The Man with the Compound Eyes is the story of Alice, who is grieving for her husband and son and preparing to commit suicide in her house by the sea in Taiwan, and Atile’i, who, as a second son, must leave the remote island of Wayo Wayo in a small boat and few supplies as a sacrifice to the sea god. In the Pacific, there (really) exists a huge ‘trash vortex’, which breaks apart and crashes onto the shore, bringing Atile’i with it. Alice, who finds a reason to postpone her suicide when she rescues a kitten called Ohiyo from the floodwater, rescues Atile’i. They become friends, trying to communicate though they use different languages and have different customs, as Alice continues to try to find out why her husband and son went missing, Atile’i tries to get home to his love, and the people of Taiwan try to find a way to deal with the aftermath of the trash wave.
First of all, this book wins cover of the year for me. It’s beautiful and weird. Just look at it. Gorgeous.
It took me a couple of (short) chapters to get into this one. I think it was because I’m not familiar with Taiwanese (or Chinese, as I think this book was first published in), so it took a little while to lock into the rhythm of the language. But I really enjoyed it. Some bits of writing felt like they were lost in translation a little, but other bits were absolutely beautiful. There was also a lot of gorgeous imagery. I loved Alice’s house – it started as a sea view, an eco-house Alice and her husband built by the sea, but became ‘The Sea House’, as rapidly rising sea levels flooded the ground floor. Alice still lived there, but had a collection of stools so she could climb down from an upstairs window to leave.
There are lots of different stories intertwined, and it moves between different characters’ perspectives from chapter to chapter, but it didn’t feel disjointed at all. Although Atile’i and Alice are sort of the main characters, it also revolves around Hafay and Dahu, who live in or near Haven with Alice, but are aboriginal (though from different tribes). I really liked Hafay, who, we learn, once worked as the ‘special’ kind of masseuse and gradually saved the money to leave and buy her own restaurant/café bar. Hafay and Dahu’s stories added an extra dimension which is often missing in mainstream literature – the stories of the aboriginal tribes who are pushed and squeezed out of their land to make way for development, and the tension between traditional and new ways of living within and outside those tribes. Throughout the book there are tribal folk tales from their and Atile’i’s tribes, which I loved. Wayo Wayo, where Atile’i is from, has no contact with other countries; in fact, they don’t think anything else exists. Wu Ming-Yi created a complete culture and language for the Wayo-Wayans, which includes ‘magical’ elements (like second sons turning into whales at sea), but they don’t feel out of place – more just like some of the folk tales coming/being true.
I see The Man as primarily an environmental book – a timely read in the wake of the IPCC report on climate change. It mainly deals with the effects of the waste that ends up in the ocean (I had no idea the ‘trash vortex’ actually existed until I read this), but also touches on climate change and our relationship to nature and the land. Unsurprisingly, we, as a species, don’t come off too well. The Wayo-Wayans try to live within the means of their island, much more so than any other group of characters in the book, but it’s not perfect. The second sons are basically sent to die in order to achieve this. The book seems to be saying we’ve let things get out of control, we’ve lost our connection to nature, but it is a complicated issue with no easy or perfect answers. And, unfortunately, that perhaps we’ve left things too late.
A book full of loads of different elements – recommended for those who like reading the folk tales of different cultures, something environmental, or just fancy something a bit different from the Pacific area. (Or you just want a book that’ll look damn pretty on your bookshelf.) Definitely worth a go.