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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Family Catastrophe

Wang Wen-Hsing

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To purchase Family Catastrophe

Title: Family Catastrophe
Author: Wang Wen-Hsing
Genre: Novel
Written: 1972 (Eng. 1995)
Length: 258 pages
Original in: Chinese
Availability: Family Catastrophe - US
Family Catastrophe - UK
Family Catastrophe - Canada
Family Catastrophe - India
Processus familial - France
  • Chinese title: 家變
  • Translated by Susan Wan Dolling
  • First serialised in the Chungwai Literary Monthly (1972), then published in book form in 1973

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Our Assessment:

B+ : solid family tale

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
China Rev. Int'l. . Spring/1997 Sung-sheng Yvonne Chang
World Literature Today . Spring/1996 Philip F. Williams

  From the Reviews:
  • "(T)he novel dramatizes many typical stresses on the modern family in Taiwan, including fierce wifely jealousy over the husband's real or imagined infidelity, sky-high parental expectations of generous financial support in their old age from their sons, and stubborn parental illusions about keeping even their grown-up children emotionally dependent upon the elders. (...) Although the translation's scholarly apparatus leaves something to be desired, all readers of contemporary Chinese fiction should still welcome this lively English version of one of Taiwan's key literary landmarks." - Philip F. Williams, 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:

       Family Catastrophe is a two-tiered narrative. Chapters with alphabetical headings (A through O) focus on the present, but between them numbered chapters (1 through 157) look towards the past.
       The catastrophe that sets the book in motion is the disappearance of Fan Yeh's father: without a word or any of his possessions, wearing just his slippers, he walks out on his wife and son and doesn't return. An old, retired man, without any friends and few relatives, there's no apparent reason for him to disappear like this, nor any place for him to go.
       Fan Yeh sets off to look for him, and small personal notices are published in the newspaper, asking him to return, but no trace of him can be found. He has simply disappeared.
       As the fruitless search progresses, the book focusses more on the past, the numbered chapters offering small scenes and vignettes from the past, beginning with Fan Yeh's early childhood and progressing to the day when his father disappeared. In these, as Fan Yeh grows up, the image of the father is slowly transformed: understood, bit by bit, in what turns out to be a disillusioning process.
       The catastrophe of the title isn't merely the father's disappearance, it is the failure of the family as a whole -- a long-simmering catastrophe. Money was always tight, and the father not very successful at his work (and eventually forced out in disgrace). He had bad luck, but also seemed incapable of making much of himself. Odd quirks and a fairly isolated lifestyle also affect all the family members, with the father's strongly held notions hampering him, his wife, and his son (and leading, eventually, to a split with Fan Yeh's step-brother).
       The young boy idolizes his father, but by the time the old man disappears has little but contempt for him. Awed by the "ten volumes of notes, bits and pieces from proverbial sayings and classical aphorisms" that his father had collected -- "the best of his writing, his choice selection" -- Fan Yeh eventually comes to see even this as "a few stale phrases and pointless sayings". His father is a failure, and Fan Yeh comes to resent both that failure and the ramifications it had for him (though he is able to escape, and goes on to study and begins to make a life for himself).
       In one of the last chapters, after a fight with his father, Fan Yeh writes in his journal (unable to confront his father head-on with such outrageous thoughts), condemning the whole family concept and system:

It is absolutely pitiless, the most cruel, most inhumane, immoral social institution ! (...) Family life, daily living in this family, is unendurable. (...) Why is it necessary to have a family system at all ?
       He blames too-small houses, and the generational differences in a rapidly modernizing country, for compounding the problem, but the whole family-idea -- especially when it means being stuck with (and obligated to) people so different from oneself -- really bothers him.
       In a sense the father finally gets the message:: his disappearance makes life tolerable again -- not the happiest of morals.
       Given Chinese notions of filial piety and devotion to one's elders, much of this is pretty strong stuff, and Wang effectively conveys the nooses that are these ties that bind even for readers not familiar with such a sense of parent-child obligations.
       Family Catastrophe isn't a nice story: the father is a mediocre man, the Fan-family circumstances fairly sad ones, the conclusion offering a somewhat hollow satisfaction. Yet it rings true, and the presentation is often excellent. The brief scenes from Fan Yeh's childhood are very well done, as is the gradual shift in his perception of his parents and the world around him.
       A solid read.

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Family Catastrophe: 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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