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Selected Stories by Tsai Wen-Fu (Shorties Pt. I)

Monday, November 24, 2008
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cca100001-rf-0964238306-cp-iThe Ferryman and the Monkey

Tsai Wen-Fu

Since I’m very busy with a lot of stuff right now, I’ve decided to stay away from novels for a while; they can be somewhat time consuming (especially when they are a an eight-book cycle).  So, for the time being, it’s comic books and short stories.  Or, as they are affectionately known in popular rap music — shorties.

First up is Tsai Wen-Fu (b. 1926); since the thing to do when living abroad is to check out some of the home-grown offerings of your favourite and/or chosen entertainment medium, I went on down to Eslite one day and browsed the English Contemporary Taiwanese Fiction section to see what I could find.  It was mostly short story collections, and, after some consideration, this is the one I selected.

Am I entirely happy with this choice?  No.  Is it entirely my fault?  Maybe.

For, you see, these stories operate in a much different way than I’m used to a short story operating.  Ever since the heady days of Chekov and Hemingway and those chaps, most Western short story writers have tried to focus on one main thing: sub-text.  Novels were where you could wax garrulous and be obvious about things if you so desired; short stories were where you were supposed to keep things tight and vague and go mostly for ‘atmosphere,’ or else ‘show’ the story without ‘telling’ it.  Little prosy screen-shows, if you will.

Well, as much as it seems like Tsai Wen-Fu may possibly have been influenced by these types of writers, he kind of missed the whole lesson about sub-text.  These stories are all presented in a very obvious, direct way: there is a protagonist, that protagonist has a problem, the story involves solving that problem, and there is always one main symbol of either the character or that character’s struggle, which also conveniently happens to the title of the story (i.e. A New Dress, The Parrot, A Porcelain Goddess, Barrel, etc).

Or . . . maybe this is just an example of a straight-up Chinese/Taiwanese style — maybe this is the usual way that C/T writers operate; or maybe the Chinese language is just not really capable of a lot of nuance (sometimes it seems that way); or, maybe the subtlety I’m craving is there in the original Chinese text, but it was adulterated by the translator, Claire Lee, who thought a Western audience might need certain cultural things laid out a bit more obviously. The problem is I don’t know; I can’t find any info on Tsai in English on the Internet to verify anything; regardless, whatever the case may be, I’m not overly enjoying these stories.

The settings are probably the most interesting thing about them; they all take place in the period between 1950 and the late ’70s, which was a time of huge cultural and economic change for Taiwan, and, as stated in the Introduction by Theodore Huters, a lot, if not most, of the stories, deal with the conflicts between new and old, tradition and breaking free of tradition, etc.  Which is fine; but, as I mentioned, when the symbolism is so obvious — boy is trapped by controlling brother and sister-in-law, so lets pet parrot go free; man is trapped by gambling habit and his father’s accusations of attempted murder, and hides from the police in a confining barrel; young, lovely girl works at carnival-esque, air-gun booth, which is really just a feeder for the brothel down the road, refuses to move to the brothel despite the many come-ons she receives, notices how no customer has ever shot and won the statue of the porcelain goddess high up on the shelf above — well, it’s all a bit boring.

There is one story I quite enjoyed — A Little Café.  This one had a different feel than all the rest.  The set-up is familiar: a woman used to work in a brothel where she met a man who paid her for conversation, at first, before seducing her (as much as a prostitute could be seduced); the woman got out of the brothel, married, had a kid, and now works at her husband’s café; a couple of years later, the man, and then the brothel mistress, both come in to the café to try and lure the woman back for an afternoon, the man claiming he wants to be with her again, while the husband is oblivious to everything.  It’s an interesting story because of all the little conflicts going on at the same time — the woman and the man, the woman and the mistress, the woman and her husband.  She’s torn being personal and professional obligations to all three of them at the same time, and the way it all plays out is done with more care than the other stories seem to be.

So — one out of sixteen stories.  Not a good record at all.  But again, maybe it’s my fault.  Who knows.  I’ll have to read some more Taiwanese authors before I can be sure.
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