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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Notes of a Crocodile

Qiu Miaojin

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To purchase Notes of a Crocodile

Title: Notes of a Crocodile
Author: Qiu Miaojin
Genre: Novel
Written: 1994 (Eng. 2017)
Length: 241 pages
Original in: Chinese
Availability: Notes of a Crocodile - US
Notes of a Crocodile - UK
Notes of a Crocodile - Canada
  • Chinese title: 鱷魚手記
  • Translated by Bonnie Huie

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Our Assessment:

B+ : effectively impassioned

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The NY Times Book Rev. A 7/5/2017 Leopoldine Core
TLS . 7/7/2017 Yu-Yun Hsieh

  From the Reviews:
  • "(T)hrillingly transgressive (.....) Bonnie Huieís translation is nothing short of remarkable -- loving, even; one gets the sense that great pains have been taken to preserve the voice behind this lush, ontological masterwork. (...) This idea of the unfixed, fragmented self is mirrored by the structure of the book, which hovers between genres. Composed of Laziís eight notebooks and described as a survival guide, an array of literary forms conspire together: aphorisms, fragments and allegorical interludes about crocodiles who wear human suits when they go outside and symbolize the queer body." - Leopoldine Core, The New York Times Book Review

  • "Written in the early aftermath of martial law, Notes of a Crocodile -- translated by Bonnie Huie -- reveals a lust for freedom and a desire to communicate with the world." - Yu-Yun Hsieh, 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:

       Notes of a Crocodile begins with a date:

     July 20, 1991. Picked up my college diploma at the service window of the registrar's office.
       Presented in the form of eight 'Notebooks', the novel is in fact mostly retrospective, looking back especially at the college years of the narrator (unnamed, but eventually nicknamed 'Lazi'). Clearly autobiographical, it is youthfully passionate -- all the more inflamed by Lazi's struggles with her (strong, intensely sexual) attraction to women, rather than men. She's upfront about her homosexuality here ("I am a woman who loves women"), but her account shows her frequently struggling with (and against) it: even as she understands: "My identity was fully formed long before I was ever actualized, and it wasn't going to change even if I kicked and screamed" ... well, there's a lot of kicking and screaming.
       Even as she is clear about her fundamental being and essence, societal norms apparently exert overwhelming pressure on her, and how she sees herself, and her longings. Even as she seems unbridled in much that is recounted in Notes of a Crocodile, some of her formulations suggest just how difficult it is for her:
I'd been keeping my deviant sexual desires in check for most of my adolescent and college years. I reassured myself I had done nothing wrong.
       At one point she admits:
I was a prisoner of my own nature, and one with no recourse. This time, however, I was determined to liberate myself. Convinced that it was possible to change.
       (Spoiler: yet again: not this time .....)
       If much of Notes of a Crocodile is a novel of college-aged kids trying to find themselves, in Lazi's case it is also very much about her fully accepting who she already is -- and throughout she moves back and forth between being fully cognizant of the obvious, and trying nevertheless to buck it.
       Several relationships dominate the novel, especially the on-again, off-again one with Shui Ling -- long bursting with sexual tension, but also frustrated by the two girls' strange dance with each other, an unwillingness -- or inability -- to commit to a love that presumably seems, in some ways, wrong to them. Much here is typical overheated youthful romance; it tears Lazi apart but also drives her.
       With much of the novel set during Lazi's college years it also involves the typical East Asian university club-scene -- school clubs or group that are significant social centers of university life. Lazi's club enlists two girls, the intellectually gifted but also off-beat Tun Tun and Zhi Rou, whose own youthful passions and uncertainty match well with Lazi's; the two become important figures in her life. The two, however, appear to eventually grow out of their mutual infatuation -- a contrast to the full-fledged lesbian Lazi is.
       Bad boy Meng Sheng also drifts in and out of Lazi's life, and even as he is almost the definition of instability -- indeed, regularly appears and then completely disappears -- he is one of the few male anchors Lazi can, in a sense, experiment with. Yet as anything but a stable, male figure -- in fact, he also has a long, passionate affair with another boy to his credit -- he can hardly be someone for Lazi to really fully lean or rely on.
       The novel is presented as a heady confessional mix, from straightforward reminiscences to letters to and from loved ones and other odds and ends. An inspired twist are chapters describing the lives of a 'crocodile'. Lazi mentions a newspaper headline warning that a change in laws might endanger crocodiles in Taiwan -- "EXTINCTION LOOMS" -- and from this the crocodile, a creature that many are apparently unfamiliar with, becomes the stand-in representative for homosexuality. Various episodes feature the crocodile, often in a 'human suit' to blend in and disguise its actual essence, a clever mix of the banal ("The crocodile opened the refrigerator") and surreal.
       At one point, the narrator suggests:
     If there were an encyclopedia on the subject of humanity, the scientific definition of a crocodile would be "a Hula-Hoop (or dead bolt, etc.) optimized for secretly falling in love with other people." Ideally, the encyclopedia's editor would be adept at the use of figurative language, though of course one would hope the same for the whole of humanity someday.
       Notes of a Crocodile is a novel full of youthful Angst and yearnings, emotions pitched high and low, love so yearned for and lost love hurting so incredibly deeply. Lazi isn't quite a (melo)drama queen, but she's certainly a a fickle -- or uncertain -- youth, whirling through the instabilities of college life and incredible highs and lows; as she herself admits:
Secretly, though, I did sort of enjoy being a fucked-up mess.
       There's an extraordinary energy and vivacity to Lazi's life and her writing, making for a more extreme -- and thus, in many ways, more fundamental and honest-seeming -- account of agitated, confused college-age life than most examples of the genre.
       Qiu does well with the incidentals, too. Lazi is very smart (as are Tun Tun and Zhi Rou), and though academics are decidedly in the background, Qiu uses small bits well in support of the story throughout. So too are the family- and living-circumstances of the different characters. Reading matter -- including Murakami's Norwegian Wood -- and the occasional name-dropping (beginning with (suicides ...) Osamu Dazai and Yukio Mishima and ending with 'Jarman' and 'Genet') are used sparingly, but also effectively.
       Notes of a Crocodile can feel overheated, but Lazi/Qiu's passion(s) burst through impressively and there's much to like about this very raw honesty. Though yet another a pained youthful wallow in self, Notes of a Crocodile is a cut above most such novels in the sheer richness of Qiu's language, invention, and approaches -- including the crocodile elements.

- M.A.Orthofer, 6 May 2017

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Notes of a Crocodile: Reviews: Other books by Qiu Miaojin under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Taiwanese author Qiu Miaojin (Chiu Miao-Chin; 邱妙津) lived 1969 to 1995.

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