Chu T'ien-wen - postmodern, first-person tale of a contemporary Taiwanese gay man reflecting on his life, loves, and intellectual influences is among the most important recent novels in Taiwan.




Chu T'ien-wen, Notes of a Desolate Man, Trans. by Howard Goldblatt and Sylvia Li-chun Lin. Columbia UP, 2000.


read it at Google Books

Winner of the coveted China Times Novel Prize, this postmodern, first-person tale of a contemporary Taiwanese gay man reflecting on his life, loves, and intellectual influences is among the most important recent novels in Taiwan.
The narrator, Xiao Shao, recollects a series of friends and lovers, as he watches his childhood friend, Ah Yao, succumb to complications from AIDS. The brute fact of Ah Yao's death focuses Shao's simultaneously erudite and erotic reflections magnetically on the core theme of mortality. By turns humorous and despondent, the narrator struggles to come to terms with Ah Yao's risky lifestyle, radical political activism, and eventual death; the fragility of romantic love; the awesome power of eros; the solace of writing; the cold ennui of a younger generation enthralled only by video games; and life on the edge of mainstream Taiwanese society. His feverish journey through forests of metaphor and allusion--from Fellini and Lévi-Strauss to classical Chinese poetry--serves as a litany protecting him from the ravages of time and finitude.
Impressive in scope and detail, Notes of a Desolate Man employs the motif of its characters' marginalized sexuality to highlight Taiwan's vivid and fragile existence on the periphery of mainland China. Howard Goldblatt and Sylvia Li-chun Lin's masterful translation brings Chu T'ien-wen's lyrical and inventive pastiche of political, poetic, and sexual desire to the English-speaking world.



Awarded the China Times Prize in 1994, this postmodern Taiwanese novel is a poetic, philosophical account of a friendship between two gay men, and the painful, bright reminiscences left over for one, Xiao Shao, when the other, Ah Yao, dies of AIDS in a Tokyo hospital. The story invokes meditations on the experience of being gay, loving, promiscuous and loyal within Taiwan's cultural constructs. Xiao's attitude toward life and love is melancholy, respectful and intellectual, in contrast to Ah Yao, who embraced the radical Act-Up political theater while saving his most violent anger for his mother. Xiao at one point contemplates marrying his sister's friend, but realizes his folly. At age 40, he thinks of himself as an old crocodile. Some of the funnier moments in the tale center around the assortment of New Age and traditional remedies he and his friends use to fight baldness, wrinkles and middle-age spread. Xiao, for all his dissatisfied longing, has a lover of seven years, Yongjie, a cinematographer, and Xiao is both detached and worshipful of his partner, knowing ""it was invariably during my happiest moments that I felt the inconstancy of life."" When Yongjie leaves to work in southwest China, Xiao nearly picks up a young man he dubs Fido, providing more opportunities for his inevitable comparison of beautiful youth with withered 40-year-olds. Xiao would be irritating if he merely repined for his golden years, but, in scholarly fashion, he mixes in apt commentary by such diverse sources as Michael Jackson, Levi-Strauss and Michel Foucault. The book ends on a note of uncertain piety, with Xiao making a pilgrimage to the Ganges. Chu T'ien-wen, acclaimed author of 15 books, skillfully weaves recent Taiwanese history into her narrative, from Chiang Kai-shek's time to the present, inserting a well-balanced note of reality into Xiao's often willful sentimentality. - Publishers Weekly


I was 31, living in Tucson, Arizona, when I happened on a translation of Chu T'ien-wen's Notes of a Desolate Man at a bookstore. I knew nothing about the writer, or the book. Still, I was looking for something I'd never heard of before, and something that came from a different place than the usual contemporary fiction.
When I scanned the opening lines of the novel, I was drawn with inexorable interest to this particular work: "I use my naked body to mark the nadir of all the most morally corrupting behaviors the human race can tolerate."
I bought the book and read it with a shock of recognition. To discover such a deep connection with the novel's gay narrator seemed remarkable at the time, and the understanding that the story was written by a heterosexual Taiwanese woman didn't make the connection any less remarkable. Only later on did I learn that Chu T'ien-wen – acclaimed in her homeland – has long been one of the best-kept literary secrets, at least in the West.
It would be fair to call Notes of a Desolate Man a postmodern novel. The story is non-narrative in a traditional sense, full of allusions, as the narrator, Shao, reflects on the slow death of a friend from Aids, as well as Fellini, Chinese poetry, sex, Levi-Strauss, and, ultimately, himself. This almost stream-of-consciousness recital of popular references and intimate preoccupations gives the reader an unadorned insight into Shao's life as a gay man in Taiwan. Recurring themes of decay and mortality co-mingle with furtive erotic encounters.
There are richer books on the male homosexual experience; however, few of those novels have managed to perfectly capture the ruminations of a subset of gay men in a way that I feel mirrors my own perspective. If it were not for Shao's humorous observations, the story might have run the risk of becoming mired in clichés of homosexual despair.
As it is, though, the novel is an au courant reflection about those who loiter – either by circumstances or choice – on the fringes of society. In that regard, Notes of a Desolate Man isn't so much about the mental fraying of a thoughtful individual, but, rather, a more universal meditation on what it is to struggle with an imposed moral compass that often operates at odds with the animal states of desire that exist in most of us. - Mitch Cullin


review by Nicholas A. KALDIS (pdf)


Superb.... A strong and perceptive voice now arises from Taiwan.... Notes of a Desolate Man is a novel of questions and imponderables, not so much a cry of pain as the lively, sharp-witted record of it. - Peter Kurth


The novel in poetic translation is in itself a joy to read, writing that inspires awe for its intellectual scope and its sensitive portrayal of gay men and their lives--and deaths. - Charles-Gene McDaniel

TO THE LIST of witnesses to messed-up modernity, add Chu T'ien-wen's Desolate Man. Watching his lover Ah Yao die of AIDS complications--it's 1990--Xiao Shao (the Desolate Man) burbles on about his life, lovers, and favorite things. If he doesn't annoy you in the first few paragraphs, wait till a few pages in, when you are invited to Ah Yao's bedside: "He was weak already, but he let me talk to him for two whole nights. I went on and on about our youth and our teen years, every movie, every theme song, like fallen nobility airing embroidered silks under a winter sun. I sang the theme song to Man of La Mancha with Peter O'Toole and Sophia Loren: 'To dream the impossible dream....'" What could have hastened Ah Yao's death more than that song, unless maybe something from Cats? But there is beauty in this scene of two moribund mandarins. Xiao Shao meanders promiscuously among all kinds of high cultural artifacts--films, food, philosophers--in a way that makes clear his homelessness and disconnection from the past. Notes of a Desolate Man is marketed to make you think it's a lyrical and exotic memoir with a gay sensibility. It's not. Linda Secondari's jacket design makes you expect a book like Mishima's Confessions of a Mask, only more cutting-edge, with its distressed type (cool!), St. Sebastian full of arrows (deviants!), and a bit of Chinese neon hotel sign. The book disappoints all these expectations, but it is rewarding in other ways as a meditation on history and postmodern culture. "Huang," in the Chinese title, Huangren shouji, means "desolate," but also conveys infertility, ridiculousness, and being out of practice. Xiao Shao is all these things, a Don Quixote, or rather, what would result if Borges' Pierre Menard had authored Man of La Mancha. And Xiao Shao, as a gay man, violates the most important precept of traditional culture: production of a male heir. The inability to pass on a tradition is at issue here, and he is seen as emblematic of the dilemmas of Taiwanese culture: It's not Chinese, not Western, not Japanese--so what is it? What, of value, can it leave to the future? When Chu's book won the 1994 China Times Literary Supplement novel prize, it was not taken as a work of gay literature, but more as another amazing act of literary ventriloquism by a woman writer already famous for her screenplays for Hou Hsiao-hsien, and her short stories and essays. It was, "Oh, how daring and original to impersonate a gay man." But in its execution, the novel walks a familiar path in modern Chinese literature begun in the '20s with Yu Dafu, who represented China as a moping, pretentious adolescent who can't stop masturbating. The novel is very far from gay books like Pai Hsien-yung's Crystal Boys, with its characters' crazed and obsessive passions. The frigidity, sterility, and depression of the Desolate Man, and his annoyingly coy attitude toward sex, is quite a contrast with the hopped-up hysterics of Pai Hsien-yung's "deviants." There's little passion here, only self-pity. Chu was trying to make a point about Taiwan, not gay life. Not everyone in Taiwan feels a sense of collective cultural doom, even if the island is under constant threat of a massive invasion if it declares formal independence. A borderland of the Pacific Rim, it is a confluence of many cultures--aboriginal, Fujianese, Japanese, northern Chinese, American--an exciting and vibrant place unlike anywhere in the world. But officially there appears to be some anxiety about Taiwan's cultural identity. Even last month, six years after Chu's novel, a culture bureaucrat in the new government of Ch'en Shui-bian was in Los Angeles outlining a plan to entrench Taiwan's cultural identity. Embrace tradition, she said, but in a multicultural spirit; look to aboriginal, Taiwanese culture; and don't forget Paris and New York. Chu's novel makes fun of these totalizing ideas. If the prose is turgid and the references mind-numbing clichés, the philosophers too embarrassing to mention now (nobody reads Lévi-Strauss anymore), there's a satiric intelligence at work. How can you not laugh out loud when, right after alluding to Goethe and Pushkin, Xiao Shao says, "but my own Jiminy Cricket inside my gut said...." In fact, the book is a constant stream of allusion to the detritus of the cultures of the developed world. As the reader progresses, the trash accumulates. Fellini, The Fly, Romeo Gigli, Paris, Rome, Bodhgaya.... This is the same technique Hou Hsiao-hsien uses in his films. Imagine Eliot's Waste Land as a Chinese garden, filmed by Hou, and you get the idea. Giorgio Agamben in The Man Without Content puts the situation this way: "Loss of tradition means that the past has lost its transmissibility, and so long as no new way has been found to enter into a relation with it, it can only be the object of accumulation from now on." The American reader who sticks with this strange book to the bitter end might recognize in the flotsam accumulating on the Pacific Rim some of our own cultural luggage. -


Chu T'ien-Wen has published fifteen books--novels, stories, memoirs, and film scripts--and has won five major literary prizes. She also received the best script award at both the Venice and Tokyo film festivals. Her most highly acclaimed works are Fin de Siècle Splendor and Notes of a Desolate Man, which was published in Taiwan in 1994.Howard Goldblatt is professor of Chinese literature at the University of Colorado, Boulder, and translator of many books, most recently Mo Yan's Red Sorghum and Silver City by Li Rui. He is also the coeditor, with Joseph Lau, of The Columbia Anthology of Modern Chinese Literature.Sylvia Li-chun Lin, who teaches at the University of Colorado, Boulder, writes on modern Chinese literature and culture.


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