The Man with the Compound Eyes by Wu Ming-Yi, translated from the Chinese by Darryl Sterk

From the Hardcover editionWu Ming-Yi, the Taiwanese author of The Man With The Compound Eyes, sets out to prove that these days the truth is stranger than fiction.  He pulls from his background as an environmental activist to describes a world facing environmental disaster. A disaster that resembles current events so closely that readers don’t need to expend their imagination to buy into the premise.  The events of Ming-Yi’s novel could become our reality within a decade and few would bat an eye.

Alice, the main protagonist, is a professor of literature in Taiwan.  She lives alone.  Her husband Tom and son Toto are presumed dead, having disappeared while on a climbing trip in the nearby forest.  Climate change and rising sea levels will soon make the  small house she and Tom built on the beach uninhabitable. Most of her neighbors have already moved to higher ground but Alice refuses to leave her memories. Engulfed by grief and surrounded by the encroaching ocean, she is preparing to commit suicide in the opening pages.

Atile’i lives on the island of Wayo-Wayo (the book’s jacket copy refers to it as a “mythical” place). Wayo-Wayo is isolated enough to have developed an exotic culture, but is not entirely cut off from the outside world.

Atile’i remembered another of the Earth Sage’s offhand remarks: ‘The white man may come and the white man may go, be we will live by the law of Wayo Wayo. We don’t need the white man. The gifts he left us are harmful , ill-gotten gains. There’s just this useless watch, a couple of books, and a few children like Rasula.’ The Earth Sage sighed and said, ‘But there may come a day when the other men who live upon the earth cause Wayo Wayo to vanish. You never know.’

Atile’i is a second son and, per Wayo Wayo custom, he (like all second sons) must leave the island in a talawaka, a canoe-like vessel, once he comes of age.  While it’s never explicitly stated – second sons die at sea.  The best they can hope for is to be reincarnated as killer whales.  The worst, jellyfishes, if they take their own lives. This is the fate Atile’i embraces, until he finds himself floating in his talawaka amidst the Great Pacific garbage patch.  Through ingenuity he manages to survive on the floating island of plastic until it collides with Taiwan.  Atile’i washes up onto the very section of coastline where Alice lives; the ecological catastrophe brings our two protagonists together.  As expected, each impacts the other’s life.  There is a lovely moment when Atile’i greets Alice as is custom on Wayo Wayo, “Is the weather fair at sea today?”  He repeat the question  so many times that after the sixth time Alice stopped answering him.  Hurt, he confronts her and explains that she must answer “Very fair” every time. ‘Even if it’s raining as hard as it is now, you still have to reply in this way?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘Even if you don’t feel like replying?’ ‘Yes.’

We both gazed out at the sea, which seemed to be slowly bringing rain. Every so often a breaker would come rolling in. Following a silence of ten waves, Atile’i asked me another time, ‘Is the weather fair at sea today?’ ‘Very fair,’ I replied and for the first time I realised I could ask him back. ‘Is the weather fair on your sea today?’ ‘Yes it is, extremely fair,’ Atile’i replied. I don’t know why, but right at that moment we both began to cry.

If Wu Ming-Yi had confined himself to the story of Alice & Atile’i, adding one or two of the other plotlines instead of the several the novel contains, I believe The Man with the Compound Eyes would have been a better book.  My main criticism is the sheer number of ideas crammed into 300 pages.  The third person narrative moves through no less than 10 different character’s perspectives including, albeit briefly, the titular man.  As it goes on, the plot becomes crowded and unwieldy.  Characters, stories, ideas aren’t given the space to grow.  Take for example the opening paragraph:

The trickling of water through the fissures in the subterranean rock was suddenly drowned out when the mountain made an immense but also somehow distant sound. Everyone fell silent. Then Jung-hsiang Li shouted.  That wasn’t groundwater surging. Wasn’t loose rocks shifting or bedrock bursting, either. And it obviously wasn’t a vocal echo. It sounded more like when something bumps into a flawless glass vessel – from somewhere within the glass you hear a spider’s web begin to spread before the cracks appear. The sound vanished straight-away, and the only thing the people in the cave and control room could hear was the huff of each other’s breathing and the hiss of the radios.

Chapter I. The Cave goes unexplained, the characters unidentified, until we revisit the same event in a flashback roughly 197 pages later.  By that time most readers will have forgotten all about it (I did) or, worse, are unable to make the connection to the rest of the narrative. The shame is that just that storyline could have made a fascinating novel in its own right.  But, as it is written, it becomes easily lost among all the  other plot points which occur in the interceding pages:  the mystery of Tom’s & Toto’s disappearance; side stories about Alice’s friend Dahu and her indigenous Pangcah neighbor Hafay;  the fate of the Wayo Wayo girl Atile’i  loves.  There’s a lot to think about in terms of writing as well:  Ming-Yi dabbles in symbolism  (Toto collected bugs, the identifying feature of the man with compound eyes, the frequent appearance of moths throughout the book); nature is described – even by scientists – in shamanistic terms; there’s even a modernist plot twist inserted at the end.  Dizzy yet?  Ask five different readers and you could easily receive five different (and perfectly plausible) interpretations of what The Man with the Compound Eyes is about.

By the end we discover that it’s Alice‘s world that holds most of the surprises, but the journey to get to that moment of discovery is long and meandering. Darryl Sterk’s fluid translation throws a net over these disparate ideas and events, gathering them together into a surprisingly readable whole.  My criticism is entirely with the scope of the work – not the writing itself. And while a lot of things bothered me about this novel, more impressed me.  I hope  more of Wu Ming-Yi’s work will make its way into English.

Publisher: Pantheon Books, New York (2014)
ISBN: 978 0 307 90796 7

 

Note: For anyone interested in learning more about the floating island of trash that is central to the plot of The Man with the Compound Eyes and (more to the point) what we can do about it – check out this video. https://fund.theoceancleanup.com/

 

The Healer: A Novel by Antti Tuomainen, translated from the original Finnish by Lola Rogers

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What makes the dystopian future described by Finnish author Antti Tuomainen  so disturbing is that it so closely resembles parts of the world we live in today.  He’s made the canny decision to dispense with futuristic tech and all the other trappings we’ve come to associate with the post-apocalypse: Mad Maxx gangs roaming a barren landscape, the rich farming the poor like domesticated cattle, the rise of the machines, etc.  None of those factor into Tuomainen’s vision for the future:  a place where we still live in houses and apartments, have jobs (if we’re lucky), call for cabs on crowded streets, shop for clothes and scan the tabloids for dirt on the latest pop sensation.

Instead he shows us how we have created the circumstances which will eventually end us.

That’s the whole problem in the first place… That everyone got to choose.  Endlessly, with no limits.  That’s why we’re here today….As if electronics wrapped in plastic or cotton irrigated with drinking water could ever be anything but a detriment, the cause of the destruction, replacing something irreplaceable with a pile of trash…

I don’t think a more frightening scenario exists.  Which is exactly what the author intends.

The Healer is set in an unspecified future where the consequences of climate change have only recently made themselves apparent – at least in the cataclysmic sense.  Resources haven’t been completely depleted, but they are running out.  Refugees are arriving in the Northern hemisphere en masse.  Finland, a country that occupies a total area of 130,596 geographic square miles (that’s 16,446 square miles less than the state of Montana), has become one giant refugee camp.  Everything is chaos.  Disease is rampant.  Food and shelter are running out.  There’s 13 wars/conflicts happening in the EU.  The reader is witnessing the breakdown of civilization.  Tuomainen has his protagonist describe evenings spent at the apartment window, sipping coffee and looking at dozens of orange pinpoints of light in the distance.  They are giant fires, built by the displaced, dotting the landscape.

Helsinki is the place where everyone is escaping to. Readers are given hints, but are for the most part left on their own to conjure the places the refugees are escaping from. We get a sense of the dire situation when the book’s hero is befriended by a cab driver, a “young North African man” named Hamid who will prove to be worth his weight in gold.

Hamid liked Finland.  Here, at least, there was some possibility of making good – he might even be able to start a family here.

I listened to his fast-flowing, broken English and watched him in profile.  A narrow, light-brown face, alert, nut-brown eyes in the rearview mirror; quick hands on the steering wheel.  Then I looked at the city flashing by, the flooded streets glistening, puddles the size of ponds, shattered windows, doors pried from their hinges, cars burned black, and people wandering in the rain.  Where I saw doom, Hamid saw hope.

It’s a slow and steady decline towards extinction. And into this environment Tuomainen has plotted a missing person case that is completely riveting.  There is no one, catastrophic, event that put us in this place. Just a series of bad decisions.

Tapani Lehtinen, the hero and narrator, isn’t a detective.  He’s a poet whose last collection was published four years earlier.  His wife, Johanna, is a journalist investigating an eco-terrorist turned serial killer known only as “The Healer”.   When the book opens she’s been missing for approximately 24 hours.  All Tapani has to begin his search with is a phone call from Johanna he recorded by mistake.  She tells him she’ll be away overnight, following a lead.  Her last words to him are: “See you tomorrow at the latest.  I love you.”

Tapani attempts to go to the police for help, even approaching an Inspector who Johanna had once helped to solve an important case.  But, like everything else, the force is in disarray.  They can’t keep up with the influx of people and crime.  Private security companies are popping up everywhere – often doing more harm than good.  Everyone with the resources to do so has fled even farther North.  In the end all the Inspector can offer Tapani is police resources:  video footage, access to information, and the occasional assist.  There’s no man-power to spare.

It turns out to be enough.  The trail Tapani follows is made up of his & Johanna’s shared and individual histories.  As the plot develops it’s close to impossible to stop reading.  Everything feels so plausible.  Each revelation becomes another piece in the natural progression of events.  As for the translation – it’s fantastic.  Whether Lola Roger has been completely faithful to the original I can’t say.  But I’ve always looked at the act of translation as being a collaboration between an author and translator – the result of which should be judged on its own merit and not just  as a variation of a form (bear with me: I’m getting a little Platonic here).  The English translation of The Healer  is a fully realized and beautifully written book in and of itself.

The ending, particularly, is brilliant.  I’ve seen it described as an “open ending” in some reviews, which to me implies that there might be a sequel.  That would be a shame.  Without giving anything away (brief tangent: did anyone else read Joyce Carol Oates NYRB reviews of two of Derek Raymond’s “Factory” novels/mysteries?  She gives away the killer for BOTH books!  WHO does THAT????!) the ending is perfectly in tune with the world Tuomainen describes.  In addition, it structurally reflects the novel’s over-arcing message and is a clever piece of writing.  Any other direction he might have gone in would have felt contrived and cliché.  Instead, it is the best part of the book.  No small compliment when describing a book this good.  Like Eliot, Tuomainen sees the power in allowing the world to end.  Not with a bang but a whimper.

The Healer is Antti Tuomainen’s third novel.  It won the Clue Award for the Best Finnish Crime Novel of 2011 and was subsequently translated into 26 different languages.

Publisher:  Henry Holt and Company, New York (2013)
ISBN:  978 0 8050 9554 8

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Dig into a good book! (pun intended) Brother Gardeners: Botany, Empire & the Birth of an Obsession by Andrea Wulf

Voltaire said to cultivate your garden… so what are you waiting for?   It’s time to go outside and dig up the backyard.  No backyard?  Sign up for a community plot.  If all else fails, do a little guerrilla gardening.

In between pulling up the weeds I recommend Brother Gardeners: Botany, Empire & the Birth of an Obsession by Andrea Wulf.  This very readable book traces how a mail order seed business between two men, John Bartram of Philadelphia and Peter Collinson of London, fueled England’s dual obsessions with botany and empire.

Don’t be fooled by the dust jacket – Brother Gardeners is more than a superficial overview on the lives of a handful of 18th century botanists.  This book is surprisingly well crafted and informative, despite the amount of material it encompasses.  Andrea Wulf covers the years 1733-1820, intelligently choosing to bookend her narrative between the lives of John Bartram and Joseph Banks.  In between we are introduced to men such as Carl Linneaus (the father of modern taxonomy & ecology), Phillip Miller (caretaker of the Chelsea Physic Garden), Thomas Fairchild (who created the first man made plant hybrid), Captain Cook (famous explorer) and a host of others.  Brother Gardners succeeds in smoothly transitioning from one character to another by employing a strange version of seven degrees of botanist separation.  These transitions help to establish a context for each man’s contribution to what was a botanical Golden Age.

It was in this period of less than a hundred years that the small island of England became the metaphorical and literal greenhouse of the world.  (Interesting aside:  Many of the plants Wulf discusses can still be found in British gardens today – putting a major hitch in the whole native plant movement.  There’s a useful glossary at the end of the book which gives the year when individual  plants were first introduced).  These men and their gardens would ultimately change the landscape of England and its colonies.   They would influence major, seemingly unrelated, historical events.   Carl Linnaeus’ classification system of binomial nomenclature, the colonization of Australia and the infamous mutiny on the Bounty all had their impetus in the quest for botanical discovery.

It’s difficult not to be left with a newfound appreciation for  what is too often viewed as an eccentric English hobby – batty old ladies potting around their cottage gardens – but was in fact a keystone in the foundation of a colonial empire.  How so?  Well… if you have slaves in the West Indies that need a cheap and productive food supply you import bread trees from Tahiti.  You can ship New Zealand flax plants to Australia in order to create a niche in the linen industry.  You attempt to break China’s monopoly on tea by sending plants (and willing Chinese planters) to India.  The list goes on.

Overall it’s pretty fascinating stuff.  But what makes Wulf’s book so accessible is that Brother Gardeners focuses on the relationships between the men whose stories it tells.  It describes friendships that were based on a common scientific interest and which ultimately transcended nationality, politics and war.  With the current resurgence in the popularity of gardening – demonstrated by the increase in vegetable gardens,  as well as the growth of the slow and organic food movements –  it’s an important lesson for modern day readers to walk away with.

The Rodale Institute’s farm is located in Kutztown, Pennsylvania and was founded in 1947.  It is home to the longest running U.S. trial comparing organic versus conventional farming methods.  (They also publish Organic Gardener Magazine).  You can find a whole section on their website on the topic of Global Warming.  It lists several articles on how climate change can be managed, even combated, by sequestering carbon in soil through organic farming.  Their stated mission is to “improve the health and well-being of people and the planet”.

Here’s a link to a video interview with Tim LaSalle, the Rodale CEO, explaining how U.S. farmers can become leaders in the fight against global warming:  http://www.rodaleinstitute.org/20080515/gw4

And here’s the link the main website:  http://www.rodaleinstitute.org/

Wulf’s Brother Gardeners: Botany, Empire & the Birth of an Obsession tells us the story of how 275 years ago, because a few men cultivated their gardens, the whole world changed.  Who knows?  If we’re lucky it might happen again.