Tuesday, April 13, 2010
Book review: A thousand moons on a thousand rivers
This month, my book discussion group selected the novel A thousand moons on a thousand rivers, by Taiwanese author Hsiao Li-Hung (translated to the English by Michelle M. Wu). I just finished reading it last weekend.
My friend, Jim Kidwell, described the novel as "Chinese Norman Rockwell." And, indeed, much as Rockwell sought to portray an idyllic, innocent America, so Hsaio depicts an edenic and disappearing Taiwan from the vantage of a small fishing village in the south of that land.
Although the novel is set in the 70s, as Will Johnson pointed out, there is a certain timeless quality to Hsaio's descriptions of village life. It is a glimpse into Taiwan as it must have existed for centuries: agrarian, sedate, governed by a calm, ancient wisdom. As industrialization and modernity encroach on long-settled traditions, people find themselves in conflict with their own beliefs and mores. They are forced to evaluate age-old truths in the light of humanity's forward march. They must attain a balance between the desire to preserve and the need to adapt.
Hsaio relates these complex growing pains through the eyes of Zhenguan, a spirited and honorable young woman. Zhenguan emerges from the world she has known, the little village where her family has harvested fish for generations, to the fast-paced and alien world she finds when she leaves to take work in Taipei. Zhenguan's journey is not only physical, but spiritual, as she attempts to take with her the wisdom and values instilled in her by her traditional upbringing.
Zhenguan is not alone in her journey to the modern world. Other young people from her village are also confronted with the same challenges, including her dashing childhood friend, Daxin, to whom Zhenguan gives her heart. The two of them perform a careful and respectful courtship that mirrors the relationship between Taiwan's past and its future.
What I enjoyed most about the novel was that it afforded a view of a culture that I rarely encounter. Hsaio conveys much about Chinese reverence for family, for filial duty, for modesty and propriety. I gained a better understanding of Chinese culture, generally, and found myself applying that understanding (however dim) to those few glimpses of Chinese culture in my own experience. (For some reason, memories of my time as a dishwasher in a Chinese restaurant in Klamath Falls sprang to mind.)
My one complaint about the novel was that the prose was sometimes rather wooden. I attribute this mostly to the difficulty of translating Mandarin to English. I'm sure it is no easy task. And, in spite of the difficulties, translator Wu still manages to capture some lyrical, poetic descriptions which echo what must surely be Hsaio's eloquence.
The four of us agreed that this is not a novel any of us might have picked up off the shelf. Nonetheless, I'm glad I read it. I learned from it. That is reward enough.