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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Remains of Life

Wu He

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

To purchase Remains of Life

Title: Remains of Life
Author: Wu He
Genre: Novel
Written: 2000 (Eng. 2017)
Length: 333 pages
Original in: Chinese
Availability: Remains of Life - US
Remains of Life - UK
Remains of Life - Canada
Les survivants - France
  • Chinese title: 餘生
  • With an Afterword by the author
  • Translated and with an Introduction by Michael Berry

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Our Assessment:

B+ : powerful but challenging read

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
SCMP . 7/6/2017 Mike Cormack
Taipei Times . 18/5/2017 Bradley Winterton
TLS . 16/11/2018 Chris Littlewood

  From the Reviews:
  • "Remains of Life has little concern for orderly narratives or neat conclusions: it has no chapters or paragraph breaks, and few full sentences. It combines a historical study of the Musha Incident, the Seediq and surviving tribe members (the "remains of life"), philosophical ruminations on time, the human condition, history, sexuality and violence, and sudden lurches into fantasy and even metafiction. (...) It is an endless flow of writing, of thought, of memory. (...) His ruminations are frequently superb -- passionate, insightful and earthy. (...) Remains of Life is challenging but not unrewarding, and it is, of course, politically and historically important." - Mike Cormack, South China Morning Post

  • "A sensation the original may have been, but it doesnít make for easy reading in English. (...) (W)hat we have is an experimental novel whose stream-of-consciousness isnít the ideal format for a balanced historical evaluation. (...) My conclusion about this novel is that, a classic though it may well be in Chinese, it doesnít quite have that quality in English. Reading it didnít give me much pleasure, for instance, and great literature always gives pleasure. But itís important that such a major work in contemporary Taiwanese fiction should be accessible to English readers so we can at least have some idea of what all the fuss is about." - Bradley Winterton, Taipei Times

  • "The distended sentences, the heavy presence of the author, the turbid mix of fact and fiction, and the obsession with historical memory and trauma, might recall W. G. Sebald. Wu Heís writing, however, has none of Sebaldís seamless flow. (...) The haphazard form befits the subject, as Wu He restlessly attempts to come to terms with the Musha incident. Such an unhewn style has its risks, however, and in self-conscious passages about the process of writing the book, he can seem to deflate criticism by pre-empting it. (...) The work is at its strongest when Wu He cedes the material to his subjects and simply listens. He has an acute ear for dialogue, finely rendered by Berry. (...) Remains of Life is a bold and unsettling search for a new way to represent life in the face of desolation." - Chris Littlewood, 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 'Musha Incident' is a famous and notorious one in the history of Taiwan. On 27 October 1930, aboriginal villagers in the then (since 1895) Japanese colony of what we now know as Taiwan attacked those assembled for a sports meet, killing 136 Japanese. The aboriginal tribes still practiced headhunting rituals, and the Japanese victims were decapitated; retaliation, when it came soon later, was devastating, decimating the Atayal tribe, with its few surviving members then relocated to a reservation some forty miles away.
       Remains of Life is essentially a novel in which the author, writing in the first person, examines the Musha Incident (and the 'Second Musha Incident', an inter-tribal headhunting attack) and the fall-out and consequences over the decades since. Wu He lived in Riverisle, as the place where the Atayal were exiled was called, and spoke with survivors and their descendants -- the: "Remains of Life who had survived the calamity" --, and his account is a mix of reporting, documentation, analysis, and fiction. There is a strong autobiographical element, as Wu He is very much part of the story -- describing what he experiences and who he encounters -- and his commentary includes his own opinions, and his own struggles with writing about this subject: it is a personal story, too:

to make a sincere attempt at exploring the erratic nature of my own life over the past several years through this novel
       Form is influenced by content: one of Wu He's struggles throughout is how to write on the subject, and how much traditional structure to impose on his writing:
Writing is unable to extract itself from the conventions of grammar and form but do words have the freedom to rave nonsense ? Is raving nonsense a means of speaking the truth or does the truth bleed into the words transforming language into a cauldron of raving nonsense and chaotic ramblings, without the freedom to express nonsensical ramblings writing loses its most fundamental freedom and writing itself also becomes transformed into a mere "tool"
       Remains of Life is a particularly challenging text to read because it is written without any paragraph breaks and with very limited punctuation -- it is essentially a single, run-on stream-of-consciousness sentence, even as it incorporates dialogue and others' accounts and commentary. While not simply nonsense-raving, the word-flow is certainly also far from straightforward; appropriately, given the subject matter, it is not a comfortable read, but readers should be aware of its challenges -- merely finding a spot to interrupt one's reading (or then jump back in) is difficult, and at over three hundred pages it is no quick read, regardless how deeply one manages to immerse oneself in it.
       The Musha Incident can be seen as a sort of last gasp uprising against the colonizer, long after the local Chinese population had essentially accepted it -- but Wu He warns about romanticizing that idea, considering events also in the context of the traditional headhunting rituals the tribes still practiced.
       As he then also frequently notes, the afterwar period saw a continuing if different form of subjugation and colonization of the aboriginal tribes, the (Chinese) Taiwanese society the dominant cultural and political power, the 'White Terror' -- the martial law that lasted from 1949 to 1987 -- long limiting dissent. And so, for example, a local whom he asks about the tribal history notes:
The only thing that people of my generation think about is going out to the cities to make money, we've almost completely forgotten the traditional legacy that our ancestors have left us with, my father lived through the Musha Incident, he never says much about it, he keeps most of it inside
       Wu He even begins his novel by reminding of the rapid recent modernization and transformation of Taiwan, noting that he had first heard of the Musha Incident when he was a teenager, and: "the economy of this island nation had yet to take off, there were still no McDonald's fast food restaurants". He removed himself from modernized, contemporary Taiwan previously, and his foray to Riverisle and into this subject-matter is another attempt to capture what is rapidly being lost and transformed.
       Occasionally, he is almost resigned, facing that common problem of history:
I too have asked myself many times whether all my questions about "the Incident" were superfluous, after all history has already decided what its place is to be, the political has already lauded it with glory and honor
       Yet Wu He's account shows the value of further engagement with the subject -- and, specifically, its present-day interpretations. So, for example, modern-day influences and the debate about them still reflect on the past ones:
"A little bit of new technology comes into the reservation, and before long we are destroyed, assimilated," Cuz-Hub said that he couldn't accept that, but he couldn't help but accept what was happening before his own eyes, "I'm not really willing to use words like 'invade' or 'assimilate,'" if we talk about invasion then we must also reflect upon why we didn't resist invasion, and if we talk about assimilation we must also ask ourselves why we didn't resist assimilation
       Many of the names given to the characters are basically simply descriptive -- Deformo, Weirdo -- and a central figure in the novel is simply called Girl, a granddaughter of Mona Rudao, who led the 1930 assault. Girl contains many of the dichotomies is confronted with -- a seeker, too ("One day I'm going to set out in search of ..."), a local who has ventured out but also wishes to return to the historical, a tribal representative yet also influenced by the foreign (notably in constantly playing classical Western music, for example). In his brief Afterword Wu He notes that one of the main objects of the novel is to examine: "the Quest of Girl".
       Yet the narrator is as much a central figure, and his own quests also at the heart of the novel -- the understanding and interpretation of 'the Incident' and its larger implications long beyond it, as well as his own struggles-as-writer. He expresses ambivalence about rebellion, even as he understands its important role both in history and society and in his own life and writing:
I began to grow rebellious during my teenage years, that rebelliousness continued and can even be seen in my writing today -- writing is itself a form of rebellion, I really despise endless rebellion [...] I know that there is a way to bring an end to this rebellion, but the key to resolving this issue lies not in suppressing rebellious actions, it lies in truly facing up to this thing called "dignity," those who rebel against something and those who fight to safeguard something are simply expressing two sides of teh same coin, what they both fight for is dignity
       Wu He's narrative is an outpouring, and only to a limited extent a story; the fascinating historical events and his encounters do make for an often engaging read, and his efforts to consider both the Mushu Incident and its aftermaths are fascinating -- but it is not easy to get through. Too lively and varied to be a slog, Remains of Life also remains a frustratingly slippery text.

- M.A.Orthofer, 19 July 2017

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Remains of Life: Reviews: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Taiwanese author Wu He (Wuhe; 舞鶴; actually: 陳國城) was born in 1951.

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© 2017-2021 the complete review

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