‘Remains of Life’ by Wu He (Review)

While I’m (temporarily, at least) taking a step back from my shadow judging duties, today’s review was inspired in part by my recent Man Booker International Prize reading.  Wu Ming-Yi’s The Stolen Bicycle was the first Taiwanese book I’ve read, but I actually have a few more dotted around my shelves, and after enjoying Wu’s leisurely trip around his island home, I thought it might be interesting to take another trip.  Today’s book again sees us accompanying a writer on a quest to learn more about the past, but where my last visit was all about bicycles, the focus here is on a rather more sobering topic…

Wu He’s Remains of Life (translated by Michael Berry, review copy courtesy of Columbia University Press) is an experimental novel dealing with the history and present-day experiences of the indigenous Atayal peoples of Taiwan.  A writer-narrator is spending an extended period living on the reservation of the Seediq people, hoping to interview what he calls the ‘Remains of Life’, the surviving members of the tribe, including the last witnesses of a monumental historical event.

The catalyst for what the writer calls his ‘research’ actually took place back in 1930, when Mona Rudao, one of the tribal chiefs, came down from the mountains with his men and attacked the Japanese colonisers, not just killing over a hundred people, but also making off with their heads.  Retribution was, naturally, swift and deadly, but almost seventy years after the ‘Incident’, Mona Rudao has become a legendary figure, and many researchers have penetrated the interior wanting to find out more about the rebel.  However, our ‘researcher’ has different motives for his investigations.  Firstly, he feels the urge to discern the true motives of Mona Rudao’s suicidal actions.  Then, of course, there’s the small matter of the role the indigenous people play in contemporary Taiwanese society, and as the novel progresses writer and reader alike discover that the legacy of the ‘Incident’ is not as significant as you might expect.

I mentioned above that Remains of Life is an experimental novel, and that’s probably an understatement.  It consists of a single paragraph, and its stream-of-consciousness style flows through pages and pages of comma-laden, or even run-on, sentences.  To make matters even more confusing, many of the characters go under several names, and the quick shifts of scene can occasionally bring the unwary reader to a complete halt.  In his introduction, Berry explains his approach to translating Wu’s idiosyncratic style:

Because of the nature and number of these challenges, there was often a temptation to “simplify” things: to add conjunctions to help the narrative flow, to sneak in commas to break up long clauses, to clarify convoluted structures by making the inner meaning more legible.  Ultimately, however, I decided against half-measures.  This is a work of experimental fiction, and I wanted passages that were challenging or just plain weird in the original to feel just as challenging or weird in translation.
p.xii (Columbia University Press, 2017)

You can’t say you haven’t been warned…

There are sentences in the novel (albeit not too many), and they are pivotal to the structure of the novel.  Each full stop brings a shift to the next of three alternating strands, in effect acting as chapter breaks occuring mid-line.  The first of these ideas is the writer’s search for the motives of the Incident, the ostensible reason for his extended stays on the Riverisle reservation.  He examines the tension between those who see a heroic political motive in the uprising (the struggle against the oppressors) and those who believe it was simply a primitive tribal action (the need to take heads, no matter who they belonged to).

The third of the strands follows the writer on his visits to the people living on and around the reservation as he attempts to learn more about the Incident.  However, not all of the natives are that keen on opening up to the ethnic-Chinese outsider:

…I could feel the deep resentment in her voice as she finished her last sentence, “when you’re bored you can mosey on up the mountains to see how little savages like us carve out a life for ourselves among you great Chinese,” these are words of self-ridicule from someone who has been controlled and assimilated, within those words there is so much buried sadness that has accumulated after years of forced cultural assimilation… (p.14)

Luckily, many of the older people do take the opportunity to revisit the past, only too happy to keep their culture and history alive and help the writer with his ‘research’ (which he eventually admits is for a novel).  Ultimately, though, with many different views on Mona Rudao, these elders bring him no closer to deciding what the motives for the Incident were.

It’s the second of the three parts that is perhaps the most effective and fascinating.  This part of the book focuses on Girl, the writer’s neighbour in the reservation.  Like many of the natives, she grew up on the reservation before leaving as a young adult, only to return after an interesting life in the outside world (or ‘the plains’, as Wu describes the rest of Taiwan).  The writer is intrigued by the young woman, partly (of course…) due to her beauty, but also because of her vibrant personality, and the two develop a close relationship.

Girl is easily the biggest character in the book, and she comes to represent the sexual nature of her people.  Her past as a sex worker in the big city allows her to provide ‘generosity’ back on the reservation, and the attitudes towards sex displayed by the locals become one of the writer’s main areas of interest.  Girl is every bit a modern woman, yet even after years on the plains, she retains a fierce respect for her blood and ancestry, and it’s inevitable that she will be the one to accompany the writer on his journey back to the Seediq homeland, from which the tribe was banished seventy years earlier.

In many ways, Girl is the writer’s mirror, a native with one foot in the outside world.  While obviously attracted to her, he realises that she is not for him, just as he will never quite understand what it means to be a native:

…but Girl couldn’t express herself in too much detail using Mandarin Chinese, instead I needed to try to understand the deeper meaning behind her simple sentences… (p.188)

Many of the locals urge the writer to settle down in Riverisle, to build a house and choose a local wife, but despite a strong temptation, it’s a gulf that’s hard to bridge.  The writer knows deep down that he’ll always be on the outside looking in.

The description on the back of the book makes it sounds as if Remains of Life is all about the uprising, but in truth it’s more about the plight of indigenous people in a modern world.  Wu describes life on the reservation (the constant drinking, the flight of the young people), showing a place of crushed dreams in the midst of the mountains.  It gradually becomes clear that this is no accident, with the writer pointing the finger of blame at his own people:

…whoever observed assimilation as “an almost natural transformation” must have been blinded wearing a pair of glasses covered by sweat and shit, for lurking behind assimilation is the pressure of political power, it uses the force of cultural power to order “the primitive to blend itself into civilization,” no, it’s not a case of blending itself in, the primitive is pushed into civilization, and you certainly can’t call this a “mutual commingling” after all just what specific aspects of primitive society has civilization adopted? (p.110)

A deliberate policy of assimilation has led to the tribes dying out slowly and being absorbed into the nation.  Each act meant to help the ‘people’, such as the ‘nationalisation’ of the mountains, is another nail in the coffin of the traditional way of life.  There’s also an environmental focus here, with the journey the writer and Girl take back to the Seediq heartland showing just how much of a mess the government has made of the beautiful landscape.  When he sees the changes that have happened over the past few decades, the writer wonders if his land is any better off now than it was under Japanese rule…

The complex style means Remains of Life is unlikely to reach a wide audience, but for those readers prepared to spend time on a challenging text, Wu’s novel will make for a wonderful experience.  Less an examination of history than a reflection on the way ‘minority’ cultures are slowly being pushed aside by the majority, the work forces us to consider whether progress is always positive, and to think of what is being lost.  What Wu is doing in his novel is sounding an alarm throughout his land, urging people to acknowledge their culture before these last remains of life pass on, and his message has a relevance far beyond Taiwan.

4 thoughts on “‘Remains of Life’ by Wu He (Review)

  1. Tony-
    This morning I reached this book in my BTBA longlist reading, and I am thoroughly enjoying it. A nuanced and multi-faceted look at indigenous culture.


    1. Lascosas – Yes, and I didn’t even realise it had been longlisted until after I finished it (in fact, I was about to go on a rant about its omission in my review!).


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