Asian writer’s captivating tale of ecology and love

The Man with the Compound Eyes
Wu Ming-Yi (translated by Darryl Sterk)
Harvill Secker,
£16.99;Kindle, £9.49

On Wayo Wayo, an isolated (and wholly invented) South Pacific island, in the near future, 15-year-old Atile’i comes of age and, as the tradition of his people dictates with regard to second sons, is sent out onto the ocean alone, as a sacrifice to the sea god, never to return. The currents lock him into a tide of discarded waste, a so-called ‘trash vortex’, that eventually washes up on the shores of Taiwan.

Meanwhile, Alice Shih, a literature professor contemplating suicide following the disappearance of her husband and son in a mountain accident, is forced to put her plans on hold when a media frenzy descends on her coastal home-town to record the ecological disaster. It is she who rescues Atile’i from the mess, and they escape to the tranquillity of the mountains and begin to live for one another.

Atile’i and Alice are the main players in a poetic and extremely pertinent ecological fairy tale, but much of what gives this novel its gravitas is to be found in the careful interweaving of various other narratives, including those of a Norwegian marine biologist and her activist father, a German geologist, and, in particular, a pair of captivating Taiwanese aborigines: Dahu, a tribal mountain guide, and Hafay, a lonely masseuse with ambitions to opening her own café. The result, which fuses the magic realism of old dynasty storytelling with a deeply resonant and extremely pertinent intellectuality, presents a striking portrait of the marginalised in society and also the challenges faced by old traditions and cultures in the face of sweeping modernism.

Asian fiction has been gaining a tenuous but not insignificant foothold with western audiences of late. Japan’s Haruki Murakami enjoys worldwide super-stardom, and China’s Mo Yan was honoured with the 2012 Nobel Prize for Literature. However, despite a vibrant publishing industry and notable history of letters, Taiwan has yet to enjoy much in the way of international recognition. This may be about to change.

Wu Ming-Yi has already forged a diverse career for himself as an artist, academic and environmental activist. He is the author of two well-received non-fiction books on butterflies, and has won several national awards for his fiction. The Man with the Compound Eyes, his fourth novel, is his first to garner attention abroad, having earned effusive praise from the likes of Margaret Atwood and Ursula Le Guin, two authors well versed in world-building. Comparisons have already been drawn with the work of Murakami, David Mitchell, and Yann Martel, but The Man with the Compound Eyes might actually be something even more sophisticated and exciting: a novel of genuinely rich originality that considers man’s relationships both with nature and with himself.


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