Heartrending take on the tragedy of the common man

FICTION

MY ENEMY’S CHERRY TREE

By Wang Ting-kuo, translated by Howard Goldblatt and Sylvia Li-chun Lin

Granta Books/Paperback/272 pages/ $26.95/ Books Kinokuniya

4 stars

A man opens a cafe by the sea in the wild hope that his young wife – who has mysteriously disappeared – will walk back into his life.

This is the premise of Taiwanese author Wang Ting-kuo’s novel My Enemy’s Cherry Tree, a masterpiece in minor key that delves into the topics of love, loss and social disparity in a series of flashbacks.

The “enemy” in question is Luo Yiming, an elderly philanthropist at the root of the narrator’s woes (if the narrator’s account is to be believed). Something inappropriate, we gather, has happened between Luo and the narrator’s wife, Qiuzi.

Another shadow hangs over the unnamed narrator – his unhappy, provincial past as the son of a school caretaker. Even after he achieves some success in his own job at a building company, the feelings of inferiority linger. Here, as in other stories by Wang (left), resentment of the father figure rears its head.

What makes My Enemy’s Cherry Tree so compelling is its poignant depiction of the tragedy of the common man. The narrator, for instance, regards his marriage to Qiuzi – a simple, pure girl – as a pathetic affair: “It would be the union of two dust motes, or a loofah gourd marrying a section of Mengzong bamboo. It would be the most romantic and yet the saddest moment. It would all depend on how our hearts found the will to fight and how our love managed to rise above the mundane…”

The novel, skilfully translated into English by husband-and-wife duo Howard Goldblatt and Sylvia Li-chun Lin, may well remind international readers of the work of Haruki Murakami. But there is also a wintry sparseness to Wang’s writing, which, in an artful synecdoche of images – a skirt, a pinky finger; somebody’s back – tends towards subtle insinuation.

Some lines are fraught with suggestion. What do readers make of the narrator’s description of the conversation between his wife and Luo, who “talked animatedly, like two fish sizzling in a pan”?

The translators have captured, in bold calligraphic strokes, the spirit of Wang’s novel and his arresting imagery, although some finer nuances have been lost.

(There may be no perfect translation for “kewu”, the mild oath that Qiuzi uses to express irritation. Goldblatt and Lin have settled for “outrageous”, which feels unsatisfactory here.)

Readers with a bone to pick might grumble about the disappearing woman theme, which has been a recurrent obsession in popular culture, from director David Fincher’s thriller Gone Girl to film-maker Lee Chang-dong’s psychological drama film Burning, which is based on a Murakami short story. Also, the many references to Hemingway’s The Old Man And The Sea in Wang’s novel can grow wearying. But these are small issues.

My Enemy’s Cherry Tree is an understated, heartrending tale of sadness – one whose muted grief stretches out like an expanse of sea and finds neither resolution nor release.

If you like this, read: Strange Weather In Tokyo by Hiromi Kawakami, translated by Allison Markin Powell (Counterpoint, $25.95, Books Kinokuniya), a love story between a 38-year-old woman and her former high school teacher.

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