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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Backed Against the Sea

Wang Wen-Hsing

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

To purchase Backed Against the Sea

Title: Backed Against the Sea
Author: Wang Wen-Hsing
Genre: Novel
Written: 1981 (Eng. 1993)
Length: 128 pages
Original in: Chinese
Availability: Backed Against the Sea - US
Backed Against the Sea - UK
Backed Against the Sea - Canada
Backed Against the Sea - India
  • Chinese title: 背海的人
  • Translated by Edward Gunn

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Our Assessment:

B : stylistically impressive, fairly powerful

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
China Rev. Int'l. . Fall/1995 Randolph Trumball
World Literature Today . Fall/1994 Jeffrey C. Kinkley

  From the Reviews:
  • "Wang has reconfigured an ideographic language in Joycean ways, a major accomplishment. But is his novel entertaining or labored ? Perhaps both. There are "phenomenological" descriptions, identityless characters, and tedious prattle, but as in Beckell, these come off in such exaggerated, outrageous terms as to be inventive, often humorous. And this is a Chinese new novel. (...) (T)he content, beyond consciousness itself, is more social than philosophical. (...) I regret only that Wang's New Novelism exceeds both constrictiveness (Robbe-Grillet) and expansiveness (Butor), being so rhetorical and informative as to become -- you guessed it -- didactic." - Jeffrey C. Kinkley, World Literature Today

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:

       Backed Against the Sea, written in the late 1970s, is dated: "January 12-13, 1962", a confessional rant of a down-on-his-luck narrator in the Taiwanese boondocks. He's fled Taipei, where both the police and the much more threatening 'Blackface Tiger' (whom he owes money) are looking for him, and retreated to this complete backwater, Deep Pit Harbor, a hopeless, near-destitute fishing village where no one would bother to look for him.
       A ne'er do-well intellectual with a strong nihilistic streak, the narrator doesn't play at being a fish out of water: he is, if nothing else, adaptable, and he makes the best of his new circumstances -- eventually setting up (a roadside) shop as a fortune teller (with no compunctions about being a fraud: if people want to get taken, he'll oblige). He's even a writer -- a published poet, no less, "with a reputation that's not bad, not bad at all" (though he has no illusions about what exactly that is worth). He doesn't take his fancy reading and ideas too seriously either -- it's not a question of his being surrounded by country bumpkins, but he realises that there's not much room for intellectualism in this world yet.
       Writing is a release, and he sure has a lot to vent. He unleashes a torrent here, spewing what comes to mind, offering a description of his circumstances and what has happened to him, as well as digressing right and left. He's not a happy guy, and he wants the reader to know it from the first: this is a book that begins:

     Damn! this rat's ass rat's cunt rathole! It fuckin' sucks! Fuck it! Fuck this! Eat me, eat my meat, -- scum suckin' homopansyfaggot son-of-a-bitch suck my cock! bite my crank! Dogshit! Not worth dogshit! not dog's ass! not dogsnatch! dog pelt! dog claws! doglegs! dogpricks! dogteeth! dogpaws! doggie dick! dog shit! shit!
       Once he's gotten that out of system he (and the narrative) calms down a bit -- but such explosions do recur. Backed Against the Sea is, throughout, a novel of expression, of trying to convey this deep-down anger and frustration. Wang intriguingly mixes fairly (if rarely entirely) straightforward narrative with more creative attempts to use language.
       Translation obviously posed a difficulty here, and Edward Gunn notes:
     The Chinese text is well known not only for its strong and idiosyncratic language, but also for its unconventional use of a variety of graphic systems, including simplified as well as traditional Chinese ideographs, romanization, the Chinese phonetic transcription (...), and odd punctuation, not to mention erratic spacing. These are all suggested, if not equaled, in the translation by various devices
       The text as it is presented is, indeed, far from most prose, but -- though dense -- surprisingly readable. The stylistic (and suggestive typographical) oddities are all comprehensible -- words and sentences aren't distorted beyond meaning -- and most of the time they are very effective, adding another layer to the text. Experimental, the novel nevertheless remains accessible.
       Packed and fast-paced, with more targets than one can count, Backed Against the Sea is both angry and funny. Taiwan-specific -- and looking back at a specific period, from a more recent one (that now also is more than a quarter of a century past) -- one suspects quite a bit of the social and political commentary is lost on the contemporary Western reader. Nevertheless, there's enough here to entertain and amuse -- and stylistically it's an intriguing (and not overwhelming) exercise.

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Backed Against the Sea: Other books by Wen-Hsing under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Taiwanese author Wang Wen-Hsing (王文興, Wang Wenxing) was born in 1939. He teaches at National Taiwan University.

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