Why you should read: The Man with the Compound Eyes, Wu Ming-Yi
By Luke Frostick
“The sea is totally changed. From a distance it is still blue or even multi-coloured on account of the garbage. But having spent time with the sea on a daily basis I can feel its emotions. Now the sea seems to be made out of pain and misery.”
Wu Ming-Yi The Man with the Compound Eyes
On the island of Wayo Wayo certain things are true: the Sea Sage knows all, the souls of suicides at sea turn into jellyfish, the people of Wayo Wayo came to live on their island after the sea god Kabang, mightiest of all gods, cast them out of their home in the sea and the second son of a family must leave the island forever when they turn fifteen. Atile’i is one such second son.
At the same time, Alice is mourning for her son and husband after they disappeared in the mountainous, forested heart of Taiwan. The home her husband and she had built on the shore is becoming submerged due to global warming induced sea rise; her life with her son and husband are being physically and metaphorically swept away. To make matters worse, the news reports that a gigantic trash vortex in the sea—the detritus of all the pacific civilisations—is being pushed towards Taiwan by the unstable weather. When the trash vortex hits Alice’s remote stretch of Taiwanese cost, into Alice’s life, along with the styrofoam, plastic bags, condoms and dead sea turtles, Atile’i is swept.
That’s the concise introduction to the plot of Wu Ming-Yi’s brilliant Man With The Compound Eyes. Of course, it has its twist and turns, but there is not much more to it than that. Over all it’s very simple. It’s about a woman coming to terms with loss and a rural indigenous population with environmental destruction and economic and social marginalisation. Thrown into this mix is the fantastical story of Atile’i, his life on Wayo Wayo and journey across the sea on the trash vortex. This is a story about people and the themes that impact on their lives.
With regard to the themes, an environmental activist himself, Wu Ming-Yi’s book is very much about the environment, its destruction by mankind in both literal and symbolic ways. The book touches on whaling, nuclear waste disposal, factory runoff and unchecked construction. But there is more too it than that, it is also a book about loss and grieving, indigenous people’s struggles in a Han Chinese dominated Taiwan, sex workers, Bob Dylan, Norwegian seal hunting, religion and more. The amazing thing that Wu Ming-Yi does is giving each of these competing themes and ideas space to play out without overcrowding the others. Ming-Yi pulls of this act of literary balancing with all the skill of a master trapeze artist.
The other reason to read this book is for the characters, which are all well developed and engaging. A fact that was made all the more incredible when I consider just how many of them turn up through what isn’t a very long novel. For instance, around the middle section of the book two new characters are introduced, from a completely different background to the others. One of these characters, Sara, has a worldview and personality that are explained to the reader via an anecdote about her father, another character who we’ve never heard of before. Through this section, not only is Sara roundly introduced and the role that she will play in the story suggested to, but also her father is built into a well-developed character whose fate eventually becomes moving and pertinent. That characters introduced so late in an already cluttered cast can be so complete as people is nothing short of black magic.
The writer this book most reminded me of was Peter Høeg because of the way that he handles characters and their interactions. I could imagine Ms. Smilia sitting down with Alice and having a cup of coffee and having profound conversations about life in the simplest of words.
On the subject of comparisons, they have inevitably been made between Wu Ming-Yi and Haruki Murakami. But beyond the superficial fact that they are both East Asian writers who use magical and speculative elements to expand their ideas about the human condition I didn't find the comparison particularity relevant (also there is a cat). Wu Ming-Yi’s characters are more diverse and well rounded. He doesn't share the same preoccupations as Murakami. If I had to make a comparison with a Japanese creator it would be with Natuski Kirino’s fiction (The Goddess Chronicle) for its mythology-as-activism approach, or to the legendry animator Hayao Miyazaki’s work (Studio Ghibli) because of their shared interest in environmentalism. Wu Ming-Yi is also more practically speculative than Murakami, or Miyazaki. Although, describing the rising sea level, oceanic rubbish and mass extinctions, perhaps Wu Ming-Yi isn’t as speculative as I’d wish for.
To wrap up, I’ve long enjoyed the literature of Japan. As a Brit, the island nature of Japanese literature has always resonated with me. Perhaps it’s time that I expanded that to Taiwan and given that last year another of Wu Ming-Yi’s books, The Stolen Bicycle, has come out I’ll certainly be picking it up if by chance it makes it’s way to an Istanbul book shop.
You can read The Man With the Compound Eyes here