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Lo Yi-Chin: 遠方 (Faraway)
The hero of this novel is called Lo Yi-Chin and is a novelist so we can probably assume that the novel is, at least in part, autobiographical. Lo Yi-Chin is in his thirties and lives in Taipei with his two year old son and eight-month pregnant wife. Hs father – who is referred to as simply Mr. Lo or elder Mr. Lo (our hero will eventually be reduced to Young Lo) – was born in what in this book is referred to as the mainland or, occasionally, mainland China. He married had children and then fled the country to Taiwan after the Nationalists lost to the Communists, after the Chinese Civil War in 1949, abandoning the family.
In Taiwan he married again and had a daughter and two sons, one of which is Lo Yi-Chin. He had visited mainland China since then, as had our hero, who honeymooned there in 1995, meeting his half-siblings. However, elder Mr. Lo decides to visit again at the beginning of this novel. This was probably not a good idea as he had had a stroke. Nevertheless, off he goes and joins a coach tour. En route, while having a shower, he collapses with a massive cerebral haemorrhage and is rushed to hospital in Jiujiang.
At the time Lo Yi-Chin is on holiday in Taiwan. He had planned to take the train but difficulty in getting the tickets makes him annoyed and he decides on the spur of the moment to drive. This will not be his last impetuous decision. He receives the news while there so has to hurry back – a seven hour drive on winding roads. His brother, who had no family could not go as his passport had expired so our hero has to abandon young son and pregnant wife and head off. There are all sorts of complications regarding visas but, eventually, he makes it there. He finds three of his half-brothers – all grandfathers – and his comatose father.
The story from here focuses on our hero and his mother in Jiujiang. As he says I was in a third-world country, wasn’t I? Indeed China seems well behind Taipei in many ways and is criticised – from the vomit on the floor of the lift, there when he arrives and still there when he leaves several days later to the rural accents. The food hygiene, both inside the hospital and elsewhere is appalling. If you want to get proper medical treatment, you have to bribe the doctors. There is even a hierarchy for bribes, explained to him by his brother. It is complicated by the fact that there is a lot of forged money around. Matters are made worse by the continual noise from works, not helped by the use of drills which seem to be the same ones as used for medical procedures. Frequent comments on Taiwan-China relations do not help.
He eventually finds out that it would be best to transfer his father to another hospital and better still to fly him back to Taipei. Both are fraught with complications, mainly bureaucratic. However he is eager to get away from what he calls this fuckhole of a town.
Apart from the labyrinthine bureaucracy, with which he struggles, this book is about fathers or, more particularly, about his father. Elder Mr Lo – we eventually learn that his name is Jiaxuan – has two families and, as his first wife remarried, not only children from his two marriages but also step-children from his first wife’s second marriage. This seem to cause fewer complications than it might in the West as all seem to be one happy(?) family. Our hero consistently refers to his half-brothers in the traditional way, by number, e.g. Third Brother.
However, for his half-brothers there have been complications. During the worst excesses of the Cultural Revolution, they were condemned by the authorities as the children of a traitor but they did manage to survive. They do not seem to blame their father.
As regards our hero, he had the inevitable father-son issues and he had, indeed, fallen out with his family. He does not remember his father with much affection. Indeed, as far as he can recall, the only serious conversation they ever had was when his father gave him a lecture on the dangers of masturbation – when he was twenty. He pretended to not know what it was, which seemed to satisfy his father.
He has a lot of time on his hands an spends much of it ruminating. He is a novelist and thinks about various novels and novel-writing in general. He thinks about his father (but much less about his mother, though she is there with him). He thinks about his life and his wife and, as he is a father, too, he thinks about his two-year old son and wonders if he will behave towards the boy the same way his father behaves towards him. He also thinks about the other patients and their issues (there are two others in the same room as his father.)
But it is mainly about being stuck with his father and half-siblings and the hospital and the insurance company and wondering whether he would ever get out. Being stuck here was like being in a city where time flowed backward, he comments.
Lo Yi-Chin has a very good reputation in Taiwan and though none of his other books are available in English (or,as far as I can see, any other Western language), it is clear from this book that he is a superb writer. The book could have been boring but Lo Yi-Chin writes so well about the hospital, his family, the bureaucracy and the various topics mentioned above on which he ruminates, that we are never bored. I would be very interested to read one of his other novels.
First published in 2003 by INK
First English translation in 2021 by Columbia University Press
Translated by Jeremy Tiang