Written by Julian Chih-Wei Yang.
Image credit: 20120226016 by 幾架D/Flickr, license CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
Chen Kuo-Cheng (陳國城) – better known by his nom de plume Wuhe (舞鶴, literally ‘Dancing Crane’) – is a Taiwanese novelist renowned for his experimental, modernist style. His magnus opus, ‘The Life That Remains’ (餘生/Yusheng – officially translated as the ‘Remains of Life’), comprises only one single paragraph that is over two hundred pages long. In this novel Wuhe creates something that draws from, yet which is fundamentally different to, historical writing— what the narrator “I” of Wuhe’s Life refers to as “imaginary reality”.
As Wuhe once explained to another Taiwanese novelist, Yang Zhao (楊照), “to give an objective account of the historical present… is a project that is essentially ‘fictional’ and ‘impossible’. The fact is that historical past and present reality always interpenetrate and interfuse”. While Wuhe’s statement reveals the fictionality that pervades historiography, his Life exploits the immutability of this fictionality to create and give credence to an imaginary, alternative reality. Wuhe’s inspiration for doing so was to explore the possibility of using the novel to treat, and perhaps even heal, historical trauma; in this case, the trauma haunting Seediq survivors of the Musha Incident — a bloody insurrection waged by the indigenous Taiwanese Seediq against the Japanese colonial government — and the Second Musha Incident, wherein the Japanese government engaged in acts of violence against the Seediq people that were akin to ethnic cleansing.
For Wuhe, one problem with officially acknowledged historical accounts is that they are promoted as objective, value-free descriptions of what has happened in the past. This understanding doesn’t merely crush alternative narratives – it also perpetuates an overgeneralized and often uninformed understanding of the opinions, thoughts and feelings of those who experienced or were directly impacted by the historical events in question. As the narrator of Life states, historical writings record nothing but “the surface of the Incident, and leave many important details untouched,” and are hence “incapable of addressing the minds” (i.e., thoughts) of the people involved. The result is that these narratives are unable of properly present, and serve as a tool for dealing with, a traumatic and traumatizing past, and can even become as alienating as the tragic historical events they narrate.
A concrete example of this is the common way historical writings explain why, towards the end of the Musha Incident, the Seediq women threw their children into valleys and then committed suicide by hanging. As the narrator “I” illumines, in their attempt to explain the cause for these unconscionable acts, “historical documents” recklessly imputed motives, leading to claims that the Seediq women engaged in acts of murder-suicide so that “they and their children wouldn’t became burden” in the insurrection, and “in order that all the rations could be left to the Seediq warriors.” It is imputed that this is how everyone, including the Seediq survivors and their offspring, ought to understand those acts. Nonetheless, such an assumption, whose projection of intentions is disguised through the use of an objective tenor, lessens the possibility that the Seediq people can properly comprehend and mourn this tragedy. Not only has the meaning of what happened in the Musha Incident become fixed and predetermined – a narrative has formed which compels Seediq survivors and descendants to accept shared culpability for the collective tragedy that befell their people.
In response to this, “I” resorts to the creation of an alternative and fictional reality that revises the tragic past, and revitalizes the Seediq people’s spirits at the same time. A case in point is his re-imagination of the life of Mahon, the first daughter of Mona Rudo—the chief of the Seediq people and leader of the Musha ‘insurrection’. As “I” quotes Mahon’s adopted daughter, “the sanguinary vendetta of utux (the spirit of the Seediq ancestors) still permeated Mahon’s life”; “after the Incident, Mahon was still living in the ‘Incident,’ she had never forgotten or got over the ‘Incident’,” and “remained so until she died”. To Mahon’s daughter, Mahon was in old age overwhelmed either by an indelible hatred prompted by that incident, or by a sense of survivor’s guilt – in particular in relation to the deaths of her father and brother, Tado Mona. Either way, the old Mahon was equally “disquieted by the sanguinary vendetta and could not help but behave strangely,” as shown by her frequent and repeated visit to Mahebo – the place where her father and brother were killed. Put in the language of psychoanalysis, Mahon’s life was symptomatic of melancholia: she could not come to terms with the traumatic event or mourn the survivors, so all she could do was compulsively visit the forest. In other words, Mahon may have survived the Incident(s), but she was still a victim of it who was already ‘dead’ in a metaphorical sense. This is why critic David Der-wei Wang writes that “survival turned to be a curse to what remained of [Mahon’s] life; what awaited her in any case is just death”.
To deal with this morbid compulsion to relive trauma, Wuhe comes to envision a different scenario concerning what may have happened to Mahon. To him, what matters is that literature should challenge the official version of the story recorded in historical documents and the meanings predetermined by them, mainly through the imaginary details created by the narrator “I.” Hence, right after the talk with Mahon’s adopted daughter, the “I” mentions that he “is lost in Mahon’s dream,” with “several conspicuous images linking to one another and weaving themselves into Mahon’s whole life”. In his dream vision, the “I” imagines that when Mahon was asked by the Japanese colonial government to identify the corpse of Mona Rudo, she in fact “falsely identified a different body [as that of Mona Rudo] on purpose”. The truth—an imaginary one—is that “she always knew” where the bodies of her father and her brother were, but she still made the false identification because she “wanted her father to sleep safe and sound in the dense forest of Mahebo, undiscovered and undisturbed” throughout his life-after-death. Otherwise, there is no explication for “why in her old age, Mahon would still sneak out at midnight to Mahebo, to the very place her father and brother rested in peace”. Later, when the narrator reconsiders Mahon’s old age, he even observes that “the plainest and deepest sadness can be healed by time” and “the reason why ‘time’ cannot heal Mahon Mona is because her sadness is a much more complicated one”. That being said, “I” soon adds that “the old Mahon must actually lead a happy life, she no longer had to consider the question as to ‘how to lead the life that remains.’ ‘The Incident’ had re-empowered Mahon by means of the very injury it imposed, and this enabled her to frequently encounter this ‘past,’ the very traumatic scene that she had experienced. This is how ‘the Incident’ fulfilled and completed what remained of Mahon’s life”.
What is more interesting is that the narrator himself also intervenes in the historical scene reconstructed by himself. Retelling the story that Mahon brought alcohol to her brother Tado to persuade him to surrender to the Japanese, “I” supposes that “Mahon must have attempted to persuade her brother wholeheartedly” since “life is not worth sacrificing for anything”. The narrator also remarks that he somewhat “agrees that Tado should strangle himself during his drinking revelry,” for even if Tado had chosen not to commit suicide, he would not have survived the Second Wushe Incident that occurred a year later. However, “I” soon repudiates such an idea and argues instead that he “would try hard to help Mahon with persuasion”. “[E]ven if survival was almost impossible, the criticism by people and denunciation by history will soon fall into oblivion; as long as one lives on, life will pulsate energetically anyway. If Tado … could have survived the end of the war, I could have met both him and Mahon in my visit to” the Seediq people “instead of the adopted daughter alone”. For the narrator, if the survival of both Mahon and Tado could have ever happened, “Mahon’s old age would be no longer lost in [absorption in] the ‘Incident’”.
This dynamic mode of living as expressed by the phrase “pulsate energetically” is exactly what Wuhe plans to achieve in his novel, mainly via constructing an imaginary reality. This is not to say that historical documents bear no value, nor to deny the factuality of what happened in the past; after all, the Wushe Incident did occur, many Seediq men did get murdered in the two incidents, the Seediq women did commit mass suicide and kill their children, and Mahon was undeniably traumatized. However, to show uncritical obeisance to these objective accounts in no way helps release the Seediq survivors from the prison of those past events; what is worse, they reinforce their traumatizing effects. What best illustrates this is, again, the life of Mahon. If her story is still received according to how historical documents record it, i.e., as one imbued with tragedy, her life—including both her own experiences and the memory and understanding of her—will remain doomed. Only the imaginary reality created for her by “I” is able to challenge the received interpretation of her relation to the Musha Incident and give her being—both the physical and fictional one—a new life.
Julian Chih-Wei Yang is an assistant professor in the Centre for General Education of Taitung University. This article is part of the special issue on literature.