“My Enemy’s Cherry Tree” by Wang Ting-Kuo

cherry-taiwan

The backstory—as given in the publisher’s blurb—to this English-language debut seems itself worthy of at least a short story:

 

One of Taiwan’s most celebrated authors, Wang Ting-Kuo … began writing fiction when he was 18 and quickly took the literary world by storm, only to disappear from the literary scene when his soon-to-be father-in-law gave him a devastating ultimatum: either give up the precarious life of a writer or give up my daughter. Having made his fortune, Ting-Kuo returned with a vengeance with My Enemy’s Cherry Tree which has since won all of Taiwan’s major literary prizes. This novel marks his English-language debut.

 

My Enemy’s Cherry Tree starts in a small, nondescript coffee shop in the middle of nowhere, outside a town in Taiwan. A local banker, philanthropist and, as soon becomes clear, the “enemy” of the title, Luo Yiming, comes by. That evening, Luo falls ill and attempts, or seems to attempt, suicide.

The narrator—proprietor of, and sole worker in, the coffee shop—has been waiting for his wife Qiuzi to return to him. Her sudden disappearance seems not unconnected with Luo. Qiuzi had taken up photography and Luo had been giving classes gratis; the couple had visited Luo at his house, the garden of which was dominated by a cherry tree.

The bulk of the novel is taken in explaining how the narrator ended up in that solitary coffee shop: he set it there because the two of them had once passed by the location—an embankment with “reeds whose flowers swayed in the wind”—and she had told him:

 

The reeds are waving, like lovers who are about to part… If you leave me, I’ll come here to wait for you every day. Don’t forget. I mean it.

 

But she had instead left him.

The narrator’s childhood was troubled—his mother was an invalid and his school janitor father committed suicide. He bounced around from job to job until he found a construction company boss who took a shine to him. And then he had the good luck to meet Qiuzi. The narrator is both world-weary and a man on the make while Qiuzi is presented as something of an ingénue, using simple words and often sounding “like a chirping sparrow”:

 

When a faint frown appeared on her face, which was like a clean sheet of paper, she looked as if she had been carelessly soiled by dust from the adult world. But I liked Qiuzi the way she was. It was better to be slightly stupid than to be smart, for that allowed for the possibility of learning from others … Actually, she wasn’t stupid; she just displayed a hint of foolishness, a trait that made me love her all the more. I myself had lost all traces of purity and innocence. She lit up my shadow, relieving a certain heaviness in my life.

Those who like Murakami will find echoes of him here.

My Enemy's Cherry Tree, Wang Ting-Kuo. Howard Goldblatt (trans), Sylvia Li-chun Lin (trans) (Granta, April 2019)
My Enemy’s Cherry Tree, Wang Ting-Kuo. Howard Goldblatt (trans), Sylvia Li-chun Lin (trans) (Granta, April 2019)

The strength of Wang’s writing is in slowly unfolding characterization. Each of the characters, even when seen through the eyes of the less-than-reliable narrator, are tangible and immediate, despite—or perhaps because of—their sizable contradictions. Qiuizi, simple and loving yet with traumas in her own past, is particularly well- and sympathetically-drawn.

Those who like Murakami will find echoes of him here. Wang has a certain indirectness: an emphasis on life’s serendipities while the detailed description of the narrator’s career in the dubiously-portrayed Taiwanese housing market (author Wang reportedly “made his fortune” in the construction industry) is a long detour from what is actually going on.

My Enemy’s Cherry Tree is largely a journey back to the opening: we already have a pretty good idea what happened. What we don’t know is exactly why: Qiuzi may not be as much of ingénue as the narrator thought. The story itself can however at times seem servant rather than master. Luo’s daughter Baixiu shows up at the narrator’s coffeeshop ostensibly to “revive his soul”, but with apparently little more reason than to provide the narrator with a foil to whom to relate his story. The camera, the source of the trouble, was won at a raffle. Some details—such as the 1999 earthquake and the SARS epidemic—may help to ground the novel for Taiwanese readers but seem unduly and unnecessarily specific for the universal and relatively timeless tale the novel seems to be telling, while the construction company boss somewhat incongruously uses tenor Luciano Pavarotti’s high-Cs as a metaphor for life.

First published in 2015, this atmospheric and award-winning novel has thankfully made it into English—in a very readable translation by the redoubtable husband and wife team of Howard Goldblatt and Sylvia Li-Chun Lin—in relatively short order, atypically arriving only a year or so after translation into other European languages.


Peter Gordon is editor of the Asian Review of Books.