Book Review: The Stolen Bicycle, by Wu Ming-yi

Here is a passage from toward the end of the book:

I rode around [Taipei] but felt I didn’t know her anymore. She keeps on getting renewed, over and over again, as if in a rush to shed some sort of shell, the grotesque, mournful, scandalous past. With each renewal, so many things that shine with an incredible radiance in many people’s memories disappear. I felt a bit sorry and lonely. ‘Yes, this is gone, and that too!’ I could say that on practically every street. (p. 334)

Here is another passage, from more toward the end of the book:

I rode circles around the city, ring upon ring. As the slowest vehicle on the road, I was able to appreciate scenes the others left behind. (p. 359)

These two passages suggest the purpose of The Stolen Bicycle: to recapture, before it’s too late, the “grotesque, mournful, scandalous past,” which has already been erased from view but which yet lingers in memory. Using the protagonist’s father’s lost and found bicycle as a device, Wu Ming-yi embarks on an odyssey through a hundred years of Taiwanese history. His footsteps take us through the provinces of culture, including material culture, language, psychology, and family. The subtle implication of his narrative is that Taiwan is no mere subset of China but a unique mélange of aboriginal, Fujianese, Japanese, postwar Chinese, and Western influences.

Despite the overarching melancholic nostalgia, the tone of The Stolen Bicycle is actually rather positive.  Absent is the entitled, cosmic angst of Western literature, and the element of conflict is likewise missing. Instead, Wu’s narrator copes with bleak reality by cultivating private enthusiasms such as antique collecting and bicycle restoration. Often this sort of occupation leads to camaraderie (say, with fellow junk collectors), creating a sense of fellow travelers if not intimate friendship. Obviously, the attention given to junk collecting in the story points to the larger task of the writer, as he forages through Taiwan’s past; but the feeling  of wandering souls coming together stands in contrast to the strife for its own sake that one often finds in Western novels. (I wonder if some generalizations along these lines might be food for thought.) The passage describing a somewhat paranormal scuba dive in the basement of an old building made it especially difficult not to think of Haruki Murakami. Perhaps Wu’s Taiwan, like Murakami’s Japan, is an outwardly peaceful but historically troubled land, compelling its literary types to become detectives of the past, as a sort of therapy.

I have made a study of Taiwanese literature in recent months and can report that The Stolen Bicycle may be the most accessible recent work to have been translated into English and therefore the most pleasant to read. Many other recent Taiwanese books have been written using experimental methods, like stream of consciousness. The Stolen Bicycle, by contrast, follows a straightforward first person narration, and it is, again, a lot like a detective story. I previewed this book in electronic form, which I don’t generally enjoy, but I found it nearly impossible to stop reading, even on a computer screen. It is jarring, about two-thirds of the way through, when the narrative device switches briefly from bicycles to elephants; but that is a minor complaint. The Stolen Bicycle is a fascinating book about a very special place.

Review of Amadis of Gaul, Books I & II

The first two books of Amadis of Gaul are a pleasure to read, absorbing, and hard to put down. The only possible rough patch would be the narrative of the long series of Amadis’s and Galaor’s victories in the middle of Book I, which, since both knights are invincible, borders on the monotonous. However, the story soon becomes more politically intriguing and generally deeper, so that the reader is fully enthralled by the end of Book II. Indeed, it is hard to resist the temptation, even after 682 pages, to dive right into the second volume, containing Books III and IV. (Even so, I think I will balance my palette with a taste of something else before returning to Amadis.)

The world of Amadis of Gaul consists of three overlapping and sometimes conflicting moralities. The first morality, the aristocratic one, equates good looks, personal honesty, martial valor, and fine pedigree, resulting in the assumption that a handsome man must therefore be an honest man, who must therefore be a good fighter, who must therefore be a man of noble birth. These linkages are nonsensical to the modern reader, who may be amused by such statements in Amadis as “‘I really believe you are telling the truth, for I heard you praised extravagantly for your good looks’” (p. 91); but they were accepted by the pre-modern reader, who, perhaps because he was an aristocrat himself, wished to believe that his position atop society was justified by the general superiority of all the individuals in his class. It is interesting in this respect to observe that many of the villains in this book are ugly of appearance or of nonstandard physical types such as dwarfs and giants. In any case, this aristocratic morality of Amadis is so internalized that its compiler, Garci Rodriguez de Montalvo, never pauses to examine it.

The second plane of morality, the religious one, holds that God’s favor determines everything and that self-confidence, in the Augustinian sense, is folly. In contrast to the passively-accepted aristocratic morality, the religious one is elaborated more explicitly. Often, its invoker is a character in the book, as in this dialogue between the evil Arcalaus and the heroic Amadis:

“Knight, you are in danger of death, and I do not know who you are; tell me so that I may know, for I am thinking more about killing you than overcoming you.”

“My death,” said Amadis, “is at the will of God, whom I fear; and yours at that of the devil, who is already angry for having supported you and wishes that your body, to which so many evil vices he has given, should perish along with your soul” (p. 207).

Just as frequently, the reminder that God is in charge is provided by the narrator himself. Thus are we told that the arrogant King Dardan “esteemed his own strength and the great zeal of his heart more than the judgment of the most high Lord, who with very little of His power brings it about that the very strong are overcome and dishonored by the very weak” (p. 151). In a few places, too, the narrator speaks in general, didactic, terms, as in:

And at this juncture, as the story seeks to proceed, you will be able to see how little the strength of the human mind suffices when that high Lord, with slackened reins and lifted hand withdrawing His grace, permits the judgment of man to exercise its powers freely; whence it will be manifest to you whether great estates, high dominions can be won and governed with the prudence and diligence of mortal man; or if when divine Grace is lacking, great pride, great greed, a throng of armed soldiers are enough to maintain them. (p. 630)

Of course, the notion that possession of “great estates, high dominions” could only have been won and kept through divine right is a huge justification of the prevailing class system and suggests that the religious morality reinforces the aristocratic. However, Garci Rodriguez de Montalvo, in soliloquizing that the high may be brought low, seems also to be positing the religious morality as a contrast to the aristocratic.

Finally, there is the romantic or chivalric morality, which subjects even the most well-born and divinely-favored knights to their ladies. Amidis himself, after declining to serve King Lisuarte of Great Britain, becomes the sworn knight of Queen Brisena, as though to prove “how much greater influence women have on knights than men do” (p. 167). Of course, Amidis’s true master is Princess Oriana, his lover, “at whose slightest angry word heard by him – for such is his great fear of angering her – he would bury himself alive” (p. 507). Indeed, since Amidis is so completely the devotee of Oriana, it might be wondered whether he really serves God at all. When he accepts a dangerous fight with the giant Famongomadan, Amadis at first dismisses the concerns of his squire by trotting out the familiar religious morality: “I want to test the compassion of God,” he says, “whether it will please Him that the very great violence that this enemy of His commits be done away with by me.” However, a few lines later, Amidis prays not to God but to his lover, then miles away: “Oh, my lady Oriana! Never did I begin a great feat on my own initiative wherever I might be, except with your help; and now, my good lady, help me, for it is so necessary for me” (p. 538).

One might suppose that the romantic morality would come into direct conflict with the religious, if and when it leads to sex, but Rodriguez de Montalvo never uses words like fornication or adultery to describe sex out of wedlock. He seems, however, to draw a distinction between sex and love and to invest the latter with a religious aspect – especially when the woman is in command.

Common, purely sexual episodes result from passion and appetite, as in:

At this time the maidens were going about through the castle searching with the other women in order to give them something to eat; and Galaor and the maiden, called Brandueta, were talking alone about what you hear, and as she was very beautiful, and he was covetous of such viands, before the meal came or the table was set, both of them rumpled a bed that was in the hall where they were, thus making her a matron who before that was not, satisfying their desires, which, in a short space of time, each looking at the other’s beautiful youthfulness in bloom, had become very great. (p. 266)

In spite of this enjoyment, though, Galaor and Brandueta do not become permanent lovers. They each take their pleasure and move on.

Contrariwise, Amidis’s parents, King Perion and Princess Elisena, fall hopelessly in love, despite their moral virtue. Elisena’s “great modesty and exemplary life could not prevent her from becoming a prisoner of incurable and great love for him, and the king in like manner for her.” At dinner, Perion expresses hope that “my whole life will be employed in serving you,” and later, Elisena’s maid, Darioleta, arranges for them to be together, at which, King Perion considers himself “very fortunate that God had brought him into such a connubial state” (pp. 25-30).

The offspring of this union, Amidis, and his lover, Oriana, grow up together innocently, he serving as her page. With years of love budding between them, and with Amadis having demonstrated his martial valor and high birth, they find themselves, likewise, at dinner, and Oriana grasps Amidis’s hand under the table. Each confesses the most consuming desire for the other, and, as Amadis weeps and loses the power of speech, Oriana promises to give herself to him (pp. 294-296). When, at the conclusion of a subsequent adventure she undertakes to fulfill her promise, she charges him only to “see to it that, although here below it may appear error and sin, it not be so before God.”

And Amadis is able to “see to it” by surrendering the initiative  — and by surrendering himself, body and soul — to Oriana:

When he saw her thus so beautiful and in his power, she having agreed to do his will, he was so distraught with joy and bashfulness that he did not dare even to look at her; so that one could well say that in that green grass, on that mantle, more by the grace and courtesy of Oriana than by any immodesty or boldness on Amadis’s part, was the most beautiful maiden in the world made a matron. (p. 339)

As I understand it, chivalric literature was influenced by Sufi Islam and transformed by the troubadours, who reoriented its ecstatic devotion from God to woman. Amadis of Gaul is a monument of this unique form of worship.

It’s also, as I said, a lot of fun.

PS. An OpEd in today’s Wall Street Journal by Ashley McGuire called “The Controversial Text That Saved Me” contains the following sentence that may be apropos: “The trust spouses place in each other imitates the transcendent trust that faith teaches us to put in the divine when things aren’t fully within our control.”

PPS. At one point, Amadis’s conduct seems to anticipate classical liberalism. After freeing a group of prisoners, he says to them, “Friends, may each one of you go wherever he pleases and where it be most advantageous for him” (p. 213).

Book Review: The Mighty Revolution, by Charles Lewis Wagandt

My purpose in reading this book was to learn more about the revolution of popular opinion against slavery that took place before and during the Civil War. The abolition of slavery by the adoption of a new state constitution in Maryland would count as a critical example of this shifting in opinion, presumably an inspiring one.

The Mighty Revolution certainly provides many of the facts attendant to this shift, but the presentation of them falls somewhat short of inspiring. Wagandt’s focus is the political realm of electoral hustings, factions, and patronage. The idealism is largely left out. There is more information here about schemes to capture the comptroller’s office than there are meditations on the meaning of freedom. Of course, idealism often depends upon pragmatism for its advancement, and The Mighty Revolution offers a detailed illustration of how ideas become reality in this country. We Americans should probably be grateful that we are able to alter our destiny by means of backroom deals and ambiguously-worded ballot initiatives, without recourse to the guillotine.

The narrative of The Mighty Revolution hinges upon three turning points. The latter two are elections: the November 4, 1863 election for state legislature and other offices that was marred by army interference; and the October 12-13, 1864 vote on the new constitution, abolishing slavery, that carried only after soldiers’ absentee votes were counted. Again, it’s not a very rousing story. The fact that the emancipationist effort succeeded in the 1863 election in part because of the lack of a secret ballot (the emancipationist party ballots were yellow, permitting the army to discard others) does not exactly inspire one to plan an additional Thanksgiving dinner — although it does say a lot about the commitment of the boys in blue.

The earlier and perhaps most important turning point is the April 20, 1863 mass meeting of the Union League at the Maryland Institute in Baltimore, which does indeed herald the popular shift against slavery. “Never before in the war,” Wagandt writes, “had emancipation sentiments been advanced at a public meeting.” (p. 99) The Union League was “a civilian organization of obscure origins” that swelled as the war progressed. By 1863,

the Union Leagues extended their spheres of operations into the political arena….Preservation of the nation involved the fierce debate over slavery, a debate which found no sympathy in the conservative leadership of the Union Party [Maryland’s version of the Republican Party]. This created a need for some organized expression of aims among those who wished to move with, rather than against, the revolutionary times….Then there were politicians within the organization who tried to capitalize upon the League to further their ambitions.” (pp. 97-98)

The balance of Wagandt’s narrative describes the machinations of these ambitious politicians. As they “capitalized” upon the emancipationist sentiment of the League, they crystalized it and made it a reality. Such is the ugly beauty of our system.

Both in Maryland’s Civil War history and in Wagandt’s recounting of it, the focus on pragmatism over idealism affords only scattered suggestions that the white Marylander’s hatred of slavery translated into affection or even sympathy for the slave. In the early 1864 debate in the Maryland General Assembly that led to the constitutional convention, Henry S. Stockbridge, citing a letter from a former slave-owner’s son, asserted that abolition should be pursued because “it is right. Right between man and man – right before God.” (p. 194) A subsequent newspaper editorial called slavery “a great moral wrong, injurious to both master and slave.” (p. 203) A delegate to the constitutional convention named Frederick Schley voted in favor of the abolition article for reasons of “patriotism, justice, and humanity,” as well as for Maryland “honor” and popular “welfare.” (p. 225) Often it seems that Wagandt may be glossing over Marylanders’ anti-slavery arguments, perhaps in the belief that they are obvious and well-known, and perhaps because he’s more interested in the political maneuverings anyway.

For the most part, as emerges in these pages, the rationale behind Marylanders’ overthrow of slavery is couched in terms of class warfare and political jealousy. At their April 20, 1863 meeting, Union League members denounced slavery as “an instrument in the hands of traitors to build an oligarchy…on the ruins of republican liberty;” and they resolved “That the safety and interest of…Maryland, and especially of her white laboring people, require that Slavery should cease to be recognized by the law of Maryland.” (p. 99)

This refrain, that abolition was advanced as something that was good for certain white people, rings constantly throughout the book. No egalitarian sentiments are shown here to have been expressed, except in one ironic case:  Radical candidates from Allegany County in the vote on the constitutional convention on April 6, 1864 were said to have been “the real friends of the colored people” – by their opponents, and they subsequently spent much energy to deny the slander. (p. 217)

Still, for all the denial of common humanity that seems to have been necessary for its success, the overthrow of slavery was a success, and thus The Mighty Revolution should be counted as a valuable case study of the working reality of freedom.

Book Review: Memories of Mount Qilai: The Education of a Young Poet, by Yang Mu

Memories of Mount Qilai is a prose poem based on youthful reminiscences of Hualien and other places in eastern Taiwan. It (via this translation) is very beautiful and hypnotic, so much so that it will often make you think of other things, until you are turning the pages without absorbing or even reading the words. Yang Mu is an excellent poet, and some of his conventional, individual works are included here, including (from p. 159):

Carrying an oil paper umbrella
alone, I make my way down a
long, long and lonely lane in the rain,
pacing back and forth, hoping to encounter a
young woman knotted with sadness and hate
like a bud of lilac

However, if the cited shorter poems are emotionally compressed, with a high ratio of meaning to word, the prose poetry of the overall book is the opposite: meandering and unfocused, rather obscure. A chapter toward the end concerning a friend who committed suicide never seems to come to any point of power or intensity.

Still, though, some passages will differentiate themselves from the meandering flow and make an impression on you, such as (on p. 201)

The sound I heard, beyond being entangled in my own questioning, was the sound of bicycles braking high on the slope above the north end of the bridge, the sound of bicycle chains.

I knew it was the sound of school being let out. They must have lowered the flag, listened to the speech of exhortation, dispersed, and set off for home. Nine hundred male students were surging out, swinging identical book bags in the same color and with the same weight, their hats on their heads, in their hands, or, like mine, thrust into their book bags. I didn’t attend the flag-lowering ceremony today. Starting around noon, I couldn’t sit still, as a strange, unformed melody floated through my mind, as if from the other side of a high, dark, ancient wall someone abandoned himself to chanting for me a fragmented but still special and recognizable song of prudence, pronouncing words that were difficult to understand but occasionally stressing a certain expression, seemingly also what I frequently heard between sleep and wakefulness. I looked around me: the distant sky, sea, prostrate mountains, the aged banyan tree, hibiscus, canna lilies, and the beehive under the eaves, steadily growing larger by the day. ‘How am I to let go, be free, release myself, and be different from others?’ I repeatedly asked myself such silly questions and then when totally exhausted, ‘How can I prove that I am different from others?’ The blackboard was covered with proper nouns: ‘Age of Enlightenment,’ ‘feudal lord,’ ‘serf,’ ‘guild,’ ‘Galileo,’ ‘isolationism,’ and ‘indulgence.’

Of course, poetry is the best proof that one is different from others. In a passion of ‘unsociable eccentricity’ (on p. 142), Yang asserts, ‘My form of expression is my own….This is the best. No one else has come up with it before; it belongs entirely to me, appropriate, exact, and effective.’

Yang’s book is subtitled ‘The Education of a Young Poet.’

Book Review: “Approaching the Magic Hour: Memories of Walter Anderson,” by Agnes Grinstead Anderson

This book reveals what it’s like to be married to a mad genius. The author, “Sissy” Grinstead Anderson was Walter Anderson’s long-suffering wife. The text is her own reconstruction of diaries she’d previously burned, a fact which may convey a bit of the ambivalence she must have felt about sharing the fraught experience of her marriage. Evidently, she decided in the end on complete candor, and the result is very powerful.

Anderson remains my favorite artist, despite what I learned from reading this book. I suppose my prior understanding of him was that of a tourist (I am a frequent visitor to his namesake art museum in his adopted hometown of Ocean Springs, Mississippi), and I would often describe him to friends as a little “touched.” I learn from Sissy’s account, however, that he was neglectful and violent, far beyond what one would expect from an amiable eccentric. Perhaps this book will lead some readers to obsess on whether it’s permissible to enjoy his art, considering what a terrible husband (and father) he was; but I don’t believe the human experience is so neat, and the paradox is fitting that a man whose art has made me feel euphoric was also the creator of great pain and trouble for his own family.

Accordingly, one of my favorite parts of the book is toward the end, after the death of Walter (known as Bob), when Sissy, on exploring the house where he lived alone, discovers the “little room” (preserved and on display at the Walter Anderson Museum of Art), which he’d consecrated as a temple to the sun, replete with murals showing all God’s creation in its fluttering, creeping, and crawling sublimity. “The room is full of the presence of the Creator,” Sissy writes, “not the artist, although he is surely there, but God.”

Bob had kept the room padlocked. (p. 175)

Elsewhere: “I know now that the alienated must seek forever the means of reentry into the world of man. Bob was seeking, for some reason, through the simpler world of animals. ‘Dogs, cats, birds are holes in heaven through which man may pass,’ he said.” (p. 84)

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(Brief) Movie Review: Blade Runner 2049

Blade Runner 2049 is as thought-provoking as the original and has already sent me to the Internet to test a few theories.

I think Philip K. Dick would have loved 2049, because it explores one of his signature concepts: the fake fake.

Of course, as good as 2049 is, it can’t, ah, replicate the feeling of being back in 1982, getting dazzled and mindfucked as only a sixteen year old can. I wonder what younger folks will make of it, whether it will become the film of their generation, as the original was to mine. I doubt that it will. The whole concept of a sequel is fake, and although 2049 is trying to be a fake fake, I suspect it will only succeed by a half, both for the Nexus 80s like me and for the Nexus Millennials.

Book Review: Tap Roots, by James Street

I read Tap Roots hoping for an American story about the struggle for freedom and also for an always-timely memorial to Southern Unionism. I was partly rewarded by passages like this one:

Never was a stranger assembly gathered…. Scots and Irish, English and Germans, Cajuns and two Negroes — a tiny melting pot that must be tried by fire to prove to mankind that fire and blood can melt all races and blend them into a new being…. The scum of the South was represented. Fire can purify scum. The illiterate, the suspicious — they were there, too. Deserters and draft dodgers, abolitionists and Unionists — five hundred men with nothing in common except a burning fervor for freedom as they understood freedom.

(That last phrase, “as they understood freedom,” is pretty ominous, especially in a story about the Civil War South.)

For the most part, however, author James Street, despite his eagerness to tell the story of Southern Unionists and abolitionists, does so as a Southern and not as an American patriot, and no love of freedom can supersede his hatred for the Yankee. His unwillingness to concede the moral high ground to the Union spoils his narrative of Southern Unionists, whom he might otherwise have portrayed as standing on that same moral high ground. His “Unionists” are really only succeeding from the Confederacy, not remaining loyal to the Union, because, although the South was wrong, the North could not have been right. Therefore, Street’s novel ends up being not all that different from the usual Confederate apologia, brimming with assertions that Lincoln was a mere schemer, that Northern wage slaves were worse off than Southern chattel slaves, and even that Southern abolitionists were better than Northern ones. The latter group garners the vast majority of Street’s ire. Through his characters, he mocks the idea that his protagonists, Southern abolitionists, would have found common cause with their Northern counterparts, over something as obvious as a revulsion toward slavery:

Hoab said, ‘Some of our Tennessee members think we should join forces with the Yankee abolitionists. They say there is strength in union.’ ‘They are loonies,’ Keith said. ‘The Northern abolitionists are fools and we know it. Somebody ought to shoot Sumner. He’s doing our cause more harm than John Brown.’

In fact, nobody comes in for nastier abuse in this book than Harriet Beecher Stowe (author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin) and Henry Ward Beecher.

Of course, the ironic thing is that Street could have better vindicated the South by hating the Yankees less and developing his own Southern characters more as Americans with a universal conception of freedom. Alas, the defensive tone prevails. Street’s bitterness is that of the proud man (or child), directed against those who would expose his faults, faults of which he is well aware, which he insists he will address in his own sweet time, but which no outsiders can raise a peep about — especially since they’re just as bad, nyah nyah n’nyah nyah. I am reminded that Indian nationalism only took shape after the British banned the burning of widows in India. For fueling aggrievement, nothing beats being wrong.

Oddly, Street’s peevishness occasionally attains Marxist dimensions, as in:

‘I know and you know that slavery is not the root of this situation. We are going through another phase of our Revolution. Of course, slavery is wrong. It’s stupid. It’s as wrong to own a man as it is to work a child fourteen hours a day as they do in Massachusetts. But that’s not the point. the real clash is between artisans and farmers, the age-old clash of manufacturers and people who build up an agrarian culture, such as the South’s.’


‘Queen Victoria’s antagonism for slavery has nothing to do with it. The English merchants who really rule that land will brush her aside if necessary.’

On reflection, it appears to me that Street’s coincidental Marxism makes sense. The theory of historical materialism is fully in keeping with the spiteful Southerner’s project of removing all morality and idealism from history, a project he takes on because he can claim neither for himself. If he can’t have the moral high ground, then no one else will, dammit. The idea that money makes the world go around is the common coin of all cynical minds.