Roan Ching-yue is an architecture professor in Taiwan and has written several stories featuring gay themes, including ‘The Pretty Boy from Hanoi‘ and ‘The Con Man‘ (click through for my translation), both featured in the short story collection City of Tears (《哭泣哭泣城》), this was his first long-form novel and it was published in 2002.
We meet the protagonist of this novel at a time of crisis. An only child, he meets a man resembling his dad who claims to be his brother by the same mother and father. Despite the questions that surround the man’s sudden appearance in his life, he accepts him as a brother pending further inquiry. It’s at this time that he finds out that his company is moving the majority of its employees to China, so he quits and fails to find another job, so has a larger amount of free time. Over this period he discovers that his “brother” is gay and then we are introduced to the brother’s perspective, with a chronicle of his childhood growing up in Australia and his wild sex life.
The glimpses we get of the brother’s life, show him to be a lot more carefree than the protagonist, however, one of the main stories he recounts involved an attempt to shame him:
[My translation] I was once at a motel in Los Angeles and, bored, so I decided to pleasure myself. I stuffed the cap of a bottle of shaving cream into my ass. As I was unable to get it out again, I had to go three days without moving my bowels. I gradually lost my appetite and my face turned a shade of reddish purple. The doctor at the emergency room knew, of course, what I’d done, but he insisted on forcing me to recount all the gory details of what I’d gotten up to that night in the motel room in front of a group of strangers comprised of interns and nurses. He made me lie squatting on the bed like a dog, while he and his female assistant tried in vain to take it out, threatening that if I didn’t cooperate as best I could, he would have to cut my anus open with a knife. I calmly asked him: How long would the wound take to heal if you cut it open? He said: Maybe a lifetime, maybe you’d never be able to use it again for anything but shitting.
I accepted him shaming me through the entire process and at the moment when he finally retrieved the plastic cap, I sprayed the shit I had accumulated over several days out of my elevated ass all over him and his assistant just as the cap slid out.
This was shame’s parasitic twin, revenge. [pg. 138]
This brought to mind a scene from the start of Jean Genet’s Journal of a Thief as follows:
I was dismayed when, one evening, while searching me after a raid [...] the astonished detective took from my pocket, among other things, a tube of vaseline. We dared joke about it since it contained mentholated vaseline. The whole record-office, and I too, though painfully, writhed with laughter at the following:
“You take it in the nose?”
“Watch out you don’t catch cold. You’d give your guy whooping-cough.”
I translate but lamely, in the language of a Paris hustler, the malicious irony of the vivid and venomous Spanish phrases. It concerns a tube of vaseline, one of whose ends was partially rolled up. Which amounts to saying that it had been put to use. Amidst the elegant objects taken from the pockets of the men who had been picked up in the raid, it was the very sign of abjection, of that which is concealed with the greatest of care, but yet the sign of a secret grace which was soon to save me from contempt. When I was locked up in a cell, and as soon as I had sufficiently regained my spirits to rise above the misfortune of my arrest, the image of the tube of vaseline never left me. The policemen had shown it to me victoriously, since they could thereby flourish their revenge, their hatred, their contempt. But lo and behold! that dirty, wretched object whose purpose seemed to the world–to that concentrated delegation of the world which is the police and, above all, that particular gathering of Spanish police, smelling of garlic, sweat and oil, but substantial-looking, stout of muscle and strong in their moral assurance–utterly vile, became extremely precious to me. Unlike many objects which my tenderness singles out, this one was not at all haloed; it remained on the table a little gray leaden tube of vaseline, broken and livid, whose astonishing discreteness, and its essential correspondence with all the commonplace things in the record office of a prison (the bench, the inkwell, the regulations, the scales, the odor), would, through the general indifference, have distressed me, had not the very content of the tube made me think, by bringing to mind an oil lamp (perhaps because of its unctuous character), of a night light beside a coffin. [...] The tube of vaseline, which was intended to grease my prick and those of my lovers, summoned up the face of her who, during a reverie that moved through the dark alleys of the city, was the most cherished of mothers. It had served me in the preparation of so many secret joys, in places worthy of its discrete banality, that it had become the condition of my happiness, as my sperm-spotted handkerchief testified. Lying on the table, it was a banner telling the invisible legions of my triumph over the police. I was in a cell. I knew that all night long my tube of vaseline would be exposed to the scorn-the contrary of a Perpetual Adoration-of a group of strong handsome, husky policemen. So strong that if the weakest of them barely squeezed his fingers together, there would shoot forth, first with a slight fart, brief and dirty, a ribbon of gum which would continue to emerge in a ridiculous silence. Nevertheless, I was sure that this puny and most humble object would hold its own against them; by its mere presence it would be able to exasperate all the police in the world; it would draw down upon itself contempt, hatred, white and dumb rages.
Excerpted from The Thief’s Journal by Jean Genet; translated from the French by Bernard Frechtman; Grove Press Inc; 1964 (Fair use).
The author previously translated Genet’s Our Lady of the Flowers and he appears to have been a big influence on his style as well as on the way he conceives of shame and how it can damage the one attempting to shame more than the one being shamed and make something sacred out of something abject. The complexity of this kind of relationship is also reflected in the con in his short story ‘The Con Man’.
I personally felt the brother in the story was one of the more interesting characters and would have liked to see him developed more, or for more of the story to be narrated through his perspective. After discussing this with the author, he said that he felt the banal normality of the protagonist was a way of drawing the Taiwanese everyman into the story and I can understand this motivation even if it lessened the novel’s appeal for me. As it is, the novel deals with issues including filial piety, exile, integration and HIV/AIDS, reflecting the main preoccupations of gay men at the time he was coming of age.
A Genet-like tendency to speak the unspeakable surfaces again in the novel in the discomfiting way the brother’s sexuality comes to light, as the protagonist witnesses him having sex with a mentally disabled youth:
[My Translation] I walked towards my brother, but then realised that in the shadow behind him, the retarded young man stood close behind my brother’s prone body, his puffy red face focused as his strong body rocked back and forth, with one arm cradling a startled looking pigeon and the other holding my brother by the waist, focused, rocking…
That’s when I realised that my brother’s face, which was protruding slightly from the stairwell window, was following the rhythm of the young man’s thrusts, swaying back and forth.
My brother still had a far-off look on his face, oblivious to the world around him, with an expression halfway between saintliness and indifference.
Things subsequently come to a head between the protagonist and his “brother”:
One night he rang my doorbell. He said we should have a proper talk and that we couldn’t go on like this. My brother entered my place and sat down, then looked at me saying:
“You… you can’t accept me… the way I am, right?”
“Was that man retarded?”
“Yes. But I… I don’t care about that at all, ugly or beautiful… beautiful, wise or foolish, old or young, they don’t exist for me.”
This put me in mind of a scene from a television crime drama from the UK that I’d seen once, portraying two down’s syndrome adults who desperately wanted to have sex with one another and another UK show which matched singles, some of whom had suffered brain damage or were mentally disabled. The second show was more interesting than the first, in that it acknowledged the possibility of people with a different scope of mental disability – or no disability at all – dating one another, whereas the first was simply an attempt to acknowledge the difficulty of facing the sexual side of people with down’s syndrome that we normally tend to infantilize. A sexual relationship between what we might consider to be a “mentally competent” adult and a “mentally disabled” or “mentally different” adult is a little more challenging – as essentially we have the urge to deny their ability to consent. On the other side of the coin, however, this also robs them of agency over their own bodies and of an outlet for the sexual frustration they must feel as sexually (but not necessarily psychologically) mature adults. Obviously this is a very complex issue and I don’t pretend to be qualified to comment on it, but I admired the attempt by the author to make it more nuanced than the old cliche of ”straight man disgusted at brother’s homosexual act”, and to push the reader out of their comfort zone. To some it might seem a rather regressive move, in the context of the mainstream ideology of the contemporary gay movement – i.e. “We’re just like you straight people!” Following this line of thought, we might associate this kind of storyline to be an attempt to otherize gay men or to imply an exceptionalism to the way gay men go about living their lives. The brother seems to dedicate himself to purely hedonistic pleasure. I’m not sure how much we can take this story as representative of gay men, however; the author seems more focused on the narratives that lie outside the contemporary mainstream of middle-class gay stories, such as the ambiguous status of working class men who have sex with men for whom the label of “gay” means relatively little. I also felt that this seemed more to be an individual narrative responding to individual and class circumstances, rather than an attempt to speak to or on behalf of the gay community.
An interesting aspect of the meeting between the two men, is that there is a vaguely sexual tone underlying the way the protagonist recognizes his father in his “brother”:
(My Translation) Focusing on him, I realized that his face did, in fact, resemble that of my father-who had passed away around five years earlier-in his younger days, especially his thin red lips, which made him look as if he had just sucked his fill of blood. It was due to these lips alone that many women had fallen for my father, and mother had always hated these red lips, often saying:
“They are bewitching lips which could only result from possession by a vixen spirit. For a man who has taken a wife and had fathered a son, to have such bewitching lips is clearly because sin envelops him, sin envelops him, it’s really quite an embarrassment.”
There’s also a vaguely sexual undertone to the typhoon night the protagonist and the “brother” share in the same bed, although nothing happens overtly. I wasn’t really sure what to make of this at all.
The story also plays with a trope that I have become quite familiar with in Taiwan, that is, supernatural intervention to allow people to complete filial obligation or debts of gratitude. A series of plays by Wu Nien-chen (吳念真）called the Human Condition (《人間條件》), which dealt with a very similar trope, was actually the subject of my master’s thesis. In different parts of The Human Condition series a deceased grandmother possesses the body of her granddaughter in order to thank a man who helped her in the past and another old lady returns as a ghost to ensure that a promise she made a dying man in her youth, killed during the White Terror, is kept by her family. Slavoj Žižek picks up this trope as common in Hollywood too in the form of the “return of the living dead”. He explains it with a contrast of the Lacanian concepts of demand and drive:
Demand almost always implies a certain dialectical mediation: we demand something, but what we are really aiming at through this demand is something else – sometimes even the very refusal of the demand in its literality. Along with every demand, a question necessarily rises: “I demand this, but what do I really want by it?” Drive on the contrary, persists in a certain demand, it is a “mechanical” insistence that cannot be caught up in dialectical trickery: I demand something and I persist in it to the end. (Looking Awry: An Introduction to Jaques Lacan through Popular Culture; pg21)
The latter is the theoretical concept by which the dead return, as Žižek states:
The return of the dead is a sign of a disturbance in the symbolic rite, in the process of symbolization; the dead return as collectors of some unpaid symbolic debt. [...] The “return of the living dead” is, on the other hand, the reverse of the proper funeral rite. While the latter implies a certain reconciliation, an acceptance of loss, the return of the dead signifies that they cannot find their proper place in the text of tradition. (Looking Awry: An Introduction to Jaques Lacan through Popular Culture; pg23)
In this case, the mysterious “brother” character is not dead, but dying of AIDS. His return is not the return of the dead, but rather a kind of spiritual projection through his delirium. Ultimately, the brother is able to take his place in the symbolic order by returning to his mother’s home as he promised his mother (who turns out to be the protagonist’s maternal aunt) he would before she died:
[My translation] “You’re not going to the white bridge? I have to go, whether it rains or not. I promised my mother I would, so I have to go to the bridge no matter what.”
Ultimately he fulfills his mother’s wish and in the process reveals to the protagonist the true story of his parents’ marriage and the fate of his aunt and her son, and is then able to die. Whereas the use of this supernatural tool in The Human Condition has a very clear aim – seeking to draw attention to the largely unresolved nature of Taiwan recent history under the KMT regime and the suffering of women in Taiwanese society – it is unclear to me what the larger purpose of this tool is in this novel and it left me a little frustrated. At the same time I’m aware that Roan Ching-yue is likely not as fond of the straight-forward tidy ending as Wu Nien-chen is and they’re clearly working towards different aims: Roan towards trying to push you beyond your comfort zone and Wu Nien-chen towards allowing you to wallow in comfortable nostalgia.
Throughout the novel there is also discussion of HIV/AIDS and the fear around it. The protagonist believes he has HIV after a urine sample he provides for a colleague’s HIV test comes out positive. Eventually the positive result turns out to have been faked by the colleague’s jealous wife who was trying to force him into telling her if he’d been with a prostitute in China. We witness the protagonist’s overwhelming panic until eventually he finds out that he doesn’t actually have it. On getting the news that he does not have it, he finds out that his “brother” does.
Attitudes towards HIV/AIDS have undoubtedly changed since this book was published in 2002, clear even from the fact that the HIV test was a urine test at the time. When the protagonist thinks he has HIV, there’s instantly an attempt to blame – and he throws blame at a woman he slept with as opposed to his own failure to take precautions.
When “the brother” is finally “rid” of the disease at the white bridge, which we assume is an omen of his death in Sydney – he says that he’s “pure and healthy like an infant again”. This seems in conflict with contemporary notions of HIV/AIDS in mainstream gay culture and attempts to remove the stigma attached to it, with campaigns such as this one:
— CuriousEd (@ed10max) December 22, 2014
This is likely due to the atmosphere of the time when the author was coming of age – when HIV was a death sentence. The change in attitude shown by the mainstream LGBTIQ community in Taiwan and the US came a lot later than this novel – however, attitudes have yet to change in the wider community in both Taiwan and the US. Although some might view the brother’s view towards his HIV/AIDS diagnosis to be somewhat dated, I think it’s still quite representative of prevailing opinion within society and is therefore still quite relevant.
The story also deals to some extent with the cultural and class divide between waishengren (外省人 － people who came from China with the KMT in and around 1949 and their descendants) and benshengren (本省人－ Han people who were living in Taiwan before the ROC government retreated there in 1949 and their descendants). Although the protagonist’s mother is benshengren, she makes an extraordinary effort to adapt to the waishengren culture of her husband and this leads to “the brother” being able to speak Taiwanese, while the protagonist cannot. This leaves the protagonist with less of a sense of belonging in Taiwan, and, like his father, he finds that the homeland that waishengren always dreamed of returning to “after the war” no longer exists. This seems less and less of an issue in Taiwan among young people, as, certainly in Taipei, young people from both communities are largely unable to speak Taiwanese and the divide between this generation is far less perceptible. Identity politics still plays a large role in politics, however, and the waisheng/bensheng divide in the KMT is said to be behind the enmity between the cliques of President Ma Ying-jeou and legislative speaker Wang Jin-pyng.
The phenomenon of Taiwanese people having to uproot their lives and move to China, has also become more and more a common feature of Taiwanese news stories, so it’s rather prescient that the protagonist has to face exactly this prospect. In fact, now, as wages increase in China, more and more Taiwanese businesses are moving to South East Asia now. Commonwealth magazine (《天下雜誌》) actually had a two part focus (582期、583期) on Taiwan’s relationship with South East Asia, including investigating the increasing number of Taiwanese young people who have had to move to ASEAN countries to be able to secure a job for themselves.
The book raises interesting issues, but I have to say, I feel that I enjoyed the author’s short stories more, as the short story format is a more suitable format for the kind of writing he seems to excel at. I didn’t feel that the protagonist held enough depth for the story to hold together over a longer format and the conceit of the mystery with which the novel opens wasn’t satisfactorily resolved. I was left curious as to what the message of the novel was, or if it was just a string of interesting anecdotes and themes. It almost seemed to be a short story stretched out over a longer novel’s structure. It’s definitely readable, however, and hasn’t got the overly ornate language or modernist conceits of other novels that seem purely designed to hamper understanding and paper over a lack of plot.
(Review by Conor Stuart, originally published on his blog here)