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Foreign Settings, Familiar Themes

THE TASTE OF APPLES, By Huang Chun-ming, Translated from the Chinese by Howard GoldblattColumbia University Press, $16.50; 288 pages, paper

July 02, 2001|MERLE RUBIN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Struggling up a mountain on a rickety bicycle that's too large for him, a small boy looks forward to presenting his grandfather with a hard-to-get fish from the seaside market in the city. This is the opening image of "The Fish," the first of nine stories in this collection by Huang Chun-ming, one of the masters of modern Taiwanese fiction.

The characters who people these stories are, for the most part, poor, many of them from the countryside. In "The Drowning of an Old Cat," an elderly man tries to stop developers from turning a sacred spring into a swimming pool. In "His Son's Big Doll," a young husband and father trudges along hot city streets as an ad-man in a clown costume weighted down by sandwich-boards. "The Gong" is about an older man who loses his job as the town gong-beater and attempts to cope with his circumstances by trying to find a niche in a group of layabouts. In "Ringworms," a shy mother of five tries to gather up the courage to discuss birth control with her equally shy husband. And in the title story of the collection, a peculiar kind of luck finally strikes this same family when the paterfamilias is hit by the car of a well-off American.

Seemingly making a better adjustment to urban life are "The Two Sign Painters," two youths from the country who have found work high up on the side of a 24-story building painting an ad for Jishi Cola featuring a semi-nude portrait of a starlet. But even though they have been entrusted with the plum task of painting the starlet's giant breasts, the painters are becoming bored with their job. "As I see it, nothing we do for the rest of our lives will be our own choice!" complains the more disaffected of the two. His words prove truer than even he suspects.

In "Xiaoqi's Cap," we meet another pair of co-workers, both newly engaged as traveling salesmen for a company that imports Japanese pressure cookers. The older man, Lin Zaifa, married and with a child on the way, is very serious about the job, whereas his partner, Wang Wuxiong, still single, is skeptical and irreverent.

"Excuse me," Wang interrupts the engineer who's explaining the workings of pressure cookers at one of the training sessions, "but I've just finished my military service. I was assigned to ordnance, and as I see it, getting some housewife to effectively use this sort of pressure cooker makes our dealing with land mines seem like child's play."

In the course of his unsuccessful efforts to sell the pressure cookers, the wise-cracking Wang is unexpectedly charmed by a solemn, beautiful little girl named Xiaoqi, who is never seen without her school-cap. In this story, as in many of the others, laughter and tears, insouciance and desperation, comedy and tragedy, are almost unbearably close together.

"In my wildest dreams I never imagined I'd be a pimp someday," declares the narrator of the collection's final story, "Sayonara / Zaijian." A highly principled young man, considered by most of his colleagues at work to be, if anything, rather "strait-laced," he is not happy at being delegated by his boss to entertain some visiting Japanese businessmen by showing them what might euphemistically be described as a good time. And, as a young man with "a pretty good grasp of recent Chinese history," he hates the idea of serving as a pimp to men from the nation that perpetrated atrocities like the rape of Nanking against his people. Huang deftly portrays his protagonist's mixed feelings on meeting the businessmen (who are quite friendly and polite) and the clever way in which he deals with his moral dilemma.

Although the translator of these stories likens them to the fiction of William Faulkner, the literary master whom Huang seems most to resemble is Anton Chekhov. Huang portrays his characters with the same kind of compassionate objectivity, gentle humor and sharp poignancy. His style (like Chekhov's and very unlike Faulkner's) is pithy, direct and clear. And, although Huang's focus is on the day-to-day lives of ordinary individuals, the stories convey a much larger sense of the society and culture in which they live. The clash between traditional ways and urban exigencies, the desire to fit in, the need to save face and the difficulty of making a living without losing one's self-respect are problems these characters confront every day, problems that will strike a chord with readers everywhere.

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