If Valentine’s Day doesn’t get your heart racing, Asymptote has something different to offer this February 14. Read on for sinister mansions, absent wives, and the ambivalent origins of Valentine’s Day as a celebration of love!
This Valentine’s Day, consider instead the often terrible odds that romantic endeavours will succeed, the relationships that end mysteriously, and the partners that vanish without a trace. This is exactly what happens in Taiwanese author Wang Ting-Kuo’s English debut, My Enemy’s Cherry Tree (Granta Books, April 2019), translated from the Chinese by Howard Goldblatt and Sylvia Li-Chun. First published in 2015, the novel has already won all major Taiwanese literary awards and is set to make a spectacular entrance into the English literary scene.
The novel is a first-person retrospective narrative by an unnamed protagonist who has set up a small cafe by the sea, waiting for his missing wife, Qiuzi, to return to this spot, her favourite along the coast. The initial premise is simple: Qiuzi, dissatisfied with the narrator’s absence, his financial lack, and his unintentional neglect of her, disappears one morning into the arms of Luo Yiming, a philanthropist and Qiuzi’s photography tutor. The unnamed protagonist’s narration is then triggered by Luo’s chancing upon the cafe, setting in motion an encounter that drives Luo mad. As the story unfolds, however, the truth of the matter becomes increasingly less certain, complicated also by the appearance of Miss Baixiu, Luo’s daughter, who haunts the cafe daily in an attempt to ‘heal’ the protagonist’s soul.
Termed by Granta as “Haruki Murakami meets Indecent Proposal”, Wang’s novel artfully maximises the potential of the first-person to create a psychologically complex, suspenseful story. The pressures of the protagonist’s traumatic childhood, and the cracks in his relationship with Qiuzi far before they even meet Luo, all become factors in her eventual departure, complicating a reader’s understanding of the novel’s central romantic relationship. Ultimately, what really happened to Qiuzi remains in some ways a mystery, yet, for a reader, it isn’t this but, rather, the psychologically complex characters, that make My Enemy’s Cherry Tree a success.
— Chloe Lim, Assistant Blog Editor
Carlos Fuentes’ Aura could be described as a love story—but the kind that may put you off romance altogether. In a profoundly unsettling novella that has stayed with me since I read it more than five years ago, Fuentes brings us into the sinister world of Señora Consuelo Llorente, a shriveled old woman reminiscent of Dickens’ Miss Havisham. The protagonist, a young historian named Felipe Montero, has been hired to rewrite the memoirs of Consuelo’s late husband for an impressive sum—on the condition that he stay in the crumbling mansion where she lives with her niece, Aura. When he first moves in, Felipe dismisses the old woman’s eccentric behavior as a symptom of her age, but as he delves more deeply into her husband’s memoirs—and begins a relationship with the beautiful Aura—he finds that he can no longer ignore the increasingly disturbing events taking place in the house.
I won’t spoil the ending, but I will say that it’s unforgettable. In the final scene, Fuentes masterfully reveals the solution to the book’s central mystery, and it is neither too obvious nor too far-fetched. His unusual but effective second person narration is another highlight: by positioning the reader alongside Felipe as he slowly discovers the truth, Fuentes maximizes the story’s emotional impact. If you’re looking for a book to shake up your Valentine’s Day—and maybe even your views on love—Aura is worth a read.
— Nina Perrotta, Assistant Blog Editor
St Valentine’s Day didn’t always have much to do with love, especially not the sort of romantic love suitable for a Hallmark Valentine’s card. Whoever St Valentine was (and there was more than one of him), his life, death, and canonisation seems to have followed a fairly standard late antique trajectory: born in a small Italian town, sentenced to death and martyred by some suitably grisly means after having performed a miracle. So far, so unromantic.
It seems it was Chaucer who gave this saint’s day its distinctively amorous flavour, in his dream vision poem “Parliament of Foules” (here in a modern English translation). The poem begins with a tired and bookish narrator sighing about his ignorance of real-world love as he pores over Cicero’s Somnium Scipionis, itself the tale of the dream vision of the great general Scipio Africanus. As our awkward scholar nods off, he is whisked off by Scipio to the celestial sphere, through the heavenly gates and the dark temples of Venus, eventually emerging into the sunlit uplands in which Nature personified sits as convenor of the eponymous parliament of birds.
The birds, arranged hierarchically from the noblest eagle to the humblest waterfowl, are gathered nervously on this ‘seynt valentynes day’ to choose their mates for the year in a great matchmaking ceremony with Nature herself playing the shadchan. In true parliamentary fashion, a raucous public debate beginning in the lower estates interrupts an initial attempt at romantic courting by three haughty tercels, and eventually Nature herself is forced to intervene. Perhaps slightly annoyed, Nature and the female eagle decide to call off matchmaking altogether for the year, and the dream closes with the entire parliament of birds singing a song, some of them having paired off anyway, others deciding to defer their decision until the next year and get on with their business. A thoroughly unsatisfied narrator wakes up in his study, having learned nothing of love.
So there you have it. Chaucer didn’t quite invent Valentine’s Day, but he did fuse that otherwise unremarkable saints day together with an ideal of romantic love. And yet from the very beginning this ideal was distant, merely yearned for by our scholar-narrator, and achieved neither by him nor by the birds, even with the help of mother Nature herself. The birds had worms to catch and nests to build, arguments to settle, and the scholar simply returned to his books. The moral of the story is perhaps that life stubbornly goes on even on February 14: St Valentine is the patron saint not only of lovers, but also of beekeepers, greetings, epilepsy, travelers, and the plague.
— Jonathan Egid, Assistant Blog Editor
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