I’ve just finished a remarkable collection of stories by a Taiwanese author called Cheng Ch’ing-Wen called ‘Three-Legged Horse’. Those of you who read my entry on ‘The Jade Peony‘ will already know of my fascination for Chinese culture; this collection goes further in my exploration of that.
The stories in ‘Three-Legged Horse’ do seem odd at first because nothing much seems to actually happen. In the first story, ‘The River Suite’, a ferryman is fascinated with a woman who comes out to wash her clothes in the river. He watches her door every day, and yet has only seen her once, has never spoken to her, and has never even looked her fully in the face. And despite a great flood and his rescue of a man from the treacherous waters, the story always centres around this woman and the fact that he has not seen her very often. He longs to – he is also conscious of perhaps not being worthy of her – but at the end of the story, where five years has passed between their first encounter and now, he notices that a doctor is visiting her house. And this is the end of the story; the implication that she is gravely ill and that he will never see her again.
The haunting nature of this story is what permeates the entire collection. I think it is a remarkable example of that writing tenet ‘Show, don’t tell.’ The blurb on the back of the book reads thus: ‘These twelve stories represent the best work of ‘nativist’ writer Cheng Ch’ing-Wen and encompass his major themes: the tensions between men and women, parents and children, city and village, tradition and modernity.’ And this is what he does; he doesn’t confine himself to explorations of relationships that go well or those that end spectacularly. He looks at those relationships that fizzle out before they even start, of the marriages entered into a bit rashly in which the couple must then find out who each other are after they are committed to one another. He explores ideas that are rather swept under the carpet in Western thought – in ‘The Last of the Gentlemen’, the main character decides that that best course of action for his family and all concerned is if he takes his own life, and leaves his children to sort themselves out from there.
Cheng Ch’ing-Wen also explores the tensions that remain in a country that was once torn apart by war. This is something that England and Canada can’t identify with, but I think that France and the other countries occupied by the Germans in WWII would be able to. Many of the stories in the collection refer to the war, in which Taiwan was occupied by the Japanese; many atrocities were committed by the occupiers during the war. But as in every war, there are some local people who side with the occupying forces, and after the war there are always repercussions for these people. The title story, ‘Three-Legged Horse’, refers to one of these people, a man who became a policeman for the Japanese and fled his village after the war, leaving his wife and son to take his punishment from the townspeople. Even thirty years later he did not feel he could return to his village; there were still people who would be ready to exact their revenge for the things he did to help the Japanese during the war. His greatest regret was that he wasn’t a good husband to his wife, that he had made her endure the retribution of the villagers.
This collection has left me with a variety of feelings; awe that such good writing exists, sadness for the people in the stories who do not exist but who illustrate the feelings of all people, irritation at and for people who don’t understand or make the effort to understand others, and many other conflicting emotions. I think this collection does what great literature should – it makes is examine our own lives, and gives us a mirror to compare our own choices with those made by the characters in these stories.
This book won the Kiriyama Pacific Rim Book Prize