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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

     

The Man with
the Compound Eyes


by
Wu Ming-Yi


general information | review summaries | our review | links | about the author

To purchase The Man with the Compound Eyes



Title: The Man with the Compound Eyes
Author: Wu Ming-Yi
Genre: Novel
Written: 2011 (Eng. 2013)
Length: 302 pages
Original in: Chinese
Availability: The Man with the Compound Eyes - US
The Man with the Compound Eyes - UK
The Man with the Compound Eyes - Canada
The Man with the Compound Eyes - India
L'homme aux yeux à facettes - France
  • Chinese title: 複眼 人
  • Translated by Darryl Sterk

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Our Assessment:

B : creative take on the fragility of the natural world, life, and civilization

See our review for fuller assessment.




Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Financial Times . 30/8/2013 Trisha Andres
The Guardian . 27/9/2013 Tash Aw
Independent on Sunday . 27/10/2013 David Barnett
TLS . 6/12/2013 Laura Profumo


  From the Reviews:
  • "Taiwanese author Wu Ming-Yis new novel, his first to be translated into English, explores big ecological issues -- from ocean pollution and seal hunting to quarry mining and forest preservation -- but he weighs down an otherwise inventive narrative with laboured metaphors." - Trisha Andres, Financial Times

  • "His writing occupies the space between hard-edged realism and extravagantly detailed fantasy, hovering over the precipice of wild imagination before retreating to minutiae about Taiwanese fauna or whale-hunting. (...) Beyond the book's ecological and scientific attributes, you can see a deft novelist's hand at work" - Tash Aw, The Guardian

  • "A wonderful novel which deserves a very wide audience." - David Barnett, Independent on Sunday

  • "Reading the book, though, requires another more complex act of translation -- one in which the ordinary seeps, slowly, into the bizarre. Wu shuttles between his two realms with a dizzying ease reminiscent of Haruki Murakami, twisting the dreamlike into the curiously credible. (...) The problem in this admirable novel arises when the narrative attempts to address its various environmental concerns without the mitigating sway of imagination. (...) Darryl Sterk's translation reads smoothly" - Laura Profumo, Times Literary Supplement

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The Man with the Compound Eyes begins with a pretty bleak outlook for the first characters that are introduced. After a short, ominous chapter set in a cave, where everything goes black, the next two chapters describe the 'final day' of, in turn, the characters Atile'i snd Alice Shih.
       Atile'i lives on the small island of Wayo Wayo, a speck in the Pacific that has been visited by the white man (long ago), but remains entirely cut off from the contemporary world. Atile'i is a second son and, as tradition has it, upon reaching fifteen he is sent out in a canoe-like vessel that he built himself "on a mission of no return". He gets to take no more than ten days' worth of water with him, and he's not allowed to look back; as the Wayo Wayo cheerily have it

Hence the saying, "Let's just wait until your second son returns," which simply meant, "Perish the thought."
       At the same time Alice Shih, a writer and professor in Taiwan, prepares for a similarly final journey, having decided to kill herself. She quits her position, gets rid of her belongings, and prepares to end it all. She suffered a tragedy -- her husband and young son disappeared in the mountains -- and seems simply to have lost her will to go on.
       As it turns out, both survive. Atile'i comes across a floating island of trash -- the infamous Pacific 'trash vortex' -- and is carried to the coast of Taiwan on a part of it. There he is found by Alice, who looks after him (and a small cat she has adopted), finding some purpose to life after all.
       Much of The Man with the Compound Eyes is about the overlap and clashing of civilizations, from the aboriginal cultures on Taiwan and how they have been treated to complete outsider Atile'i, and Wu nicely details these different worlds and experiences, without forcing the issues too much (and, for example, keeps Atile'i almost entirely at a distance from contemporary Taiwanese society, as he remains hidden away by Alice).
       Nature proves overpowering, regardless of whether on technologically backward Wayo Wayo or in this coastal area of Taiwan, where the land has been tunneled and shifted by man, but nature easily reclaims a great deal. Few trappings of civilization survive here: Alice already gave away most of her belongings, but much else in the area is then reclaimed by the force of nature too; the washing up of all the detritus -- the trash vortex -- is a nice ironical commentary, the industrial equivalent of "Earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust".
       A large secondary cast of characters also features in the novel, sometimes stepping to the fore, with chapters specifically by or about them, as the novel moves across a loose overlap of stories: fates are connected, but most face them largely on their own. So, for example, the narrative returns to Wayo Wayo and the girl Atile'i left behind there; pregnant, she decides to follow him -- but here and elsewhere Wu does not give his characters the easy, obvious route. There is, of course, also the man with the (creepy) compound eyes of the title -- visionary, perhaps, in his ability to literally see things differently, but also someone who: "can merely observe, not intervene".
       It makes for an unusual but appealing tale. Comparisons to David Mitchell, with his many-layered intersecting personal story-lines (e.g. Cloud Atlas), and the supernatural fringes and isolated characters (and the cats ...) of Murakami Haruki seem fair enough, as the book convincingly echoes these aspects of their work. The novel is ultimately perhaps too busy, but at least Wu realizes he doesn't need to state any message more overtly: the contrasts in civilizations -- 'modern' civilization, aspects of native civilization that linger, and that of the completely 'backward' outsider -- and the various accoutrements, awareness, and specialized knowledge of the various characters, as well as how they 'see' (and react to) events are all sufficiently revealing.
       Even if it can feel overfull, the novel drifts and bobs along nicely, with parts that are calmly thoughtful and a great deal that is quite exciting too. Even where the tangential seems to distract -- the massage-business some of the locals get involved in, or some of the characters' background -- Wu easily holds the reader's interest.
       A poignant work that struggles a bit to contain everything Wu throws in (and out), The Man with the Compound Eyes is certainly of interest, and a good read.

- M.A.Orthofer, 4 June 2014

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Links:

The Man with the Compound Eyes: Reviews: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Taiwanese author Wu Ming-Yi (吳明益) was born in 1971.

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© 2014 the complete review

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