Artizan street library reading group discuss The man with the compound eyes

This time we had our first ever Taiwanese novel, entomologist Wu Ming-Yi’s The man with the compound eyes, whose plot has many parts open to interpretation. Here’s a stab at it.

eyes Han Chinese academic Alice has had a tenuous relationship with alpha-male Dane, Thom, and they’ve had a son, Toto. Alice turns out to be writing the book as we read it and is preparing for her own suicide, prompted by the disappearance of both Thom and Toto on a mountaineering trip. She also turns out to have been inventing an extension of Toto’s life since he died much earlier from a snake bite. This is the secret of the plot, kept until near the end – Thom disappeared on the trip, but she has invented the story that Toto accompanied him.

 She is persuaded to abandon her suicide by the appearance first of a kitten, then of an adolescent boy, Atile’i, who has been cast out of his primitive island community in a boat and has been washed up at Tai Pei by a tsunami bearing a floating island of trash. The tsunami destroys the homes and livelihood of some of the Tai Pei characters and another tsunami completely destroys Atile’i’s island community, but not before another islander, Rasula, a girl impregnated by Atile’i, sets out in a boat to find him.

 Finally we learn of the accidental death of Thom falling from a cliff and having a near-death encounter with the eponymous man with the compound eyes. Atile’i sets off in a boat he has built into the unknown and Rasula bears his deformed child, its legs fused like a mermaid’s, just before she dies. All this interspersed with a lot of human interest from a number of minor characters.

 An amazing book, according to Janet and Liz, full of interest on so many levels. But for Jenny, far too many elements which weren’t joined up. Seamless, for Liz. A mess with moments for Sara.

 OK, what’s the deal with the man-with-the-compound-eyes character? He crops up twice, both times appearing to solitary men in the mountains, but his main schtick comes at Thom’s final moments, when he expounds a theory of innate memory in all things living and tells Thom what he should already know about himself. Spirit of the mountains! Mutant insect spider man! Magical realist alright, but Malcolm had it that he was clearly meant to represent the characters’ alter-egos, revealing what Thom, at least, had repressed within himself.

 The theme of the book, though, was ecology, conservation. As Sara pointed out, there was absolutely loads of eco-stuff. If you asked Malcolm, the existential plot is a vehicle for conservationist spleen which periodically climaxes in scenes of putrefaction, seal-clubbing, beached whales exploding with rot, causing people to weep until their eyes bleed… No doubt effective in its way, but it made him uncomfortable to think that the conservationist argument had to be rehearsed in such an empathetic, quite sensational way, as if the whole project were problematic, left to itself. Of course, it is problematic. Nasty human habits are basically an ecological feature in themselves, and ‘nature’, far from being a stable eco-system, regularly produces mass extinctions on an apocalyptic scale, far greater than the puny landslides and tsunamis of this book.

 Existential plot? Yes. Wu Ming-Yi writes a fiction about Alice writing a fiction about herself writing a fiction about her dead son. Some modernist authors would have been quite happy with that on its own.

 Anyway, what a fund of information about Taiwan and its peoples, Sara pointed out. The dichotomy or symbiosis of Han Chinese and tribal clans. Wasn’t it surprising that the female characters’ occupations are split between academia, journalism and ‘massage’ parlour, with all the three tribal ones passing through the latter, their practices described without the use of euphemism. Two of them become enamoured of clients, one to the point of marriage. And in fact Wu seems to make the business of hands-on quite normal, having even a visiting western ecologist volunteer her experience of it. Odd motif. But not bizarre in the way of what Wu drops into the narrative a propos of seal-hunting, the apparently factual business of a trade in the animals’ penises as edible aphrodisiacs. Nor the incredible claim that tribal islanders ferment wine in children’s mouths. Beat that!

 Another motif of the book, following this three-fold pattern (well Wu is Chinese, so it’s not going to be four) is, equally oddly, missing or demised male offspring – the outcast islander Atile’i, Alice’s son Toto, and a tribal boy, Lian. And magical realism abounds, ghosts turning into whales, men with insect eyes, post-mortem antics of little boys. Every trick in the book. Seems to have held our attention, at least.

 Next time back to the hard-nose of John Banville’s take-over of Raymond Chandler’s LA detective, Philip Marlowe, in his pseudonymous novel The black-eyed blonde. We meet 6pm Monday 21 September at Artizan Street Library.


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