Halfway through Amit Chaudhuri’s compact novel(la) Sojourn, the protagonist, an Indian academic visiting Berlin for a semester fifteen years after the fall of the Wall, asks a German couple with whom he is travelling through the “East”, “‘Tell me’—I was peering into the rear-view mirror—‘what exactly is Heimat?’”
If you are like most English-language readers, then indigenous writing from Taiwan in English translation will be largely, if not entirely, terra incognita, which is one reason among many why the publication of Sakinu Ahronglong’s Hunter School, which is about one non-Han indigenous tribe in particular, is important. As translator Darryl Sterk explains in his brief introduction, Sakinu speaks Paiwanese, an Austronesian language that, according to the “Out of Taiwan” hypothesis, shares a common ancestor with Polynesian languages as well as Tagalog, Malay, Hawaiian, and Maori. And as Sakinu himself informs his readers in his own introduction, the reconstruction of Paiwan culture, under threat by external forces, not only provides the impetus behind the text, but also an underlying life’s purpose.
As it does to our lives at present, death—virulent, episodic, unbidden—haunts Yan Lianke’s memoir Three Brothers. First published in 2009, and rendered into English by translator and Sinologist Carlos Rojas, it is an elegiac homage to the people and places no longer present for Yan (at least not physically), who has spent the better part of his life oscillating (both physically and emotionally) between city and countryside in search of home.
With the exception of Eileen Chang to whom she is often compared, few writers have become as synonymous with Shanghai as Wang Anyi. Although born in Nanjing, Wang was brought to Shanghai at the age of one by her mother, noted writer and Shanghai native Ru Zhijuan, and her quest to know the city over the years in spite of its protean elusiveness (as well as Wang’s intermittent absences) has become something of an elegiac obsession for the celebrated author.
From her early interest in Russia’s hinterlands to her recent focus on the culture and places of Japan, German poet and novelist Marion Poschmann’s writing continues its eastward drift. Her latest novel (and first in English thanks to Jen Calleja’s translation) The Pine Islands, which recounts the tragic-comic journey of a middle-aged German university professor who decamps to Japan (he dreams that his wife is cheating on him) and undertakes a Bashō-inspired journey once there, has been shortlisted for the German Book Prize (2017) and Man Booker International Prize (2019) and hailed as a “masterpiece” by Germany’s esteemed newspaper Die Zeit.
With her sinuously taut sculpture “The Arch of Hysteria” (1993), French artist Louise Bourgeois addressed deep-seated Western cultural associations between women, hysteria, and sexual dysfunction. Drawing on the ideas of 19th-century French neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot, under whom Freud had studied and whose ideas enjoyed a great deal of currency among many Surrealist artists years later, Bourgeois re-fashioned what had become a prototypical image of the hysterical woman in the Western imagination, writhing and with arched back, into a headless, genital-less, bronze male body suspended by a wire. It is a potent visual metaphor and the subversiveness of Bougeois’s gesture laid the groundwork for subsequent artistic re-evaluations of this specious aspect of European cultural history.
With its unvarnished look at infidelity, drug addiction, war, and fractured families in mid-20th century China along with a jarringly abrupt non-linear narrative and burly eight-page character list, Eileen Chang’s final novel Little Reunions is a difficult read.