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WoWasis book review: Wang Wen-hsing’s ‘Family Catastrophe’ from Taiwan

Written By: herbrunbridge - Aug• 30•11

When originally written in 1972, Wang Wen-hsing’s ‘Family Catastrophe’ created a ton of controversy. His story of a dysfunctional family flew in the face of the Confucian concept of respect for parents. The story revolves around a young man named Fan Yeh, and is unfolded in a non-traditional time-lapse interpretation involving an older step-brother, a mother consumed by jealousy, and a hard-working but ineffectual father ultimately beaten down by a system over which he has no control.

Translated into English in 1995 by Susan Wan Dolling (ISBN 0-8248-1710-9, in paperback), the book provides a description of the slow decline faced my many families lacking education as Taiwan began evolving into a high-tech giant. Fan Yeh’s mainland-raised father is self-sacrificing in his ultimately successful attempt to get his son educated. He cannot, however, come to grips with social change as he destroys his relationship with his step-son due to the latter’s insistence on marrying a woman from an indigenous Taiwanese group. As Fan Yeh grows older, he becomes more disgusted by the squalor in which he’s been raised (his description of his boarding house outhouse on pp. 160-161 is revolting), but yet continues to live with his parents, conflicted in the fealty of living with his parents while holding down a teaching job that would have allowed him to better his own living conditions. As his father descends into dementia, Fan Yeh loses all patience with his family situation, giving the reader the sense that he wishes his parents would just die.

Wang’s descriptive qualities are finely reflected in Dolling’s translation. As a youth, Fan Yeh is introduced to the theatre, where he falls in love with the actress playing the lead romantic role, but his attitude suddenly changes when he encounters, along with his step-brother Erh-ko, the troupe on the street after the play:

Again they rode around and reentered that quiet street. This time they saw a small crowd of people gathered round a brightly lit noodle stand. Erh-ko’s curiosity was aroused, and he steered over to have a look. The brothers saw that the crowd had gathered to watch those same actors in the play they had just seen. Traces of stage makeup could still be seen on some of their faces around the brows and cheeks. His erh-ko parked the bike in a hurry and joined the circle of onlookers. He, too, squeezed in. He saw that these actors had on rather shabby clothes; the men were wearing old jackets on top of khaki pants, and the women were wearing old sweaters. He searched among them for Hsia Pei-li. He almost missed her.

She was wearing an old black sweater. Her face appeared a scummy yellow, making her look much older than before. Then he heard her say: “My stomach’s killing me. This stomach acts up whenever the belly goes empty. Hey, big boss, give us some more of that beef! And don’t stint on the MSG!” Just then a gust of wind swept past, and she let out a thunderous sneeze. Wiping her nose with the back of her hand, she flung the snot onto the ground. A man in a blue cotton jacket entered the picture. On closer inspection, he turned out to be Ch’u Cheng-wei. He heard him say to the others, “That son of a bitch. What a waste of time putting in those extra hours. That skinflint won’t pay us a cent over fifty dollars. And he won’t even give that till tomorrow!” The whole cast was in an uproar. Hsia Pei-li’s shrill voice was heard above the din, shouting, “Fuck his goddamn forefathers and their rucking sons’ I’ll give him a good thrashing, that pig of a fat Chu and his chicken prick! That lousy asshole with his slimy, sugary eyes thinks he can fool us with his sweet words and honeyed phrases and then turn around and stab us in the back. Well, I’ll go have it out with him if it kills me!” “Okay, okay, old mother hen, the noodles are here. Have some before you go killing anyone!” one of the actors said. “Right you are. I’ll have my noodles first, and then I’ll go settle accounts with him!”

He and his brother left after that remark. Right then and there his love for her vanished. It was as if the play had never been and his feelings for her had never been. He felt as if a great load had been lifted from his shoulders; he was traveling light on the journey home.

Disillusionment is a theme that runs through the entire book, on every level, with every character. Overall, the book is recommended as a fine interpretation of familial conflicts and Taiwanese cultural mores in a nation in the midst of transition. Order it at the WoWasis eStore.

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