Disinterment

Wu He

Illustration by Legend Hou Chun-Ming

Translator's Note: The following is an excerpt from a significantly longer short story by Wu He, one of Taiwan's most controversial authors. "Disinterment" (Shigu 拾骨) was first published in 1993 in the leading nativist literary journal, Literary Taiwan (Wenxue Taiwan 文學台灣).  It later became the title piece for the first anthology of Wu He's short stories, published in 1995.  Along with the other stories in that collection, Disinterment was the product of thirteen years of reclusion during which Wu He published nothing. Instead, he devoted himself to a program of intensive reading and research. His stated objective was to gain a deeper understanding of the full spectrum of cultural experience in Taiwan and the world at large. What he found, and what he explores so exquisitely through his creative project, was a bewilderingly complex web of socio-psychological interaction unique to his small island-nation and yet globally relevant.

We have chosen to present a passage located roughly midway through the story. There we find the first-person narrator making arrangements for the disinterment and relocation of his mother's mortal remains.  The procedure has been initiated after the narrator, who suffers from acute delusional psychosis, received a series of visitations from his mother, some nineteen years deceased. When a temple medium is employed to channel the mother's spirit, she reports that her resting place has become waterlogged, making her miserably cold and uncomfortable. The narrator therefore arranges with his brothers to have their mother's bones unearthed, cremated, and then stored in a mausoleum housed in a Buddhist Temple. What follows is a breezy, ribald, often surreal progress through the animated world of the dead and those who care for them in southern Taiwan.  At a deeper level, the piece is informed by a strong sense of engagement between self and history, cultural tradition and social evolution. Most specifically, it is an allegory of the intimate, haunted connection between an individual and the place that gives him birth, and provides the cultural stuff with which he constructs his being.

Despite his stature as one of Taiwan's most important writers, Wu He's work has rarely been translated into English.  There are likewise few renderings into other languages. As with other contemporary Taiwanese authors, China's rise to prominence, and the appearance of many quality authors there, has meant less interest in Wu He than one would ordinarily expect for a writer of his creative genius. But that is only part of the explanation. More basic factors can be found internally; in the nature of Wu He's style, and in his subject matter.

Though not following the path of social realism pioneered by Taiwanese "nativist" writers of the 1970's, Wu He is strongly committed to documenting the social and cultural history of his native place. To this end, he is almost obsessively concerned with the detail and colouring of the Taiwanese experience. His stories are filled with minutia that produce a rich glow of recognition for those who have lived in Taiwan and are familiar with the island's quirky, eclectic cultural textures, especially as expressed in the less highly Westernized South. For those who have never strolled the alleys of old Tainan, or savoured pork chitterlings noodle soup, accessing Wu He's literary diorama represents a challenge. For the translator, finding meaningful English renderings for the cultural materia of southern Taiwan is all the more so.

It is, however, not the esoteric content of Wu He's writing that poses the greatest difficulty for the translator and the international reader. It is the experimental, poetic, and often brutally alienating mode of his prose style. Like many modernist writers before him, Wu He is determined to probe the relationship between language, reality and human cognition. With the benefit of post-modern semiotics he interrogates that relationship in a fashion earlier modernists did not. The product of such interrogation is a prose that requires the slow, patient reading and rereading of dense verse.

In Wu He's earlier work, such as we offer in this issue, it is possible to interpret, or misinterpret, the logical and syntactic disjuncture of the narrative as a form of "stream of consciousness" exposition, a well established technique worked out by the high modernist writers such as Joyce or Proust. However, in Wu He's later work, such as Remains of Life (2000), Queers and Transvestites (Gui'er yu ayao 鬼兒與阿妖) (2000), and particularly in Confusion Part 1 (2007) it is clear that we are being treated to far more than a form of psychological mimesis. Wu He intends a complete deconstruction of the Chinese rhetorical tradition. In its place he offers a thorough reevaluation of the process of linguistic signification. Even to readers well educated in Chinese language literature, the resulting texts are near impenetrable. For the translator, the task of somehow conveying, not just the content, but the form and texture of such writing is daunting in the extreme.

To date, only Michael Berry's excerpts from Remains of Life contained in his monograph, A History of Pain (2008), stand to represent Wu He to English language readers.  Berry is currently completing his much anticipated full-length translation of the novel. In the meantime, we hope that this selection of one of Wu He's most successful and representative short stories will draw deserved attention to this gifted, idealistic and utterly dedicated author.


Terence Russell




12.

Re-interment—9000NT per procedure. The disinterment engineer was a direct descendent of one of the city's master gravediggers. His work was quite painstaking, and his fee was quite high. It was also necessary to find a time that fit his schedule. Third Concubine summoned a specially contracted fengshui master via his pager. On arrival, he immediately wrote the name and time of birth of the departed spirit on a sheet of red paper. From this he calculated that the most auspicious day and hour to break ground was March 29th between nine and ten in the morning.

Third Concubine pointed to something scribbled in the lower right corner of the blackboard: The disinterment engineer had no openings before April 15th. The fengshui master consulted his thick, black almanac and determined that April 15th and May 24th were both also auspicious times. I hesitated, unable to decide. April was in the spring, May was also in the spring. "Let's make it April 15th then." Third Concubine's voice grated through the flesh like the back of a knife. "In May it's hot and muggy, and the grass grows too thick over the graves."

The pager rang. As the fengshui master dialed the phone, he rolled his eyes sideways and said, "Madame's fengshui is a little bit off-kilter these days!" Third Concubine sniggered, "You!" She extended one of her jade-like fingers and gave Mr. Fengshui's nose a poke. At the same time she asked gratingly, "Will you be needing a golden urn, sir?" Mr. Fengshui answered for me, "People in the know really love those golden urns of yours."

Two chubby tits leapt three or four inches into the air. Fortunately, the fengshui master had already made his escape. After her cleavage finally settled down, Third Concubine said, "When you're in this mournful line of business, sometimes you just have to laugh and play the fool." With a straight face I replied, "So long as you're used to it—ordinarily I'm like that, too."

Third Concubine opened the glass case to show me her urns. The ones with the black and white pattern were made of marble from the mountains in Hualien. They cost between two and three thousand each. The orange colored ones, peach colored ones and apple-green inflected ones were imported from Southeast Asia. The seasonal price on them was seven or eight thousand. There was another kind made from pure white stone from the Himalayas. They were flown in on the plane and cost one hundred thousand each. Even if they were smuggled in they still cost at least thirty or forty thousand.

I cradled a peach-colored one in my hands. Holding it in my left hand I rubbed it two or three times with my right. "—No, no." Third Concubine stopped me; "We can't tell the quality of the flesh with our coarse hands." She held the peach-colored vase to her face, stuck it there for a couple of seconds, then took it away. She pressed it to her face again and held it for two seconds. This was repeated seven or eight times. I imitated her and stuck the peach-colored urn to my face. A kind of cool, moist fragrance penetrated me to my very buttocks; the foundation was American Avon, the blush was Shiseido from Japan.

I pressed all seven or eight urns to my face. The orange urn felt like a tangerine garden at dusk in late autumn. The apple-green one made me recall that the places I went with the "Green Wilderness Group Tour" were all of that color. In the Hualien stone I instantly perceived the aroma of Hualien yams. I've heard that the guy who selects the stone always has yams in his lunchbox. Mother ate more yam during her lifetime than anything—from shredded yam in rice to chopped yam in rice... Tangerines have a cold nature that damages the spleen, so Mom didn't like them. Only sick people in Taiwan eat apples—did Mom have apples to eat when she was sick? Back in the day, Western-style peaches were a rare delicacy, and Mom likely never ate any. So, I thought, it should be the peach one. That'll be a novel taste for her. Besides, with the peach, they threw in the fragrance of American Avon and Japanese Shiseido.

Just as I opened my mouth to order the peach urn, "Oh, that's right!" Third Concubine's breasts shook as her voice shot up three octaves; "Black-heart stone! Darn, I almost forgot there's also Blackheart stone imported from South Africa. It's as soft and fresh as a young girl's—maybe even as soft as my face. Last week Manager Wu from Minchuan Street bought one for his old mother."

Blackheart stone! I momentarily lost my grip on the peach urn which fortunately fell solidly into Third Concubine's cleavage. Blackheart stone! There was a kind of stone that dared call itself "blackhearted!" The retail price for Blackheart stone was twenty-four thousand. But seeing as I was introduced by Uncle Chiu, eighteen thousand would do it. I scanned the shelves, trying to get a glimpse of this Blackheart stone that I found so intriguing.

"—Right now there is a shortage of stock all over the island, but I know how I can get my hands on one for you, sir."

"Blackheart?" I wanted to be sure, "It's really called Blackheart?"

"Oh, yeah. It's as blackhearted as black can be." Like a blunt knife ripping through the slope of her breasts at a 45-degree angle, Third Concubine's high-pitched cackle grated through the air.



13.

At dawn, as the birds twittered amid the spiky bamboos, I returned to consciousness. But I just lay there while the rays of morning sunlight struck the earth in the back courtyard and waves of heat flooded up into my bed.  I shrank from the spring sun into the rattan chair, chewing a mouthful of pork trotter noodle soup. An ancient travel manual says somewhere: "Early in spring, during the third month, while the blossoms are still just buds but the spring grasses grow, the shrubs rise unruly and the heart is besotted. Better to remain at home and eat pork trotter noodle soup!" Last night my wife came and pasted over the windows with colored wrapping paper. She complained that I was always peeking over the wall at the neighbor's spring shrubs. But what I most love is the shrubs that grow along the wall. It was the poet, Master Profundo, who once said: "Only the eyes of someone confronting their demise know the value of staring at spring shrubs that grow along the walls." Mother died in a hospital run by Saint Mary. From her second-floor window she could look out on sugarcane fields as far as the horizon—as she approached the end, it was the sound of sugarcane leaves rubbing together that filled her ears night and day.

"Urn storage compartments in the ossuary pagoda start at twenty-three thousand each," the monk from the Kaiyuan Temple told me over the phone. He also invited me to come over in person. My grandparents were housed on the third floor of that pagoda. I had been there during the Tomb Sweeping Festival. Inside the pagoda it was grayish black, like the water in the canal.

I didn't bother to ask at the Dharma Flower Temple. For a time, in order to quiet the delusions that pursued my mind, I often went there to watch the idle turtles in what used to be called the Butterfly Dream Garden. I would sit on the wooden bench in front of the pagoda and gaze blankly at the sloping rays of sunlight hanging over its up-turned eaves. Sadly, the affairs of men cannot compare to the idleness of turtles, and the sound of funeral processions drown out the sound of the live voices chanting holy scripture. When you're busy with all those ceremonies, perhaps you need time to give things over to the turtles under the arched wooden bridge in the rear garden. In order to gain spiritual merit, I recklessly scribbled out over a hundred name banners: "Turtle Dream Temple." My wife forbade me to go to the Dharma Flower Temple again, claiming, "You always come home with that reptilian expression on your face."



14.

I went to the Pagoda of Oceanic Convergence at the Bamboo Stream Temple several times. Each time I felt more as though it had a certain softness in its frame that fit remarkably well with the mausoleum of my dreams: it wasn't like the municipal mausoleum beside it with the pot-bellied profile of a public institution.

An old nun opened the large iron lock and ushered me inside. Everywhere you looked, above and below, all was a dusty, indistinct realm of grey urns. When the old nun turned on a small fluorescent light, I could see a pair of eyes floating on the surface of each urn. As you might expect, a pair of younger eyes remarked, "It's a handsome guy this time." An old pair scoffed, "Handsome guy, eh? Just looks like an old bachelor to me." An elderly matriarch, born during the early Japanese colonial era said, "From the way his sideburns cover up his ears you can tell he's a psycho." Another geezer who'd been there since the mid-sixties commented, "Don't make fun of that 'watermelon' haircut of his. It was popular all over the world back then. They used to call it a 'hippy cut' for short. The day that truck knocked me off my bicycle, I was sporting exactly the same untrimmed free-style cut."

The sections were divided into ABCD, and the rows were numbered top to bottom. Each urn was marked with a number written in red ink on white paper. Compartments went for between ninety thousand and one hundred and fifty thousand, depending on the location. The left hall and right hall were both completely full, leaving only a single column in the central main hall with vacancies. The old nun led me forward and pointed to one of those tangerine colored urns in the lowest compartment of the empty column; "That is the former abbot. He entered the pagoda only a short while ago." The empty compartment just above was waiting for the next abbot.

Some people become immortal and ride off to the heavens on a sacred crane, others mummify themselves in seated meditation, while still others go up in a blaze, transforming into glass beads and Shari relics—all of which can be put on display to comfort the eyes of later generations. But this Abbot, hidden away down there, seemed too selfish and too lonely. Nonetheless, since his Buddhist name was Clean Eyes, he naturally remained clean if he could not be seen. The old nun led me upstairs.

Much of the second floor was occupied by the spiral staircase, and there were some square brown earthenware boxes that looked out of place. Back then, there probably were no master craftsmen who could make pretty urns. Up to the third floor, and the old nun said the rheumatism used to make only her inner thighs sore, but now it went all the way to her heart.

I could empathize with that kind of pain. I comforted the old woman by saying that such pain was nothing compared to what it felt like to have my psyche tied into knots. Light flowing in through two hexagonal windows made the third floor seem much brighter. If you looked straight outside you could see the palm tree fronds sweeping back and forth in the sky. The nun bent over and pointed to number six in the second row of section D; "This one I have reserved for myself." There was a piece of red paper pasted directly above the empty space with two words written precisely in formal script: "Marvelous Wisdom."

I paced back and forth in the narrow space. The old nun had to keep stepping out of my way. The cost of a space on the third floor was seventy to one hundred and twenty thousand. The spaces directly in front of the Lotus Altar were almost all full. "Those locations are all equally good," the nun explained. "When they first built the pagoda they charted out the fengshui of the eight cardinal directions, and all of those positions were very stable. It's just that the prices are different." I first decided upon number one in the second row of section B. The afternoon sun's rays could shine down on it there, and she could look up and through the hexagonal window to see the sky. It was just unfortunate that the stairway railing was in the way. That made it seem as if you were looking at the blue sky through the bars in a jail cell.

Finally, I tentatively decided on number one in the sixth row. Every day the red glow of the evening sun will fall like rouge on Mother's cheeks. Most days she will be able to look between the branches of the banyan tree and the trunk of the palm tree to see the red-tiled roof below. Under the red-tiled roof was the meditation hall of the orthodox Lin-chi sect. I've heard that they practice eighty-four thousand different techniques. When Mother is at loose ends she can entertain herself by watching their eighty-four thousand different positions.

The old nun told me to go back downstairs because she wanted to take her old body up to the sixth floor to visit King Ksitigargha, Bodhisattva of Hell. As I watched that contorted body climb the stairs, hand tightly grasping the railing, it reminded me that Little Deer also secretly suffered from the same rheumatism of the heart. By nature she never got overly excited, and each time she reached orgasm she died a little.  I walked around inside the pagoda a few more times. There was a plaque above the hexagonal window that Mother would face. It read, "As true as the ocean is deep." On the back was written, "The vastness of nature is tranquil and empty." The last glow of the setting sun rested on the body of the pagoda. Iron chimes under the temple eaves rang out for all to hear. The more I looked at it, the more I felt this mausoleum had a certain seductiveness about it—it deserved its reputation as the first Buddhist temple established in Taiwan.



15.

Only the name "Champs-Elysées" bears comparison with "Bamboo Stream," and the perfume worn by the ladies walking along the Champs-Elysées could never match the fragrance of the old nun's "Incense of Firm Vows." After she had finished dinner, eaten some fruit, watched her soap opera, washed the dishes and removed her makeup, my wife picked up the estimate for the re-interment that I had left on the dresser:

"Disinterment: nine thousand. Fengshui evaluation: two thousand. Urn: eighteen thousand. Mausoleum space: seventy thousand. Total: ninety-nine thousand. (Incidental expenses not included)."

"Urrrp," my wife began with a heart-felt belch, redolent with the aroma of her favorite Anping oysters in black bean sauce. She cocked her round pastry face to the side and praised me: "So you can take care of such a major re-interment project by yourself after all." She had come to assume that all I was good for was "rolling around in my bed and lounging by that clump of spiky bamboo in the back courtyard." Her suspicion over my recent absences had led her to drop by the flower shop after class today. She asked Little Deer, "So has he gone back to his old lecherous ways and been coming around here to pot a few flowers?"

I said that it was all thanks to Mother who had entrusted me with this project. Otherwise I most likely would have just laid in bed reading until I got piles. Master Profundo instructs people to jump up and spin around for three minutes every thirty minutes in order to expel whatever it is that causes piles. While I was in the sanitarium I got to know a fellow patient. His piles were so bad he used to walk around between the beds in the middle of the night. Every so often his asshole would fart out ai-sha, ai-sha sounds. He finally rid himself of those nasty swollen sores through his application of the "gay cure."

My wife went over the numbers in the estimate, then she took out an abacus like the ones elementary school students use, and recalculated a few times. There was no mistake. It was ninety-nine thousand not including incidental expenses. She questioned me about what might be included in "incidental expenses." I gave her some examples: incense, votive candles and silver-paper money were three hundred. A tip for the gravedigger at the site was six hundred. Lunch and drinks would be five hundred, etc., etc. My wife peered down at her toes and said that it had been a long time since she last painted her toenails, and if you don't paint your toenails they look like they belong to a farmer's wife who works out in the fields, not like a big city woman's.  After the price of a facial went up to eight hundred she had stopped having people do her face. Instead she peeled lemons and tangerines and applied them to her own face. What's more, there had been a few times she had run out of lipstick, so she mixed up some Lion Brand watercolor paint and brushed it on her lips—the money that she saved this way was supposed to be for our future baby's formula, and also for cram school tuition, which they would have to start at age four.

She was happy to take out ten thousand to invest in this project so that Mother could continue to take care of me as she had in past. While she was at school she worried about me eating pork trotter noodle soup by myself. Perhaps Mother could help out by reminding me not to swallow the gristle, just in case it got stuck in my colon and my shit got blocked up.



16.

All night I sat under the eaves in the back courtyard waiting for the rays of the full moon to enter the valley between the apartment buildings. The moon also shed its rays on the dome of mother's tomb. Over the drone of city noise I could hear the tidal rush of wind blowing through the grass on the tomb.

Second Brother had said, "Whatever you pay, I will pay." So, that made twenty thousand. When Little Deer was young, sharp spines of grass on the tomb had once nipped her bottom. It was one afternoon at the height of summer and she was wearing a round bonnet with lilies blooming on top. Since we were all the fruit of Mother's womb I didn't feel right about asking Elder Brother to pay extra, especially since he was a man whose life was guided by the principle of economic efficiency. So, that made thirty thousand. I once heard that the marks left by the spiky grass that year are to blame for Little Deer's failure to marry. Every time she gets to that critical moment, the grass pokes out from the scar to shake in the wind and howl an inhuman orgasmic howl.

Thirty thousand won't buy even half a space in the Bamboo Stream Temple's Ocean Encounter Pagoda. So maybe I could just keep her under my pillow. Whatever I ate, Mother would eat. If I went to the South Pole, she would go with me. Little Deer kept reminding me that if I had given in and learned flower arranging with her back then, by now, just from what I would have made off funeral wreaths, I would be comfortably well off. Nor would I have had to waste those years catching lice in the sanitarium.

The Pagoda of Oceanic Convergence was out, but we could go to the North Garden Villa: an interment site there was twenty three thousand, no need to worry about fengshui, two thousand for a Hualien marble urn, nine thousand for the disinterment, no tip. That made a total of thirty four thousand. I imagined that back then when Koxinga's son, Zheng Jing, built the North Garden Pavilion he had my mother in mind. When I got out of the sanitarium, Little Deer had sent a wedding gift of five thousand: with that Mother could stay in the Kaiyuan Temple Annex, and there would be a thousand left over to buy flowers from Little Deer.

I got hold of my elder brother on his cell phone. From who knows which night club he started swearing, "Kaiyuan? I don't care where you take her, but it can't be Kaiyuan. I'm telling you to lay off the drugs, you never listen, see you've already forgotten that they used to fight like that when they were alive, and you still want them to sit opposite each other in death?" Mother complained that during all those years that I wasted away in the sanitarium, most of the roses bloomed grey. She wanted to give me some money to open a Little Deer Flower Shop franchise store. My wife would let me do almost anything, but she wouldn't let me take up with Little Deer. All those years when my wife had traipsed over hill and dale every weekend to visit me in the sanitarium, Little Deer had been spending her time building up Little Deer's Flower Shop.

I had almost forgotten the favors I had been granted in this lifetime, not to mention those in my previous life. In his day, Grandfather had seen himself as an orthodox Confucian. His behavior at home had been all that "inner sage, outward king" sort of stuff. Just how far he had gone with the "inner sage" nobody knew, but he always manifest his "outward king." The dogs and cats in the household all knew to stay three feet clear of his feet. Among the daughters-in-law only Mother was not subjected to his tyrannical side. Among the grandchildren, I was the only one who dared look him in the eye after we grew up. When he got especially angry with someone he would curse, "Those who do not respect the Confucian way all lose their minds following the wrong path." Their mind would be gobbled up by that Heavenly Dog old Confucius rode upon. No wonder I later lost my mind. And if she had not died so young, but had lived to see me crazy like this, Mother would eventually have gone crazy as well.

translated from the Chinese by Terence Russell

Used by permission of 麥田出版.



Read the original in Chinese, Traditional

Read the translation in Chinese, Simplified

Wu He ("Dancing Crane"), penname of Chen Guocheng (b. 1951), known for his unique, uncompromising prose style, is one of Taiwan's most critically acclaimed contemporary writers.  His works deal with issues of Taiwanese culture and identity. Among his favorite subject matters is the experience of the Indigenous peoples of Taiwan—he has spent extended periods of time living and doing research in mountain communities. His novel, Remains of Life (Yusheng), published in 2000, concerns the lives of the survivors of the 1930 Wushe Incident—most recently dramatized in Wei Te-Sheng's Seediq Bale—and has been called one of the most important works of modern Taiwanese literature. His most recent novel, Confusion (Luanmi), is the first volume of a sweeping historical study and has been compared to the work of Joyce and Proust. The excerpt you see here is taken from "Disinterment", first published in 1993. Translated into English for the first time, this short story represents one of Wu He's most important statements on Taiwanese identity.

Terence Russell is a cultural historian and translator based in Winnipeg, Canada. He received his Ph.D. in Classical Chinese from Australian National University. Since 1973 he has lived and worked in various parts of Asia, including, China, Japan, Malaysia and Taiwan. He began teaching Chinese language and culture at the University of Manitoba in 1988. For the past ten years his research has focused on the on-going process of identity definition in Taiwan in the post-martial law era. Most recently his attention has been drawn to relations between the majority ethnic Chinese population and the Indigenous Austronesian communities in Taiwan. He has published numerous articles on, and translations of Chinese language literature, including two renditions of novels by noted Shandong writer, Zhang Wei. Current projects include a book-length study of Auvini Kedrasengan, a Rukai writer and leading indigenous cultural activist, as well as a translation of a collection of short fiction by the avant garde writer Wu He.



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