The narrator, Xiao Shao, recollects a series of friends and lovers, as he watches his childhood friend, Ah Yao, succumb to complications from AIDS. The brute fact of Ah Yao's death focuses Shao's simultaneously erudite and erotic reflections magnetically on the core theme of mortality. By turns humorous and despondent, the narrator struggles to come to terms with Ah Yao's risky lifestyle, radical political activism, and eventual death; the fragility of romantic love; the awesome power of eros; the solace of writing; the cold ennui of a younger generation enthralled only by video games; and life on the edge of mainstream Taiwanese society. His feverish journey through forests of metaphor and allusionfrom Fellini and Lévi-Strauss to classical Chinese poetryserves as a litany protecting him from the ravages of time and finitude.
Impressive in scope and detail, Notes of a Desolate Man employs the motif of its characters' marginalized sexuality to highlight Taiwan's vivid and fragile existence on the periphery of mainland China. Howard Goldblatt and Sylvia Li-chun Lin's masterful translation brings Chu T'ien-wen's lyrical and inventive pastiche of political, poetic, and sexual desire to the English-speaking world.
About the Author
Howard Goldblatt is professor of Chinese literature at the University of Colorado, Boulder, and translator of many books, most recently Mo Yan's Red Sorghum and Silver City by Li Rui. He is also the coeditor, with Joseph Lau, of The Columbia Anthology of Modern Chinese Literature.
Sylvia Li-chun Lin, who teaches at the University of Colorado, Boulder, writes on modern Chinese literature and culture.
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This is an age of decadence. This is an age of prophecy. I am securely bonded with it, sinking to the bottom, the very bottom.
I use my naked body to mark the nadir of all the most morally corrupting behaviors the human race can tolerate. Above me, moving from darkness to light, is rampant human desire and sexuality. Below me, there is nothing but an abyss. But since I have never believed in heaven, there can be no hell. Yes, below me, there is no demonic world. There is only, there is only the eternal, the everlasting abyss.
It stops here, it stops with me. The Bible says, Thou shalt not tempt the Lord thy God. This is where it stops.
I have reached my fortieth year, the prime of a man's life. So why have I already experienced the entire cycle of birth, aging, illness, and death, all that humans are fated to pass through, and become like a dead tree?
Who is it who said one should cultivate one's heart until it is like a dead tree and cold ashes, then have it sprout new leaves? But I am not like that. Nor am I like the monk, Master Hongyi, who could turn the splendor and charm of the first half of his life into dew to nourish the branches of tranquil asceticism of the second half.
I think, though I was once afraid of the raging desires that besieged me like moths drawn to a fire, and after the desire subsided, felt a deathly loneliness, and was terrified of facing that kind of loneliness, that now, at least, I can live with the loneliness. Living and dying serenely with that loneliness, looking death straightin the eye, I am no longer afraid.
I boarded the first plane to Tokyo, then took the Ome Line train to Fussa. At the Fussa Clinic I saw Ah Yao, sunk into the hollow of his bedding, and spent his last five days with him. I can still say that AIDS is horrifying, but the price of loneliness is higher.
In the videotape he had sent me Ah Yao was shouting with a crowd of demonstrators, ACT UP, FIGHT BACK, FIGHT AIDS. But that had neither moved nor convinced me. He believed in organizations and movements, while I was such a pessimist I never participated in any gathering of more than three people. Garbo said, "Leave me alone." I said dejectedly, Let the world forget me. Ah Yao fought AIDS valiantly, but his life was slipping away like sand in an hourglass, and on the TV screen I thought I'd seen an ocean boiling red with madly copulating octopi as numerous as the sands of the Ganges. Just like Ah Yao's lifetime of insatiable, indiscriminate mating.
I needed to go out for a walk. Ah Yao's mother was dozing in a chair next to his bed, as typhoon rains fell silently beyond the tightly shut window. Ah Yao was a congenial man who treated other people with warmth and passion, dumping all his violent anger on his mother. That undisguised abusive attitude toward her always disgusted me. He brought his lovers home with no regard for her feelings. Ah Yao, I said, the house isn't yours. We often fought over such things, as I criticized him for disregarding other people's feelings. Pouring his frustrations onto his mother was no better than stabbing a defenseless snail with a sharp object. I said, Ah Yao, your mother will never understand the wild, desolate world we inhabit, not as long as she lives. It's not that she doesn't want to, she can't, she simply can't. Most people can't, because their ordered universe is just as fragile.
Endless arguments that never resolved anything, fallen petals and dead people unable to understand each other. Fate had decreed that Ah Yao, engaged in a tug-of-war with time, would fervently lose himself him in carnal pleasures, preaching comradely love, comradely counterattacks, comradely space, comradely rights. He was the photograph of a street demonstration. And me? I was nothing more than the negative, representing hypocrisy, as I hid in a dark closet like a coward, reversing night and day, living ignobly amid the norms of the human world.
Ah Yao's mother treated me like her own son. Way, way back in time I called her Auntie, then later I called her Mama, just the way Ah Yao did. Every time I said the word Mama, I adopted a narrative tone, as if I respected her so much I felt unworthy of conversing with her without benefit of an intermediary. I left Mama and the sickbed, and the clinic, which was quiet as snow, and exposed myself to the gusty winds and pouring rain. By the time I opened the umbrella, I was drenched, but I really needed to go out for a walk.
I fought off the wind and rain with my umbrella. The rain was like cosmic dust blown from a bellows, one gust after another, stopping for a moment, then cascading like a waterfall. The wind suddenly changed direction, whipping my umbrella inside out, as if scraping off my scalp. But I needed to go out for a walk.
Yesterday morning, Ah Yao awoke from his deathlike enervation. When I say awoke, for him it was nothing more than a moist glimmer of light welling up in his sunken eye sockets to form a shallow pool barely big enough to reflect my face. Then he saw me too. Having waited for this moment for a long, long time, I held my breath, afraid that the slightest exhalation would blow that light away. The past, the past was like dew, like electricity. If not for Ah Yao, my teen years would have been a vacuum. Ah Yao's eyes moved past my face; probably he wanted to see the light behind me. But it was too late. The blindingly bright, cloudless, pristine, white pre-typhoon rays of sunlight were enough to extinguish him. The light in his eyes dimmed, then disappeared, and he slipped into a coma from which he would never emerge. His wakefulness lasted only an instant and was gone; we were lucky not to have missed it. That fleeting moment was our final farewell, and I was beyond tears.
In 1990, Ah Yao lost a great deal of weight with a cold and went in for a checkup. As feared, he had the disease. He'd had it since 1988, when he was living in New York and San Francisco. He couldn't remember who his partner was at the time. For seven months he took AZT; his hair fell out, he lost his appetite, and he was always nauseous. After he stopped taking the medication, his condition stabilized somewhat and he regained a bit of his appetite. Last spring, I visited him in Tokyo. He was weak already, but he let me talk to him for two whole nights. I went on and on about our youth and our teen years, every movie, every theme song, like fallen nobility airing embroidered silks and satins under a winter sun. I sang the theme song from The Man of La Mancha with Peter O'Toole and Sophia Loren: "To dream the impossible dream, to fight the unbeatable foe ... to right the unrightable wrong ... to reach the unreachable star." We were always singing their song, while thinking our own thoughts. When 60 percent of the cherry trees were blooming and the newspapers reported their progress daily, we finally solved the puzzle of something that had happened years before.
The summer we passed our college entrance exam, we went to Shih-fen Falls on his family's 100 cc Suzuki, taking turns up front. The Falls recreation area was a popular spot for barbecues. Stone walls, blackened by smoke, twisted and turned; we climbed past a cave and peeked inside at the litter of garbage, as if it had been home to prehistoric dwellers. Imposing ferns with umbrella leaves blotted out the sky. Streaks of sunlight, here one second, gone the next, frolicked like imps in a forest, sometimes stopping on Ah Yao's hair, sometimes flying over his cheeks, and sometimes blinding me. Faster and faster we walked, as a thick layer of rotting leaves foamed and squished under our shoes. Pretty soon we were stepping all over the place, no longer sure if he was chasing me or I was chasing him. The close-in pressure of a Brian de Palma lens shot forced us up to the water's edge. With my path of retreat cut off, I leaped onto a rock in the water, paused for a moment, then jumped over to another one, and then another. I turned to look for him. Unaware that he was nearly stepping on my shadow, I was forced to give up that rock and jump off. We both fell onto a mossy rock ahead of us and had to clutch each other to keep front slipping off. The water sprayed over our heads; sunlight splashed around like an imp, creating thousands of rainbows; and cold water splashed our faces. I thought that if we fell into the water, we'd sizzle with opaque steam. But I moved off the rock and landed at the water's edge. Clambering to my feet, I went over to stand under some broad-leafed bushes, the drumbeat from my pounding heart making me giddy. A darkly sweet aroma permeated the air; white orchid blossoms erupted from snakelike vines. Ah Yao hadn't followed me. He was under the falls, head thrown back, gulping mouthfuls of water. A long time passed, so long that he was doused and I was crestfallen. Not knowing exactly what I was waiting for, I experienced a hefty sense of emptiness that sank painfully to the bottom of my gut.
In silence, we walked out of the damp forest. I grew quieter than ever; he was even more dejected. Tourists were still having a great time, but we scurried back to Taipei.
For many years afterward, I recalled that scene. In that brief, flickering instant, Ah Yao's breath had fallen on my face, but he hadn't kissed me. I wonder why.
At that instant, I had been terrified by intense feelings for someone of my own sex, a startling fear that seemed like God's secrets revealed. I'd seen something I wasn't supposed to see and tried to block it out, but by then it was too late.
I spent that long, hot, stuffy summer holding my own darkness carefully in my hands as if it were a box of radioactive material. Its energy bounced around in my heart, ready to produce the blinding light of a nuclear blast as soon as I dredged up what had occurred beneath the waterfall. It had the power to destroy the narrative order of cause and effect. I had no means of recalling anything, my recollections were empty. So I resigned myself to exhaustion that summer, as the girl across the way kept playing the same song over and over, practicing dance steps to Tie a Yellow Ribbon.
Face to face with Ah Yao, I retreated into denial. No, I hadn't seen anything. I was innocent, I didn't know a thing. I pretended that nothing had happened, so adamant in my denial that my memory gradually underwent a revision. I erased facts I was reluctant to accept and began rewriting the text, until I was able to truly and completely forget what had happened at Shih-fen Falls. The lost horizon changed into a lost timeline; that day disappeared and nothing at all had happened between Ah Yao and me.
Until last year, at our final, night-long talk, when he said offhandedly, Remember Shih-fen Falls?
Yes, there was such a day; he was still healthy, I was still young.
At the time, I almost kissed you, Ah Yao said.
Oh! Really? I was surprised.
Ah Yao said, But you didn't have an erection, and just like that the impulse was gone.
Erection, yes, erection. The word, like a magic curse, summoned that lost day back from the realm of nothingness. Beneath the waterfall, during that brief moment while we were pressed against each other, I could feel Ah Yao's full erection against my belly, like a clenched fist. But we separated after that momentary touch, and every time I indulged myself in the process of hopeless recollection, I wished I had something with which to freeze the sensation, to look at it, observe it, understand it. The unwitting awakening of my unconscious was abruptly scared off and hounded into hiding in a deep cavern, until I met Jay six years later, that is, and it broke free to consume me. How could I have known that Ah Yao, who wasn't even twenty at the time, had already experienced everything?
Ah Yao told me that on the rough mountain road, when I was sitting behind him on the motorbike, he had fantasized about having anal sex with me. He got so turned on his arms and legs went numb and he had to stop. He asked if I remembered that we stopped by a cliff to look at the rock rising from the sea like a turtle shell. The cliff was San Tiao Chiao, or Three Marten Corners, which the Spanish had named San Diego. After we rested for a few minutes, I took over on the motorbike. He was sweating as he held me around the waist, then the wind dried his sweat and he was tamed. He said it had felt like he'd just done it.
Now, finally, I understood what I'd seen in his profile as he gazed out to sea. From my own rich experience over the years that followed, I knew that was the face of a man who had just enjoyed terrific sex. The blood had receded and the sweat had dried, but the face, not yet replenished with oxygen, was white as congealed fat, in contrast to his jet-black eyebrows and moist red lips, which looked painted on. Then, too, his eyes, framed by thick lashes, were misty, as if peering at ecstasy cooling off like the dimming glow of sunset. At the time, that expression unsettled me and made me turn away and concentrate on the sea.
So that's what it was. Finally awakening to the realization after twenty years, I chewed on this excavated historical data, and its taste was bitter as green olives. I said, Ah Yao, so that's what it was.
But Ah Yao could no longer sustain a long conversation. After a while, he could only utter single words; but I always knew what he wanted to say and finished his sentences for him. When he said, upstairs, I continued his thought: the old are sent upstairs. Ah, 8 1/2! Our days of film screenings. The oyster noodles in the alley where Taiwan Film Studios were located. Such authentic oysters, not the intestines they use as a substitute nowadays. So, Ah Yao, Fellini belongs to the past. The master aged, and we will be sent upstairs, too. Then I began reciting fragments from 8 1/2. What I mean by reciting is describing a series of scenes. Ah Yao closed his eyes and listened like an opera fan immersed in familiar arias and dialogue. Review and renew. Ah Yao and me, a couple of gray-haired palace maids, gabbing till dawn.
Ah Yao's place in Japan, a two-story Western-style house, belonged to his mother. Behind it three or four families lived in the shade of an old cherry tree. Each time I went to Tokyo I stayed with Mama, except for this spring, when I made the trip to visit Ah Yao and the two of us were actually together again. In the past, whenever I'd come to Tokyo, he'd been in Taiwan, and when I returned to Taipei, he'd have already taken a tour group to Amsterdam. After he got sick, he rarely came downstairs. Mama placed an overseas call to Taipei, asking me to phone him. Mixing Taiwanese with Japanese, she said to call collect, that she'd pay for the call. She wanted me to tell Ah Yao to get some exercise, and not be so lazy. He needed to walk around, even if he was tired. Following my advice, Ah Yao walked around on the tatami, stretching his neck, rolling his head, and shaking his arms. He did it for me, to show his gratitude for my visit.
He called himself a dying spirit. When he wanted to go outside, he rested his hand on the doorknob for a long time, lacking the strength to turn it. I'd known he was weak, but had no idea he was that weak.
I served as his crutches as we walked across the yard and down quiet streets to the riverbank in the park. Stopping every three steps, he lacked the strength even to raise his eyelids. His eyes gazed down at his nose, his nose gazed down at his heart, as he struggled to keep going. Suddenly, cherry blossoms showered down on him. He held his breath, concentrating on holding his emaciated body together, trying to keep it from falling apart under the weight of the flowers. The strain seemed to reduce him to a single line formed by his tightly closed mouth. Not daring to touch him, I just stood there beside him. Amid cherry blossoms fluttering down like a rain shower, waiting for the wind to die down, I felt like the wife of Rhodes, who, thousands of years ago, could not resist the temptation to look back at the burning city and was turned into a pillar of salt.
Every time Mama came upstairs with tea and food or to make the bed or with some extra bedding, she would instruct me in the wisdom of the Lord Jesus. But Ah Yao, who wouldn't listen, was her true intended audience. She was anguished over the fact that he had yet to confess and repent, and the sole purpose of the second half of her life was to get Ah Yao to come to God. Deprived of all alms-givers, she turned to me as a last resort to get her ideas across to Ah Yao.
It was always: Mama would open the sliding paper door and walk in, deliberately and carefully. Although her movements had slowed with age, she still moved with the grace of an actor in a Noh drama, like a dance but more ritualistic.
Mama bent over to place tea in front of me, following the custom of turning the porcelain cup halfway around before handing it to me. Each cup had a front and a back. I don't know how she could tell which was which, but it was important to her to have the front of the cup face her guest.
I treasured every cup of tea Mama presented to me, finishing it like a monk drinking down porridge given as alms. The seaweed flavor of Japanese tea took me back to Ah Yao's house on Taipei's Chang-an East Road, where the refreshing odor of disinfectant used in Western medicine filled the walled two-story house, with its brick facing, terrazzo floors, and baroque faade. It was at his house that I first tasted golden rice puffs sprinkled with bits of seaweed, placed in a jade-colored dish with artistic nicks in the rim. A serene, almost imperceptible fragrance emanated from Mama, who treated me like a grownup.
Japanese mother, Taiwanese daughter-in-law. Referring to the Epistle of Jude, she would say that any man who uses his positive traits in negative ways will suffer the torment of eternal fire and damnation.
Ah Yao called her Infinite Mother.
In Tokyo, I often took the last electric tram back to Fussa. Mama always left a light on in the living room, with a pot of hot water for tea. When I awoke in the morning, she was usually gone. My dirty clothes from the night before would be washed and hung out to dry. On the table, a basket of fruit. Mama knew I didn't eat anything in the morning, just a cup of tea. But rather than disappoint her, I'd force down an apple, or some strawberries, or a summer tangerine. She'd even lay out honey, and a knife and spoon, which I'd need for the tangerine.
I've always been fond of duck and chicken gizzards, and in my letters to Ah Yao, I praised her boiled leeks and stir-fried silver bean sprouts, as a means of expressing my gratitude to her. And she never forgot. She'd spend a whole morning or afternoon in the kitchen, pinching off the ends of bean sprouts one at a time, as if doing fine embroidery, keeping only the juicy, tender middle sections. She also brought home duck and chicken gizzards, which the Japanese don't eat, and laboriously scraped the rough, yellow insides, as if creating a work of art. I was speechless with gratitude. But Ah Yao said it was an honor for Infinite Mother, something she liked to do.
Occasionally, when I was in the same room with Mama, I'd suddenly feel as if we were on a Noh stage, grunting and chanting, submerged in a prolonged silence that felt like a painting whose colors bleed into each other. Our conversations were often reduced to intonations or sighs, but then we really didn't need to say anything. Tatami [grass mats], fusama [sliding partitions], shoji [sliding paper screens], the veranda and eaves, a slanting pine, like the familiar frame composition of the director Ozu Yasujiro, where nothing seems to move at all. In his old age, the camera seemed to be stationary, jump cuts the only punctuation. Within such a silent perspective, with the rhythms of Noh drama, I enjoyed becoming part of Ozu's scenes.
In reply to a relative who had made a wisecrack about Ah Yao's not marrying, Mama had said, My son's not marrying is only a problem of bachelorhood, but your son's marriage has produced a great many problems. She gleefully repeated this to me in a mixture of Taiwanese and Japanese that I could barely understand, but that's the gist of it.
Even though she hated the men who phoned Ah Yao and invariably turned them away, she was always polite. I'm so sorry, he's not home. When Ah Yao brought one of his lovers home, she'd politely excuse herself to go shopping. Carrying a handbag with a paramecium-and-seaweed design, she'd either go to help out at church or take the fifteen-minute tram ride to Tachikawa, which was a little farther away, for some snacks and green tea at Takashimaya, then buy some half-priced but still fresh salmon sashimi at Yiseitan Supermarket before it closed at seven. She'd return with a bagful of groceries and stock the fridge with Budweiser beer. But she'd stay downstairs, taking sanctuary behind a screen, the last spot she could call her own. Sometimes she'd hear footsteps on the stairs, which meant that Ah Yao and his partner were coming down to look for something to eat or drink. She'd turn the TV volume up to let them know there was someone behind the screen. But, powerless to stop them from fooling around, she would prostrate herself on the tatami in the grip of unimaginable torment, and pray. Sometimes it lasted only a night, at other times two or three days. But only after the stranger left would she emerge from her sanctuary and go upstairs to clean with the ferocity of someone ridding the room of a pestilence.
Mama walked slowly upstairs. The shadow of her hunched figure showed through the screen before she arrived. A giant ghostly shadow. The outline of Infinite Mother.
Ah Yao said, I think we are in rats' alley.
Where the dead men lost their bones. I silently recited the line from Eliot's "The Waste Land," the favorite poem of our youth.
Mama knelt down when she reached the screen door, and I watched the giant shadow shrink until it merged with the actual person. I couldn't help but recall a certain scene. I still remember his nameXiaoyu. We were on our knees on the hardwood floor, arms around each other as we kissed passionately. Suddenly he bent backward and fell into a corner, alongside an artificial landscape. The floor lamp shone upon the small rocks and slender bamboo. He reached out and turned the light around so that our shadows, cast on the wall and ceiling, looked like giant deities. He was so, so incredibly turned on by the sight of our dark, gigantic, tangled shadows, he nearly went crazy and took me with him as far as we could go.
I looked at the porcelain cup, shaped like a Fuji apple. With no glaze, it felt rough and grainy, as if its days of glory were past. Somehow, I thought, I can tell which is the front of the cup and which the back. One side is a deeper color owing to a greater absorption of heat, unevenly distributed by the burning pine in the kiln. As for the face of the cup, it was the creation of destruction, a Buddhist fire, a Taoist flame.
It was April, the season when cherry trees bloom like raging fires. The philosophy of cherry blossoms dying at the height of their beauty is too mannered. I scrutinized the patches of brownish green and bluish purple around Ah Yao's mouth and wrists; they looked like bruises. Soon the Karposi's tumor would spread to his internal organs and swell his lymph nodes. I sighed. Ah Yao, you still won't repent, will you?
Ah Yao said, Repentance is a far greater evasion.
Approaching forty, we gradually gave up trying to bring each other around to our own way of looking at things. He figured he'd lived a dissolute life, and when it was over he'd go to hell. To say more was a waste of time.
So our conversation during the second half of the night stopped abruptly at a heated moment, when we were both agitated but not yet angry. His body, it simply couldn't take any more.
The light bulb suddenly brightened. I adjusted the shade so the lamp would shine its light out the window onto the cherry blossoms, turning them almost white. As Mama slowly read passages from the New Testament, Ah Yao pushed open the window and grabbed some of the flowers to eat. Cold air rushed in, a spring chill. When I went to close the window, I noticed Ah Yao's deathly ashen face, his mouth stained with pale yellow pollen, his lips trembling as he chewed the flowers. In the depth of night, the windowpane reflected a scenery of quiet flowers and a pale face. Once Ah Yao fell into silent oblivion, his tightly drawn face was like a knife cutting into my heart.
I was watching the sun set, while others were waiting for it to rise.
I walked into the stormy rains down Fussa streets, and was soaked to the skin.
It was an odd street. Tall stalks of bamboo stacked at an angle in front of the doors of houses were tied with colorful ribbons. From one end of the street to the other, the bamboo seemed to blot out the sky. Maybe they had been put up for the Festival of the Dead. I vaguely recalled, several days before, hearing the beating of drums and the shrill sounds of flutes piercing the clouds, followed by groups of ghost-dancers rushing in like the tide carrying schools of tumbling fish to the river, sweeping the shopkeepers and pedestrians on both sides of the street along with them. But now there was no one in sight. The wind and rain set the bamboo leaves rustling noisily and made the ribbons snap in the air. I scurried along beneath them, feeling the awesome power of nature. Suddenly the rain and wind stopped, and the ribbons hung slack, snowy white, vermilion red. The exquisite colors seemed not to belong to this world. I walked among them, wanting, longing to turn back.
Never before had I yearned to see another person as much as at this moment. Anyone, even footsteps from behind, would have been enough. People, people who need people, as Barbra Streisand sang. Someone like me, solitary as a monk, couldn't help but feel this way. My tears were falling; as the wind and rain died out, then returned, I wailed in agony.
Ah Yao, he was already gone!
Table of ContentsTranslator's Preface
Notes of a Deslolate Man
Notes on Notes