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Ta-wei Chi: 膜 (Membranes)

This novel is a queer transgender climate-change novel set in the twenty-second century, so not exactly your standard Taiwanese novel. But don’t let that put you off as it is a very fine novel. Our heroine is Momo, named after Momotarō, a legendary Japanese peach boy. 桃 (the Japanese for peach, is pronounced Momo.) Peaches are important in Momo’s life. Firstly, according to her mother, she was born from a peach and, secondly, she very much enjoys eating peaches.

Momo was the top skincare specialist in T City and the city’s most respected stylist. T city, like other cities of the era, is under the sea. Cities are built under the sea because of climate change. Momo, as a child, dreamed of going up to the top but has never done so and now has no desire to do so. The book opens at the end of the twenty-first century.

We get a full description of what happened. Ozone hole enlarged. Skin cancer became the major cause of death. (White people suffered from a greater proportion of skin cancers, it was just divine retribution for millennia of racial prejudice. Many Native Americans and Asian Americans concurred). Countries moved under water. Big disputes as most powerful countries grabbed the best areas so an agreement was made, Cyborgs worked on the surface and they engaged in proxy wars. New Taiwan established itself as the financial centre of (undersea) Southeast Asia, a key player with unrivalled regional influence.

Momo is solitary, very successful and very comfortable living alone. She and her mother, director of public relations for MegaHard Publishing, had fallen out and had not seen each other for twenty years. It seems that Momo got very ill as a result of the LOGO virus when she was seven. Prior to an operation, she was given a playmate called Andy. (As we learn, anyone called Andy is almost certainly an android. We realise that Andy is a cyborg. Momo does not. Indeed, the two promise to get married after getting out of hospital. (Most romantic relationships in this book are homosexual rather than heterosexual.) Momo decides she loved Andy so much that they should eat a bit of one another. She bites off a bit of Andy’s fnger. It is difficult to chew but she manages. She suggests Andy bite of her her penis as it is of no use, not least because Andy does not have one. However, it is, not surprisingly, very painful. Yes, Momo is a girl but she seems to have a penis, though after the operation no longer does.

The operation and recovery last a long time. Momo recovers from the surgery but Andy has gone. Momo is furious. She is now ten. She will soon go off to boarding school and not see her mother again.

As the title tells us, membranes are important. Momo’s skill is in giving her clients what amounts to a membrane over their skin. It was a bit like applying lacquer to wooden furniture . We learn that she has been given a special scanner and membrane fluid, called M-skin. With this she can examine the skin of her clients and tell exactly what they have been doing – having sex, swimming and so on. She can even tell what they typed by examining the fingers. Momo sometimes puts on the used membrane and gets her thrills by experiencing what her clients have experienced.

As mentioned, Momo has not had any contact with her mother for twenty years. She was disappointed when her mother did not come to the ceremony when she won an award and is bitter about it. However, as we enter the twenty-second century and Momo approaches her thirtieth birthday, things start to change. One of her clients, Tomei Ito, a Japanese journalist, wants to interview Momo, which she does. Momo mentions the business with her mother and this is published.

Her mother then emails her and suggests they get together. Is this because of the interview or because Momo is approaching thirty? Neither we nor Momo know. Momo however, hatches a plot to access her mother’s computer, using M-skin. What she finds is quite revelatory.

While Momo’s seeming sex change, the general lack of romantic heterosexual relationships – it would appear, though this is not spelled out, that reproduction is by test tube – and climate change are clearly important, the focus is really on what we might call Momo’s mental state. Why is she so solitary? Is she asexual? Does she have no friends, no contacts apart from her clients? What really happened with her mother to make them have no contact for twenty years? Was it her mother’s successful and demanding career or Momo’s bitterness at the loss of Andy? Was she born a boy and became a girl after the operation? And why did she have to spend three years in hospital? All these questions and more are going through the reader’s mind during the course of the novel.

At the same time we are following Momo’s mental state both as a child and as an adult. Is she happy? She is clearly bitter towards her mother but, otherwise, seems more or less content with her lot, if not happy. She has lost her desire to go up to the surface, which she had as a child. However, apart from her job, she seems to do little. She lived in total solitude in her infinity-shaped house. Occasionally she’d put on arias by the famous castrato Farinelli.

This novel was first published in 1996 so, while most of the technology forecasts seem excellent, others seem less so. Laser discs? Conventional email? Two factor authentication passwords? However, these are minor issues compared to the whole issue of M-skin, cyborgs and he consequences of climate change.

Some novels rely entirely on the big plot twist at the end and there is no doubt that is an important part of this novel. However, Chi is an excellent novelist and Momo’s story, with the unanswered questions, her mental state and the climate change issues and consequences, all help make this a first-class novel. I would add that translator Ari Larissa Heinrich gives an excellent commentary and background note on the book at the the end.

Publishing history

First published in 1996 by Lianjing
First English translation in 2021 by Columbia University Press
Translated by Ari Larissa Heinrich