Beyond a good yarn

In war, there are no winners, believes novelist Chang Kuei-hsin. “And denying the atrocities of war is self-deception and evasion,” said the Chinese Malaysian author of When the Wild Boars Cross the River.

The novel recently won the eighth Dream of the Red Chamber Award: The World’s Distinguished Novel in Chinese.

Born in Sarawak, Malaysia, to parents who were from Guangdong, Chang graduated from the department of English at Taiwan National Normal University. Having become a Taiwanese in 1981, he is now based on the island.

His background is reflected in his books – most of which are set in Borneo’s rainforests and depict the lives and difficulties, loves and blood and tears of Chinese Malaysians with rich and gorgeous poetic rhetoric.

Telling a tale set during the Japanese occupation of the village of Hoba in Chang’s hometown during World War II, the novel attracted significant attention in literary circles and has won at least five literary awards since it was published in 2018 in Taiwan.

“I was born during a time that was neither far nor close to the war,” Chang said.

Born in 1956, Chang feels close to the war, even though the Japanese occupation of Malaya ended more than 10 years before he was born, since his hometown used to be a battleground and has many relics of war.

He recalled that his primary school was full of unexploded bombs left over from the war, and soldiers often came to the school to detonate unexploded bombs.

Whenever a bomb went off, teachers told students how apocalyptic it looked.

However, the students, who would listen to the bombs exploding while squatting on the floor, would applaud.

Chang was also deeply affected by a story his father told him about meeting a woman on a blind date during World War II.

The woman wore her hair down, but when the wind blew her hair back, a scar left by the war on her face was revealed and “the romance turned into a horror movie.”

The story inspired Chang to ponder on the fate of this woman.

And so When the Wild Boars Cross the River was born, with the woman as the main protagonist.

“In Chang’s work, he applies his amazing literary imagination to arouse the sensations of the weather, soil, fruit, wild animals in the rainforest,” said Huang Ziping, a member of the final judging panel.

The war is overlayed by the timeline of nature, including the battle between humans and boars, and the addition of mysterious, supernatural and eternal elements such as deathless severed heads and limbs, said Huang.

“In the interlacing of symbolic objects he [constructs] a tortuous historical philosophy and describes the violent aesthetic of life and death, human and beast, good and evil.”

Chung Ling, who chairs the final judging panel, also heaped praise on the novel, saying: “When the Wild Boars Cross the River appeals to the five human senses, and it describes the characters and the wild nature of the Borneo rainforest.”

“It mainly presents the struggle between men and nature, as well as the life-or-death struggles among human races. Yet, the writer narrates in a very rational manner.”

“The novel is a classic piece with huge tension and it captivates the reader through an interplay of masculine passion and condensed literary style.”

When asked why he wrote about a war that took place half a century ago, Chang quoted Nobel laureate Kazuo Ishiguro – that through depicting war, we can “observe how harshly history makes cruel mockeries of humanity.”

The Dream of the Red Chamber Award, launched by Hong Kong Baptist University’s faculty of arts in 2006, is awarded once every two years.

It aims to encourage the publication of excellent Chinese novels, recognize outstanding Chinese novels by writers from around the world and enhance the standard of Chinese novel writing. The recipient receives a cash prize of HK$300,000.

This year, the judges also proposed the Chronicle of Cloud Village by A Lai, Beloved Wife by Dung Kai-cheung and Superman Kuang by Lo Yi-chin for the Jury Award. Weaverbird by Xi Xi and Islands by Hu Ching-fang were presented with the Highly Recommended Award.

(This article was published at The Standard on October 27, 2020: Education: Beyond a good yarn )

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