The Bear Whispers To Me

Chang Ying-Tai (translated by Darryl Sterk)

Balestier Press, €15.35; Kindle, €12.55

 

WHILE rummaging in the drawers of his home, a Taiwanese aboriginal boy an old scrapbook that had once belonged to his father. Through stories, diary entries and drawings, the amazing story of a wild and adventurous childhood is unfurled.

Dreams are fused with reality, Time takes on an illusory quality, and wisdom is hoarded and dispensed through poetic, thought-provoking proverbs:

“When a needle falls in the forest, the eagle sees it, the deer hears it and the bear smells it. The eagle, deer and bear are the eyes, ears and nose of the Celestial Spirit.”

For the boy in the scrapbook, mountainside existence is marked by poverty and innocence. While his father, Momo, attempts to eke out a living for them by baking rice flour breadmen and peddling the delicious snacks to the nearby villagers, the narrator is free to roam the forest, guided and educated by the spirit of his grandfather, long dead and now a guardian of the Celestial Spirit, a voice on the breeze, full with all the knowledge and understanding of the world.

These are people inseparable from their surround. Magic is everywhere, and in everything. The living and dead walk hand in hand.

Eating insects, mimicking the calls of the forest birds, playing with spiders and his pet rooster, and, most of all, tracking bears, makes for an idyllic way of passing afternoons. One day, the boy finds and rescues a young bear cub snared in a trap. After several weeks spent tending to the animal’s wounds, he reluctantly releases the bear, but by then the pair have formed a deep bond, and for a long time after, he leaves treats in the forest, hoping that Cub will return.

However, there are others roaming the woods too: a friendly but simple 15-year-old girl named Lotus, who follows Momo around, hoping to snag a breadman and, maybe, to feel the compassion of human contact after years of living as an outcast; and a strange bear-like creature, a Frankenstein’s monster, that has been skulking around the village.

The boy recognises this bear-man — who he names Kody — as the same one he’d seen caged up at the annual village fair, controlled by a wicked Kung Fu master and used as a prop to help sell ‘miracle’ snake oil potions. These three outsiders are drawn together to form a peculiar friendship, and each gradually learns to accept their individual natures and to gain a deeper understanding of who and what they truly are.

Regarded as one of the brightest lights in Chinese-language literature, and winner of major national awards, Taiwan’s Chang Ying-Tai is the author of four novels and three collections of short stories.

Though a number of her short stories have previously been published in translation, The Bear Whispers To Me is the first of her major works to make it into English and as a striking and imaginative piece of storytelling it is a novel that deserves to make quite an impact. Darryl Sterk’s sensitive translation emphasises the quality of Miss Chang’s language and allows the beautiful, descriptive prose to really shine.

Fascinating in its folkloric sense of tribal ways, deeply spiritual in its philosophies and alert to ancient wisdom, this is a poignant and compelling story of lives approaching fullest bloom, a coming-of-age parable that contemplates love, loss, desire, familial bonds and man’s place in and relationship with the natural world.

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