Huang Fan is somewhat of a modern icon in his native Taiwan. Since 1979, he has written a number of award-winning essays, short stories, and novels. Yet none has been translated for Western audiences, despite Huang’s impressive career, until recently. “Zero and Other Fictions” is Huang’s English-language debut and represents his best previously published short work.
The stories in this collection are insightful, funny, and moving. Huang is a versatile writer, but not versatile simply for its own sake. Instead he utilizes both classical and postmodern elements to heighten his thematic objectives and to illuminate his characters’ predicaments.
In “Lai Suo,” for example, Huang employs a jarring time-shift narrative to illustrate his title character’s personal and political disillusionment over a thirty-year period. Playing with chronology is not a gimmick for Huang, but a way of knowing his characters. Lai Suo is a man who has vaguely witnessed political upheaval in Taiwan and yet is not a full participant in his own drama. He is mortal in the cruelest sense of the word—he struggles to keep up with his own disappointments as time and history pass him by: “Time was short! He had to hurry up and think…. Now, what time did he wish to recall? His childhood or youth, his marriage or his baffling middle age? There were just a few words of resentment for this life of his—‘Handing in a blank page.’”
For better or worse, Huang’s characters operate within a larger political landscape, one that influences, justifies, and controls their actions. In his preface, John Balcom does a wonderful job of providing a historical context for Huang’s stories, which are informed—as he explains—by Taiwan’s transition from Japanese hegemony to authoritarian rule and, finally, to its rising economic prosperity and subsequent political maturation.
“The Intelligent Man,” which deals with success as a domestic nightmare, exemplifies Huang’s skill as a social satirist. The Taiwanese businessman of the title, Yang T’ai-sheng, amasses three wives in three locales as he builds his mini-empire. When the wives begin to clash, Yang conducts his own diplomatic summit by bringing them together in neutral territory, with predictable but hilarious results. The story is smartly written, reminiscent of early Philip Roth, and amusing in its comic absurdity.
Huang takes that sense of absurdity one step further. “How to Measure the Width of a Ditch” is his self-referential experiment in metafiction that comments on the writing process, the meaning of language, and the changing face of modern Taiwan. It is the perfect narrative vehicle for the larger points the author is trying to make, but the collection’s weakest piece.
In the science fiction novella Zero, Huang focuses on the dehumanizing nature of political control. His doomed hero, Xi De, is methodically subsumed, and ultimately consumed, by an all-knowing totalitarian state. Zero reads like Huang’s clichéd variation of a dystopian future, one that has been imagined by countless other writers. In many respects it is. Yet Zero gains a quiet strength as it approaches its inevitable conclusion and is largely redeemed by Huang’s deliberate pacing and style (not to mention Balcom’s exemplary translation).
Huang’s use of science fiction in Zero, metafiction in “Ditch,” and existential displacement in “Lai Suo” serve a larger purpose. In each of these stories, Huang seeks to distinguish his characters from their hopeless circumstances and imbue them with what appears to be—but never fully is—self-awareness. This fruitless but noble search for self-truth and inner peace is a fate shared by many of his characters. For readers unfamiliar with Huang, Zero and Other Fictions provides an ideal introduction to his work—it is challenging yet accessible and, above all, the product of a highly capable writer. It is no wonder he is such a revered literary figure in Taiwan.