Book Review: ‘Zero and Other Fictions’ by Huang Fan

June 8, 2012 in Book Reviews, Reviews by pacejmiller

Short stories and novellas are in a weird grey area for me. I love the idea of them, but at the same time, there aren’t many that I find myself fully engaging with. It is with this bizarre love-hate relationship that I have that I read Zero and Other Fictions, a collection of three short stories and a 100-page novella by acclaimed Taiwanese writer Huang Fan.

Not many people have heard of Huang, but he is no doubt a big deal in Taiwan’s literary circles, having won just about every major literary prize the country has to offer. Zero and other Fictions is the first collection of his work to appear in English, and it is translated and edited by award-winning translator John Balcom.

This is a fascinating anthology because it is so varied in its subject matter and styles. If the idea was to show off Huang’s versatility and the range of his imagination, this collection certainly achieves that.

The first story, “Lai Suo”, which propelled Huang to the forefront ofTaiwan’s literary scene in 1979, is a subtle and sometimes confusing story about a naïve man who becomes an unwitting pawn of Taiwanese politics. Spanning a period from the Japanese colonial era to the late 1980s, the story jumps back and forth effortlessly through time in a stream-of-consciousness style. It is the type of story that allows the reader to appreciate Huang’s literary genius but many not connect with it unless they have a bit of an idea about Taiwanese history and its political environment through the years.

The second story, “The Intelligent Man”, provides a stark contrast. It is a light-hearted satire about a Taiwanese businessman who moves to the US but through his business travels frequently back toAsia– where he has developed a habit of keeping a mistress in every port. It’s actually not an outlandish concept because I know for a fact that it is rather common.

The third story, “How to Measure the Width of a Ditch”, is a bizarre metafictional tale of the narrator’s childhood in a rapidly urbanisingTaipei. This one had me scratching my head more than once because I had no idea what it was getting at until the very end, and I believe that was Huang’s intention. It’s an experimental piece, well-written, sure, but probably the least enjoyable of the collection.

The fourth and final story is “Zero”, which takes up about two-thirds of the book’s pages. It is the first work of science fiction to win a major literary award inTaiwan, and considering that it was written in the 1980s, that’s a pretty impressive achievement. “Zero” depicts an Orwellian future, a dystopian, post-apocalyptic world where nearly every significant human decision – from jobs to holiday destinations – is made by higher powers. Conformity is not an option – it is mandatory and an accepted philosophy. It is with this backdrop that the story’s protagonist, Xi De, an independent thinker, begins to ponder whether this totalitarian world is all there is to know.

One hundred pages is an uncomfortable length for a piece of adult fiction. It’s too long for a short story and in this case, one gets the feeling that Huang could have easily made it a novel three or four times as long, but chose not to. As a result, I found Zero engaging, certainly the most engaging piece of the four, but still strangely lacking in the end. Also, having seen so many sci-fi movies over the years, it wasn’t easy getting excited about a world which is not too dissimilar – I had to keep reminding myself that this story was written nearly three decades ago.

All of Huang’s stories have political and societal undertones which will resonate more with people who have background knowledge of the circumstances under which they were written. Every story in this collection, especially “Lai Suo”, demands multiple readings to fully appreciate the power of Huang’s writing. However, I still think my lack of genuine understanding of Taiwan’s political history has made me lose something from the experience. Balcom’s translations, as elegant as they are, probably also failed to convey the full force of the writings in their original Chinese. The result is a sometimes enjoyable but also frequently frustrating read that I wished could have been better.

3 out of 5