Wu He – or “Dancing Crane” – is the pen name of Chen Guocheng, whose 1999 novel Remains Of Life (Yu Sheng) has now been translated by Michael Berry, a professor of contemporary Chinese cultural studies at UCLA. Though critically lauded upon publication (winning prizes from the Taipei Creative Writing Award for Literature to the Kingston Award for Most Influential Book), the eighteen-year gap between its publication in Taiwan and its first English translation (following one in French in 2011) is worth considering. A glance at the text readily explains the hiatus. Remains Of Life is an avowedly experimental novel which focuses on one central, dreadful event – the 1930 revolt in a Taiwanese aboriginal reservation against its Japanese occupiers, in a headhunting ritual that decapitated of 134 Japanese, and the subsequent ferocious response from a well-armed Japanese militia which nearly exterminated the Aytal tribes. The Musha Incident, as it came to be known, had by the time of publication nearly fallen into historical desuetude; the book’s acclaim led to a dramatic resurgence in interest and studies, and a revaluation of its significance.
Freighted with such importance, Remains Of Life leads the reader to approach it with respect, even deference. The reward of such a book usually comes from understanding something, however dark, about the human condition. Remains Of Life however has little concern about orderly narratives or neat conclusions: it has no chapters or paragraph breaks, and very few sentences, instead proceeding in an endless series of clauses conjoined by commas. It combines a historical study of the Musha Incident, the Aytal tribes and the surviving tribe members (the “remains of life”), philosophical ruminations on time, the human condition, history, sexuality and violence, and occasional sudden lurches into fantasy and even metafiction. The style has been called “stream of consciousness”, but perhaps “river of prose” would be a better label, for the Wu He’s writing does not leap about with the sudden non-sequiturs of the human mind (as most famously seen in James Joyce’s Ulysses). It is an endless flow of writing, of thought, of memory. The book also is largely about Wu He’s writing of the novel, his stay in the reservation, his relations and interactions with surviving tribe members, his analysis of the Incident and what it all means. It’s slightly reminiscent of Nick Broomfield films like Kurt and Courtney, which show him in the course of making the movie. This metafictional strategy allows the narrator/author to circle around the Musha Incident, to fictionalize and novelize his experiences and reflections rather than going for conventional fictional narrative or realistically (if artificially) documenting his experiences. One could almost call it Gonzo, though it has none of Hunter S Thompson’s frenzied vituperation.
As an experimental novel, the literary techniques of Remains Of Life are to the fore, especially when compared to the self-effacing realism customarily used to evoke grim episodes. (This is not to say that realism is less artistic or artificial, but rather that its methods take care to go unnoted.) None of Wu He’s radical techniques are unique, but as the reader is so strongly aware of them, they deserve consideration. The most obvious is the endless stream of uninterrupted prose, with perhaps twenty sentences in the entire book. This has some antecedents: Kerouac’s On The Road was famously written single-spaced and without paragraphs on a single 120-foot typewriter roll that he had glued together, the better to capture a spontaneity analogous to improvisational jazz. The Scottish author James Kelman likewise has a number of short stories without paragraph breaks, in an attempt to convey the unrelenting quality of the protagonist’s misfortunes and misery. In both cases, the continuous prose conveys an inexorable energy or force. This is less apparent in Remains Of Life, which can veer from poetic to banal in a few short lines. At one point, we read that “Old Daya thanked Young Wolf for his hard work taking care of the inn, he knew enough to preserve the original look of the first floor, the hot springs tubs on the second floor were all kept clean and the comforters were all properly folded neat and tidy”, but shortly afterwards we are flabbergasted by “this was a time that many of the Mhebu mothers displayed the great courage of Atayal women, for some reason many of them hanged their children from the trees [and] throwing their children from the high cliffs as they passed by Valleystream”. Banality and horror commingle, as in life.
Another aspect of Remains Of Life is Wu He’s nomenclature. Characters have somewhat cartoonish or emblematic names, such as Girl, Nun, Deformo and Drifter. This technique too has been used elsewhere, from Naked Lunch (whose dramatis personae includes The Sailor and The Buyer) to Irvine Welsh, who helpfully names characters things like Sick Boy and The Victim. Similarly, Taiwan is referred to “island nation” and Chinese people as “People from the Plains”. This gives things the sense of being archetypal, so that Girl becomes representative of all women in the reservation, perhaps even of all womankind, and Taiwan emblematic of all islands dominated by “the mainland”. Though the details are intensely local, this technique attempts to universalize the lessons and details of the incident. It doesn’t always work – what feels innate for someone Chinese does not always transfer to someone outside of that mindset – but it’s a significant move by Wu He.
There are numerous aspects of the novel to appreciate. Wu He’s ruminations are frequently superb – passionate, insightful, and earthy. For example, he contemplates the dehumanizing effects of colonization on the indigenous tribes:
[…] in 1911 a war broke out resisting the Japanese order for tribesmen to turn over their rifles because rifles were the most prized possession for heroic hunters, how could they possibly hand them over because of some “political” excuse the government came up with, this continued until the Japanese bombs ended up on their doorsteps and they finally unwillingly handed over their rifles, but ever since that time the tribal hunters’ “dignity” suffered a terrible blow, the same year they also resisted the order to hand over their collections of human skulls, because they were important sacrificial objects in their rituals […] giving them up was like handing over their dignity, and once it was later forbidden to display their skull racks there wasn’t even a place to put their “dignity” anymore, tattooing was prohibited in 1917 and the following year they started instituting short hair for men and outlawed the practice of otching, a tribal rite that disfigured the front teeth, after all of this that and the other the Japanese may as well have dictated the length of the tribespeople’s ass hair […]
One does not have to look to far to find modern day equivalents, such as the ban on religious names and “abnormal” beards in Xinjiang. The particular can be universal.
Remains Of Life is ultimately difficult but not unrewarding, as with most experimental novels, and is of course politically and historically important. While some literary innovations become mainstream and lose their alienating force – the influence of Joyce’s Dubliners, for instance, can be seen in short stories a century on – some remain experimental because of the discomfort they cause the reader. The absence of chapters, paragraphs and sentences make Remains Of Life a daunting tombstone. Yet it has moments of solemn tragedy and deep pathos, of fiery passion and humane insight, which reward reading and keep you turning the pages. Some may enjoy the disruptive effects of its style, with its lurches and flights and jarring incongruities, or the tale of a man haunted by history, or Wu He’s attempts to humanize a forgotten people and to understand (if not excuse) the dreadful events. Remains Of Life has all that, and more besides. But some may feel the book takes more effort than it repays, and move on to something less challenging. You doubtless know where you stand.
A version of this was published in the South China Morning Post.