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Notes of a Desolate Man

169 pages,
ISBN: 0231116084


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Brief Reviews - Fiction
by Fadi Abou-Rihan

He had experienced only at moments of intense happiness; now, it permeates every fibre of his being. His writing is occasioned by the AIDS-related death of his closest friend. It ends, for the purpose of the book at least, with him being handed the remains of a cremation that is as much his as anyone else's. He has just reached his fortieth year. He has finally come to terms with the loneliness that invades once desire has been extinguished. His notes are his only remains, and it is through them that he can circumvent the traps of existential angst and frenzied consumption. In them, not only does he turn back time, he twists, unfolds, and reshapes it into a series that will make no sense to those in search of villains, martyrs or politicos. Instead, he lays bare his losses, pleasures, and contradictions-with compassion, though without shame or pity.

His name is Xiao Shao. He narrates a book that belongs on the same shelf as a Delany or a Guibert. In the fifteen chapters of Notes of a Desolate Man (trans. by Howard Goldblatt & Sylvia Li-chum Lin, Columbia University Press, 169 pages, $30.95 cloth, ISBN: 0-231-11608-4), author Chu T'ien-wen helps Xiao Shao gather a version of a life that does not shy away from uncertain bodies or intricate ideas. She grounds him in a nationality (Taiwanese), a profession (pedagogue), and a sexuality (gay) without, however, betraying the fundamental loneliness of his being. One would think that it is she who keeps him constantly preoccupied by not letting him wander too far without a space to inhabit, an intellect to ponder, or a person to engage. In point of fact, his musings and accounts are more likely to be his gift to her and to her reader. He has witnessed the death of many a Buddha: LÚvi-Straus, Fellini, Mao, Athens, Venice, and even the fish he had frantically tried to raise in his apartment in Taipei. And he shares what he had learned from each of these teachers in a candid flow of associations and by-paths.

This is not to suggest that his words are effortless or his thoughts transparent. Indeed, moments of humour and even zaniness notwithstanding, Notes of a Desolate Man is not a light read. To follow Xiao Shao's footsteps is not to follow in them, for his journey is neither desirable nor detestable. It is simply other. And herein lies its impact: its ability to simultaneously pull its audience into the manifold layers of its detours, while suspending their faculty to judge. And herein also lies its virtue. The journey offers its reader a clearing for the possibility, not so much of identification, but of recognition, the same recognition that has enabled the woman author to render her gay male subject with lyrical though unsentimental acuity.

Xiao Shao is dead, and Chu T'ien-wen, his author, his friend, is entrusted with his notes for safekeeping and perhaps even for a return to a place of origin or final rest, just as Xiao Shao had been entrusted with the remains of his own friend. In turn, the reader is charged with the ineluctable task of securing a malleable continuity by accepting, transforming, and then relinquishing that which has been given as a gift. Bodies and texts, rather than people, keep the chain of relays flowing and alive.

For Xiao Shao, the writing continues, not in spite of his desolation, but because of it. And in writing, he bears testimony-not so much to the richness or resiliency of life, but to the inconstancy of death. 

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