READING: Disappearing Asian Wives

This will be the first of an ongoing series of blog posts about the books I’m currently reading, with commentaries, not-quite reviews, and not-quite criticisms. I’ll also be spotlighting forgotten or what I feel are underappreciated books, especially by Filipino authors. If you have a recommendation for me to read, or if you’d like to contribute to the discussion, please don’t hesitate to write on the comments below! Subscribe to the blog to get access to new posts every week.

Asian writers seem to have an obsession with disappearing wives. I first had this observation with Haruki Murakami, who has made a career out of it. His latest release, Killing Commendatore, kicks off when the protagonist’s wife divorces him, and he is plunged into a solitary existence on the mountains in the Japanese countryside. Though the divorce is already a mild form of it – in an earlier novel, The Wind Up Bird Chronicle, the wife literally just stops coming home (we later learn that she has run away with another man).

Wang Ting-Kuo’s My Enemy’s Cherry Tree, his debut novel, in a sublime translation by Howard Goldblatt and Sylvia Li-chun Lin under Granta books (link) is yet another addition to this canon of men with vanishing women. After the protagonist’s wife vanishes without a trace, he runs a coffee shop by the sea, at her favorite spot, with the hope that she’ll return.

I purchased a copy of the novel on my short visit to Kaohsiung, Taiwan for my twenty-second birthday last month. My Taiwanese friend, Grace, showed me to the Eslite bookstore in the Sanmin district and we discovered the book under the recommendation of the kind lady at the customer service desk. Grace, herself, hadn’t ever heard of the author despite them being both residents of Taichung. My Enemy’s Cherry Tree is not just Wang’s first published novel, it is his return to Taiwan’s literary world, with a comeback story itself worthy of a novel. On the back flap of the cover, we are told that Wang

“began writing fiction when he was 18 and quickly took the literary world by storm, only to disappear from the literary scene when his soon-to-be father-in-law gave him a devastating ultimatum: either give up the precarious life of a writer or give up my daughter. Having made his fortune, Ting-Kuo returned with a vengeance with My Enemy’s Cherry Tree which has since won all of Taiwan’s major literary prizes. This novel marks his English-language debut.”

And it’s clear enough that Wang lost none of the gifts that had first earned him recognition. The prose is a slow-burn, precise and subtle. His gifts seem to lie primarily in his ability to evoke deep insights with the right sequence of actions, the right glimpses of everyday objects. In one of my favorite passages so far, the protagonist ruminates on his grief towards his wife’s disappearance.

“The loss of a person we love takes with it our entire being. As the years passed, my memory of the secretive spot on her body slowly faded, and yet I was overwhelmed by irrepressible sorrow whenever I saw someone hold up a camera to take a picture. I hated both the way the cheek tilted to one side and the expression of concentration on the object… I was fearful of the camera, that gloomy instrument. It would be aimed at someone I didn’t know, a total stranger, but it always gave me the feeling that its dark lens was staring at my sorrow.”

I have yet to finish the book – this is, after all, a book that one would want to tread slowly, carefully, following as the prose proceeds calmly and precisely, like haiku poetry, but sizzling underneath with the expectation of a coming disaster, death looming close by on the horizon. Hardly a hundred pages in and I’m already impressed.

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