Ta-wei Chi, Assistant Professor, Graduate Institute of Taiwanese Literature, National Chengchi University
Set in the 1990s (a period known as “fin de siècle” in Taiwanese literary circles), Zhu Tianwen’s novel Notes of a Desolate Man (1994) presents a forty year-old gay man’s reflections on love, sex, life, and death. The story’s protagonist calls himself a “desolate man” – a desolate human relic – not only because he has been excluded from heterosexual society, but because he feels that younger gay men despise him as well. Actually, he has a vivacious and handsome young male lover, yet constantly worries that his happiness may vanish at any time.
Xiao Shao, the “desolate” man of the title, is a university instructor, subdued and cautious, with only a small circle of intimates, such as his younger sister and an old friend stricken with AIDS. In his friend’s illness the protagonist sees the pain of those whom society has marginalized (his friend once challenged mainstream heterosexual society with his forthright sexuality, but is now ravaged by disease); in his sister’s family life he witnesses the happiness of “normal people” (his sister’s ordinary, contented domesticity embodies an aspect of heterosexual life that is envied by homosexuals).
Notes of a Desolate Man is one of Taiwan’s most widely discussed works of LGBT literature for three major reasons: First, author Zhu Tianwen is highly regarded in the literary world, and has collaborated with the noted director Hou Hsiao-Hsien on a number of screenwriting projects, winning favor with both critics and the public. Second, the work has won prestigious literary awards, and was serialized in newspapers (in the 1990s, newspaper literary supplements had not yet been overshadowed by the Internet and were highly influential). Third, the novel is noted for its stylistic color and charm, showing the strong influence of essayist Hu Lancheng (who was once married to Zhang Ailing). The book’s literary style – magnificent, sensuous, and plaintive – has been emulated by a generation of younger Taiwanese writers.
Notes of a Desolate Man is often regarded as a “postmodern novel”; that is, semiotic games are central to the work, while plot and character development are of secondary importance. The novel is not plot- or personality-driven, but rather an interaction between character and signs. Thanks to Zhu’s literary artistry, readers who cannot grasp the plot still find delight in the interplay of signs and symbols (such as the exoticism and nostalgia that inform the text).
The desolate man’s yearning for heterosexual love, the self-abasement he feels in regard to his sexual orientation, and his nostalgia for times past – including the authoritarian Chiang Kai-shek era – have been targeted by some reviewers. Such critics regard the novel and its central character as embodiments of conservatism, noting that the work fails to display an accommodating ethical attitude toward those who are different (AIDS sufferers, in particular). To be fair, however, the novel is a product of the early 1990s, and its limitations are a mark of that era.
Zhu Tianwen (b. 1956) was born in Taipei to a Chinese father and Taiwanese mother (writers Zhu Xining and Liu Musha). She holds a degree in English from Tamkang University. In the late 1970s, with the support of her parents she co-founded the 3-3 Collection (1977−1981), also known as Sansan Journal – an allusion to Sun Yat-sen’s “Three Principles of the People” and the Christian trinity – with her younger sister Zhu Tianxin and a group of like-minded friends. The kaleidoscopic works of the collection are unified by a romanticism and nostalgia for China, with many of them eulogizing nature and youth. Zhu Tianwen is a dedicated follower of writers Hu Lancheng and Zhang Ailing. She has inherited both their literary styles and their worldviews.
Zhu Tianwen’s early work centers on family and school life. Her novels New Prefect Qiao Stories (1977) and Legends (1981) and the essay “Life in Tamkang” (1979) mostly portray youthful innocence and rarely touch upon current events. In 1982, Zhu started to write film screenplays. She worked with prominent director Hou Hsiao-hsien on many films, and in the 1980s was an important screenwriter in Taiwan’s New Wave. In 2008 her screenplays were published in Three Times, a collection of over twenty of her works written between 1982 and 2006.
The publication of the novel City of Hot Summers in 1987 marked a turning point for Zhu Tianwen. This work of urban fiction focuses on the experience of growing up. Hereafter, Zhu’s writing style became increasingly elaborate and ornate. This style of urban writing culminated in Fin de Siècle Splendor (1990), a collection of short stories that reflect on urban life, generational differences, youth and complex emotions. The title story “Fin de Siècle Splendor” presents a vivid display of fashion and a uniquely feminist worldview. It also acts as a response to her mentor Hu Lancheng’s unfinished work “On Women.”
Notes of a Desolate Man (1994) is a first-person narrative about a gay Taiwanese man. Encompassing the author’s personal aesthetic vision, its release drew tremendous attention and spurred widespread discussion. The “desolate man” shies away from politics and reality, restrains his passions and is indifferent to material things. The only thing he indulges in is writing: he has profound knowledge of various cultural discourses and classical allusions and often laments the crumbling of culture and tradition. The novel puts in focus the beliefs that Zhu held when she was editor of 3-3 Collection and also contains a large amount of sensual detail and cultural symbolism. In homage to her mentor, the author cleverly weaves into the novel many of Hu Lancheng’s key theories.
In a 40,000-word preface to the novel Forerunner of Flowers (1996), Zhu Tianwen relates her literary encounter with Hu Lancheng, which provides an important insight into her views on literature.
This excerpt is taken from the Encyclopedia of Taiwan; for the entire Chinese article, please visit: http://nrch.culture.tw/twpedia.aspx?id=2330
|Work(English)：||Notes of a Desolate Man|
|Anthology：||Notes of a Desolate Man|
|Publisher：||New York: Columbia University Press|
|Ordering information for original work(Link)：||http://www.books.com.tw/products/0010493617|
Ordering information for original work(Note)：
|The “book.com.tw” Internet Bookstore|
|Ordering information for translation(Link)：||http://cup.columbia.edu/book/notes-of-a-desolate-man/9780231116091|
|Ordering information for translation(Note)：||Columbia University Press|