Compared to my wealth of reviews from Japan and Korea, I haven’t really tried many books from Taiwan, but most of those I have read have been excellent. Today’s choice continues that trend with another enjoyable novel, a story that starts off as a family tale of a writer and his father, but turns into something more. Let’s take a look, then, at a work that develops into musings on identity, of both a personal and (inter)national nature 🙂
Lo Yi-Chin’s 2003 novel Faraway (translated by Jeremy Tiang, review copy courtesy of Columbia University Press) has the writer on holiday with his family when he gets an unexpected phone call from home. His elderly father, off alone on a package tour in mainland China, has collapsed after a stroke, and is comatose in a regional Chinese city. Rushing home, the dutiful son collects his mother, and the two set off on a tortuous journey, hampered by visa issues, finally arriving a couple of days later in the provincial city of Jiujiang.
He arrives to find his father in a critical state in a hospital that’s not really up to the task, but he’s not the only one concerned. As it turns out, the writer will be sharing the caring with a group of elderly men, half-brothers from his father’s first mainland marriage, and while he and his mother wait for permission to move his father back to Taiwan, he’ll be getting to know them a little better.
Faraway is a clever, meandering work of autofiction and invention. The story is based on Lo’s own life, but you suspect that many liberties have been taken along the way. The main strand of the story concerns several weeks he spends in a strange land, wondering when (or if) he and his mother will be able to take his father home, but there’s a fair amount of culture shock woven in, too:
Being stuck here was like being in a city where time flowed backward. When I first got here, I was so fascinated by these dull, clay-colored people and streets. The twisted, out-of-proportion bodies in pain, the stark red simplified characters on white metal signs, those faces that looked so like mine but had gone down another evolutionary branch at some point and become an entirely different species… I felt as if I’d spent too long on a scorching beach in high summer – tongue dry, lips cracking, entire body aching and filled with withering terror.
p.229 (Columbia University Press, 2021)
Where the first parts of the book are focused on the hospital, the more time the writer spends in Jiujiang, the more his attention switches to the fatigue and tedium of a lengthy stay in a dull provincial city.
In fact, Faraway also serves as a springboard to explore other themes, with many allusions to the fraught relationship between Taiwan and mainland China. From the moment Lo arrives in Jiujiang, he feels as if he’s in a different world, one of noise, squalor and rather unnerving manners. Then there are his stories of encounters with mainlanders, the conversations inevitably turning towards views on the hot topic of Taiwanese independence. Here, the writer invariably does his best to be diplomatic, yet he later curses himself for his weakness and inability to stand up to the rude questioning.
Throughout his time on the mainland, the writer is constantly on his guard, almost frightened of a country run under very different rules:
In a place where the rule of law wasn’t clearly demarcated, the calculations and conflict of human interactions relied on a primeval yet intricate system of connections and power differentials (threats accompanied by a smiling face, socializing and bonding, stuffing alcohol or cigarettes into someone’s hands, or else the chaos of arbitration); in this harsh, untamed nation, the urgent treatment of a dying old man (a Taiwanese compatriot) might not be as much of a priority as how to receive his Taiwanese family without angering them (which would set in motion a complex legal system they had no way of navigating). (p.32)
In fact, China proves to be a bureaucratic puzzle, with Lo needing to deal with visas, insurance companies and (above all else) the Kafkaesque nightmare that is the hospital. Initially hesitant to bribe, he gradually finds it becoming second-nature as he roams the corridors of the dilapidated building in search of officials who can provide a necessary stamp – for a price, of course.
Yet Lo’s novel is also very much one of family. His father is an exile welcomed back with open arms when travel to the mainland became possible again, and their fraught relationship is seen in a new light when the writer is thrown together with his half-brothers. These men with whom he shares genes are older than himself and lead very different lives, and he can’t help seeing them as distorted images of how his own life might have turned out.
This focus on family also appears in the scenes away from the hospital in the form of the writer’s thoughts of his young son, and his reflections on the way he treats him. A rather surprising aspect of Faraway is how the writer describes his own (or his alter-ego’s) behaviour, leaving his son in a hot car to wander miles in search of a letter box, or taking him to the zoo and forgetting to put a nappy on him. Lo (the character) comes across as a rather short-tempered man, and the writer never shies away from painting the negative side of his character, adding bite to an already intriguing story.
Faraway is wonderfully written, disturbing the reader by constantly switching between stories before and after the journey, and scenes at the hospital. We have visions of doctors performing brain surgery with drills in front of an audience (the writer imagining that they borrow them from the workmen on the floors below…) and the bizarre feel of the city to a man exhausted by his vigil:
Many of the buildings in this place had a tangle of random objects obscuring their outlines (rotting awnings, illegal wooden structures, bamboo baskets thrust out into the street to extend the shop space, even large trees) and making them lose the identity they had when they were first built, so every street felt as if its organising principle was to fill every crevice of space, turning it into a single clump. (p.119)
The walks through the labyrinthine hospital and the Groundhog-Day feel of the taxi rides from the hotel to the hospital, and back again, have the effect of wearing the writer down, making the prospect of ever returning home seem rather, well, far away…
In Tiang’s brief translator’s note that closes the book, he expresses his surprise that it’s taken almost twenty years for this novel to make it into English, and that it’s Lo’s first full-length work to even appear in the language. I’d certainly share that view. Faraway is a wonderful novel of the personal and the national, by a man examining his roles as a writer, a son and a father, and if any of his other work is like this book, I’d be very happy to see more make it into English.