Reading The Man With Compound Eyes by Wu Ming-Yi

First published in Interzone in 2013

The Man With The Compound Eyes

Wu Ming-Yi, translated from the Taiwanese by Darryl Sterk, Harvill Secker, 302pp

The compound eye is not one eye but many gathered together, between them providing a wide-angle view of the world. Insects and spiders have compound eyes; they’re vital tools to ensure survival. The compound eye also offers a useful way to think about the structure of Wu Ming-Yi’s novel (his fourth, but the first to be translated into English). It is a wide-angle view of a world in which the sight of the two main characters, Alice Shih and Atel’i, has become so narrowly focused they can think only of one thing.

In Alice’s case, this is death. Since the loss of her husband in a climbing accident and the mysterious disappearance of their young son, she has lived alone, in a house on the seashore, which is now threatened by rising sea levels. Lately, she has reached the decision to take her own life, something she sees as an entirely rational act. In Atel’i’s case, the one thing on his mind is survival. A teenage boy from a remote island with few natural resources, Atel’i is following the traditional practice for a second son, leaving the island in a canoe of his own making, paddling away to his fate. Given the island’s remoteness, this is mostly likely death – the custom disguises a demand for suicide in order to maintain the island’s population at a rate that can be sustained.

Except that on his voyage Atel’i encounters something unexpected, a gigantic trash vortex off the coast of Taiwan. This vast island of rubbish offers Atel’i an opportunity for survival, but he struggles to make sense of this new world in which he finds himself. The vortex is due to make landfall on the beach where Alice’s house is situated. Thus, when Atel’i is thrown ashore badly injured, it is inevitably Alice who finds him, conceals him and, in her own brusque fashion, nurses him back to health. That’s one strand of the narrative, and one that a European reader, conditioned to look for certain kinds of story, can easily extract from the novel.

But to return to the wide-angled view, other elements of the novel are less easily apprehended. The slow but constant turning of the vortex, bringing objects together in unexpected relationships, mirrors the kaleidoscopic nature of the story. The reader learns about the perilous economy of Wayo-Wayo, Atel’i’s home, about the lives of the Taiwanese people who live close to Alice’s house, and in particular about her friendship with Hafay, the owner of the local café. Hafay’s life story starkly presents the dilemma of indigenous people forced off the land and into the towns to make a living, and the ways in which they are forced to earn their way. Their mutual friend, Dahu, seeks to resolve that tension by returning to his childhood home to help Anu with the Forest Church. Dahu, like Alice’s dead husband something of a naturalist, explores the local forest and through his eye the reader experiences something of the extraordinary diversity of life there, a diversity that frequently steps beyond the realms of the scientifically measurable.

The presence of the compound eye, and indeed of its owner, indicates that there are many different ways to address the business of story-telling, and elements that might seem to be mutually exclusive to a Euro-American audience are more easily accommodated within one novel elsewhere. For anyone seeking a traditional genre narrative, or indeed a story that fits snugly within a Euro-American perception of weirdness, this novel may seem not entirely satisfactory, baffling even. But the point is that it emerges from a Taiwanese tradition of storytelling, one which many readers, myself included, have no familiarity with, so we have to take it on its own terms. We might choose to position it somewhere between the work of David Mitchell and Haruki Murukami, and for reasons which become clearer as the story unfolds, to some of Christopher Priest’s work, to get a sense of it as a story, but it remains its own thing, a novel of the near-future in which genre boundaries no longer have any meaning. Ecological and sociological concerns rub alongside the fantastic in ways that might seem more familiar from real life than from fiction, and this seems to me to be one of the novel’s greatest virtues, that it eschews our expectations of it. Having said that, the novel’s use of language seems somewhat odd in places, but whether this arises from the translation or from the writer’s original intentions isn’t at all clear. However, it doesn’t impede one’s enjoyment in any way. The twists and turns of The Man with the Compound Eyes provide compelling reading. It is safe to say you will read nothing else quite like it.