Portobello Books was one of the most interesting and succesful imprints in the UK for translated fiction, bringing out books by the likes of Jenny Erpenbeck, Han Kang, Hiromi Kawakami, Yoko Tawada and Mariana Enriquez over the past few years, so I was a little disappointed to hear of its demise. However, in truth, the decision is just an act of brand management, with Portobello’s stable of writers being absorbed into the Granta Books fold (I know nothing about business, so I’ll reserve any judgement about the wisdom of the decision…), so, hopefully, it’ll be business as usual. Today’s choice certainly seems to suggest that, with a writer who may well have been published under the Portobello label now appearing under the main Granta brand. Luckily, it’s another fine discovery, a book worthy of the company it keeps in its new home 🙂
My Enemy’s Cherry Tree (translated by Howard Goldblatt and Sylvia Li-Chun Lin, revew copy courtesy of the publisher) took out all of Taiwan’s major literary awards and marks writer Wang Ting-kuo’s debut in English. It’s an enjoyable novel that drifts along at its own pace, with the opening scenes of a man spending his days at a mostly empty coffee shop gradually giving way to the story of how he got there, and (more importantly) why he’s there at all.
In the first pages, our unnamed narrator looks up to see a familiar face in his shop, but neither of the men is happy about the encounter. The elderly Luo Yi-ming, or Mr. Luo as he is more commonly referred to, is a local celebrity, a retired businessman turned philanthropist who always has time (and a few dollars) for the local community. However, he has recently become a recluse, and somehow everyone knows that the coffee shop owner has something to do with this retreat from public life, avoiding his business and hoping he’ll move away. This is unlikely to happen, though, as the man has a very good reason for opening the shop on this spot – and, once again, it has a lot to do with Mr. Luo and their shared history.
The main focus of the first few chapters is the man’s wife, Quizi. She’s vanished from his life, and it’s no secret (although never explicitly stated) that Mr. Luo was responsible for breaking them up. My Enemy’s Cherry Tree is built around her disappearance, one the abandoned husband can’t get over:
A person can fall in love several times in a lifetime, but I’d still preferred to do so only once. That is, I already knew that there was nothing more on the horizon, even though I had only just started out on the road to my first romance. My certainty might seem absurd to some, but who can tell which romance turns out to be the right one?
p.85 (Granta Books, 2019)
The coffee shop is a symbol of his attachment, opened on a spot they once visited together, and the name, translated as ‘Run Away From Home’, acts as the man’s promise. You may have left me, it seems to say, but I’ll be here waiting for you.
Initially the secret involving Qiuzi and Mr. Luo seems to be the main thrust of the plot, with Luo Baixiu, the old man’s daughter, making her own way to the coffee shop, wanting to know what the narrator expects from her family. Instead, the book slowly develops into the narrator’s story, with Baixiu eventually getting him to open up to her. He begins to talk about his poor background and how he managed to work his way into real estate, where his relationship with a new employer, Boss Motor, was to take him into a new world.
What comes across in this tale is his ambition and desire to break free of his origins. He sees Boss Motor and Mr. Luo as models to aspire to, attracted to their aura of success:
I was still spellbound by the aura of power that symbolized prestige, and, sad to say, I had no intention of breaking free; I was dogged by its eerie presence. What I actually wanted to be free of was my father, who had caused me anguish even as I’d climbed out from under the shadow of his tragedy. I wanted to step away, far enough away to forget him completely, but sometimes I found myself hurled back to where I’d started. Luo Yiming and Boss Motor made me aware of my lowly origins. (p.181)
However, in truth, neither of his role models are particularly happy, each having their problems, whether that involves their health or their love lives. In the lives of the men he takes as examples, our friend can already sense the price he will pay for wanting too much and reaching too far.
The success of Wang’s novel owes much to the fascinating picture it paints of Taiwan and its recent social history. Quite apart from the insights of the poor that the descriptions of the narrator’s childhood bring, the story takes us through the 1999 earthquake, several SARS scares and a property boom-and-bust. Even for someone with little knowledge of the country, these stories suggest a shared history, and it’s little surprise that all this would strike a chord with the domestic audience.
In addition, the story is beautifully told and paced, with Goldblatt and Lin providing a fluid, readable English-language version. The action in the novel seems deliberately slow at times: the scenes in the empty coffee shop, lengthy walks and bicycle rides, the long conversations between the narrator and Baixiu, even the endless project to convert a mountain property to luxury housing. It’s almost as if the writer (and the narrator) are actually loath to tell their story, wanting to spin it out to prevent it from ending – or from reaching a point they’d rather forget.
Cleverly, it takes time for the real story to emerge from all the strands. As much as My Enemy’s Cherry Tree is about Qiuzi, Mr. Luo or Taiwan itself, it turns out that what we’re really here for is to listen to the narrator’s story, and see if he can finally move on. This is a man made to hover indecisively, as exemplified by a wish he shares with the reader:
How wonderful everything in life could be without endings; a story that stops before it is over is like wings of happiness beating in mid-air with no fear of falling. (p.182)
This wish acts as a rather apt summary of the book as a whole. If you expect all the loose ends to be tied up, you’ll be disappointed; however, if you’re happy with a little ambiguity, and prepared to go at Wang’s pace, this is a book you’ll enjoy, even if, as is often the case in life, a happy ending might just be out of reach…