast Asia. The story is less serious and more humorous than “Lai Suo,” the tone entirely suitable to satire.

“Lai Suo” is a successful literary short story and “The Intelligent Man” is good satire, but neither breaks new ground.

“How to Measure the Width of a Ditch,” filled with high-spirited high jinx is, on the other hand, entirely fresh. Start with the topic: “Ditches serve as the city’s excrement channel, just like our assholes. It’s not something people like to discuss.” Append reflections on that topic: “Let me say something about the title of this piece … most people would accept a counterquestion in reply: How do you measure the width of the soul?” Add authorial intrusions: “If any of my readers are interested in [the author's deceased father], you can write to the following address: Literary Supplement of the United Daily News 555 Section 4 Zhonxiao East Road, Taipei” and one has a concoction rich in the delights that adventurous fiction can provide.

Huang’s dystopian science fiction novella, “Zero,” is so faithful to tired convention, and so smothered by its model, “1984,” that it pales by comparison with the three short stories that precede it. Those stories, though, are good enough that we must hope that Balcom and others will make more of Huang Fan’s abundant output available in English.