The Man with the Compound Eyes by Wu Ming-Yi

The Man with the Compound Eyes 1The 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.

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5 Responses to The Man with the Compound Eyes by Wu Ming-Yi

  1. Dan says:

    I’d love your opinion on what you thought of the final third of the book, in particular the discussion on the types of memory and what it meant for Alice, her husband and their son and what happened on the mountain. It seems like the final third got away on the author a bit and I felt wasn’t as strong as it could have been…..

    • D says:

      I agree that part of that section jarred a bit. I think it makes total sense that Alice would find the loss of her son traumatising to the extent that she doesn’t remember it, and that others might play along for her sake. The bit that made it jar for me was that he gave the son a pov chapter on the mountain, after his dad had fallen, when neither parent would have been keeping him alive, if that makes sense. It made it seem as though Alice and her husband had literally kept him alive, rather than just in her mind (and later his). I can see Wu Ming-Yi was trying to underline his point, but I think it would have made more sense for the boy to exist only through the point of view of others, as a creation of them. It’s one of those things where I can totally believe boys turning into whales in another part of the book, but not a dead boy having a sense of self, context is weird in books!

      • Dan says:

        I read in another review (and totally missed it so i need to go back and find the part in the book) that the first line of Alice’s book matches the first line of one of the later chapters……so this means that part of the book (and presumably the chapters titled the man with the compound eyes) are in fact Alice’s book so therefore a story within a story, and the whole father/son mountain scenes are all her imagination. I think I need to read the whole thing again!

      • D says:

        I think I missed that too! Maybe one of those books that you need to read a couple of times to get everything.

  2. Nice review and comments too by Dan. I am also a Dan. Dan Bloom in Taiwan. reporter editor. i interviewed MR WU last year for a newspaper story on his book. The French edition is due out soon, and the USA edition with a differeent cover from the UK edition comes out in May 2014. More foreign editions to follow. One thing: or two. Can we call this book a sci fi novel or eco-fiction novel or even a new genre called CLI FI, for climate fiction novels? see Guardian piece by Rodge Glass last year on cli fi. Agree on the UK cover. stunning. wow. powerful. and re ”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.” Actually, the novel was written in Chinese characters same as in China, but written by a Taiwanese man in Taiwan, which is not part of communist China. The Taiwanese dialect or language called Hoklo which is spoken in Taiwan is an oral language and is not written down. So WU wrote the book in Chinese in 2010, pubbed in 2011. Could be a movie by Ang Lee one day? Maybe. The translation is a big uneven, yes, since it was done by an academic professor from Canada with a deep feeling for Taiwan and the culture here and who speaks fluent Chinese, BUT the translator is not a writer per se, in terms of style and prose, more of an academic professor, so he did not always do justice to the the wonderful Chinese prose that Wu wrote. But to hire a top translator would have cost beaucoup money so the publishers went with the professor in Taipei who has a PHD and knows his stuff, but the decision was at the risk of losing some of the powerful prose in the original. C’est la vie. I read it three times in English. Love it. see my review and profile in the Taipei Times website www taipeitimes dot com

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