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Book 61: Taiwan (English) – Wild Kids (CHANG Ta-Chun)

A long, long time before that, just after [my kid sister] had begun nursery school, she loved to wear a certain kind of checkered cloth skirt. She liked yellow and white, red and white, pink and white, blue and white… in short, as long as there were two alternating colors and the checks were no larger than a fingernail, she would wear it. Mom also liked to wear checks, and the two of them together looked like a couple of perfume bottles from the same factory – one big, one little, but other than the size difference, all the other specifications were identical.

 

Wild Kids is a sort of double novel, continuing the story of a pair of siblings. (Unfortunately the first part of the trilogy, “Chang’s Big Head Spring trilogy” hasn’t been translated into English yet). It sometimes feels like an Asian version of The Catcher in the Rye, and I’m sure fans of The Catcher will love this one too. It gives a gritty, violent yet funny view of the underbelly of Taiwan. Both are told by the wonderfully named Big Head Spring.
The first half-novel (My Kid Sister) was my favourite, in which he provides a lovely portrait of his slightly weird sister – when she goes through feminist phase (and everything is ‘what’s the point?’). She wants to marry her grandpa (‘yeye’ in Mandarin) and asks why foreigners are always singing ‘yeah yeah’ in pop songs! They live in a dysfunctional family, and, as seen from the kids’ perspectives, their parents are at least as strange as children! Taiwanese (not only Taiwanese) are disillusioned and cynical.
The second half-novel (Wild Kids proper) is rather darker, as Big Head gets involved in Taiwanese gang ‘culture’. He gets mugged after winning at a rigged slot machine. It climaxes in orgiastic rampage with a crane! Just as well it is infused with humour, otherwise it would be a bit depressing.
Obviously, the Taiwanese are just like the rest of us – it’s hard to be an adolescent, and everyone, especially one’s parents, is weird! It is often very funny, sometimes a bit gross!, with a peppering of existentialism.
I’m looking forward to physically visiting Taiwan as my next port of call!

 

CHANG Ta-Chun (1957 – ), Wild Kids: two novels about growing up, New York, Columbia University Press, 2000, ISBN 978-0-231-12097-5

 

 

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Book 27: South Africa (English) – Disgrace (J.M. COETZEE)

A lecturer (lecher?) commits an ethical crime at his university and is sanctioned by it. He is, we assume, a White, although I don’t think this is ever spelled out. He refuses to admit his guilt but ‘goes into laager’ (as a South African would say), staying on his daughter’s isolated farm where she lives a rather idealistic 1960’s-ish lifestyle (VW Kombi included). While she looks after him, they no longer see eye to eye. She seems to see supine acceptance and resignation as the only way to survive in the new South Africa where Blacks have the power, at least partly as penance for the apartheid that was inflicted on them, and despite her terrible suffering seems more likely to get along in the new world than her fossil father.
“’Aren’t you nervous by yourself?’
Lucy shrugs. ‘There are the dogs. Dogs still mean something. The more dogs, the more deterrence. Anyhow, if there were to be a break-in, I don’t see that two people would be better than one.’
‘That’s very philosophical.’
‘Yes. When all else fails, philosophise.’”
There are two parts to the story. In the first, set in the city, he is in his own world and in control (or so he thinks). In the second, out on the farm, everything is out of his control, the Blacks are taking over, and he is incapable of understanding them. His daughter, on the other hand, is full of forbearance and fortitude, and can adapt to the changing circumstances (which isn’t to say that she isn’t traumatised by them).
The characters brilliantly symbolise the changing face of this fraught land. This is a simply written but insightful novel by a truly great writer.

 

COETZEE, J. M. (1940 – ), Disgrace, London, Vintage, 2008 (originally published 1999), ISBN 978-0-099-52683-4