by Rana Asfour
At eighteen years old, Wang Ting-Kuo’s soon to be father-in-law gave him an ultimatum: either continue to be a writer or give up my daughter. Wang, who despite having already taken the literary world by storm, chooses love.
It wasn’t until several years later, when having made his fortune in property that Ting-Kuo returned to writing. In 2015, he released ‘My Enemy’s Cherry Tree’ which has since won three of Taipei’s literary prizes. The novel which marks his English-language debut is released by Granta and is translated from the Chinese by Howard Goldblatt and Sylvia Li-Chun Lin who have translated over a dozen novels, including those by Nobel Prize winner Mo Yan.
To be released in the UK on April 4, 2019
'The loss of the person we love the most takes with it our entire being' -- 'My Enemy's Cherry Tree'
‘My Enemy’s Cherry Tree’ by Wang Ting-Kuo is a novel that focuses on the lives of three individuals; Luo Yiming, a philanthropist and a major figure in a major commercial bank in charge of loans throughout Taiwan, Qiuzi, waitress, florist and amateur photographer enrolled in a free photography tutorial given by the esteemed Luo Yiming, and Qiuzi’s husband, the unnamed narrator of the novel, a man who has come from a very impoverished family harboring high ambitions for success and wealth.
The novel wastes no time getting into the heart of the story. Only a few pages in and we know that something terrible has happened forcing the characters to move like shadows of their former selves in the devastating aftermath. Qiuzi, is missing, the narrator’s enemy Luo Yiming has succumbed to a sudden illness right after a recent unexpected encounter with the narrator, and the narrator himself who not only blames Yiming for his wife’s departure, now lives like a hermit restricting himself to tight quarters in a loft he has to crawl in and out of, his only possessions a bed, a pillow and a radio. He runs a coffee shop on the South China Sea, one he has opened in a once favored spot by the woman of his dreams Qiuzi in the hopes that she may one day come back.
Soon after Luo Yiming falls ill, the narrator receives two visits. One is by the town’s police who are convinced that the coffee shop owner’s presence in the town has something to do with revenge. And the second visit comes courtesy of a woman in her 30s, with a face heavily powdered and rouged, who introduces herself as Luo Baixiu, daughter of the now hospitalized Luo Yiming. She is there to understand the reason behind her father’s illness and to discover how he has wronged the narrator.
Although surprised by her visit, the narrator recalls the first time he had glimpsed Baixiu, as a young girl ‘spying on the couple’ on the first night that he and Qiuzi had visited the ‘huge, more spacious than any dreamworld’ dwelling of the wealthy Luo Yiming. The narrator had drawn the water symbol under Baixiu’s sketch in his journal entry and in fact just like the Chinese Fung Shui, where water is meant to help the flow balance, harmony and prosperity into one's life, her appearance in the story allows the narrator to collect his thoughts enough to open up and the full story to spill out.
'When fate lays a baffling tragedy at your door, it can often be traced to a playful remark made years ago' -- 'My Enemy's Cherry Tree'
‘My Enemy’s Cherry Tree’ can only be described as a measured novel. This is writing where less is more and the concise short chapters keep the reading fresh and the reader engaged. But the story is told from the point of view of our unnamed protagonist and as such it is only his version of the story that we learn of. And so just as in Qiusi’s blurred, out of focus photographs, we get a blemished picture regarding the motives and reasoning that lead to the other characters’ decisions and actions and as such we are unsure whose evenutality we are to sympathise with. What is very clear though, is that it is the narrator’s difficult upbringing and his relationship with his father in particular as well as the fragility of his union to Qiuzi that foreshadow the imminent collapse of this marriage before the couple meet the seemingly esteemed Luo Yiming. This was a relationship fraught from the beginning.
That said though, throughout this powerful mesmerising psychological novel, the narrator wants us to believe that whatever action that comes into being in this story - righteous or sinful, ugly or beautiful, sad or happy – all of it springs from a place of love. However, our narrator accompanies this with a stark warning: ‘love of every kind, has a critical point and crossing that line will result in great losses’.
Although the novel has an old-world feel to it thanks to our narrator’s philosophical observations on life in general and the remote, slow-paced, sparse city in which we encounter him in, readers are reminded every now and then that in fact, the events of the narrator’s story with Qiuzi as well as with her mentor Luo Yiming are set in the not so distant past: the man applies for his job with the Motor Group in 1996, Qiuzi suffers a breakdown in the aftermath of Taiwan’s devastating 1999 Earthquake after which we learn of her tragic secret. The last part of the novel happens around and just after the time of Taiwan’s SARS outbreak that had ruinous ramifications on Taiwan’s property market, the time when our narrator was hoping for his big break.
'Our days pass all too quickly, but certain dates remain once their footsteps are imprinted with words, arousing unusual responses at certain moments in time' -- 'My Enemy's Cherry Tree'
Our narrator’s reasoning throughout is mired in the belief that it is spur-of-the-moment actions that change the trajectory of a life. He ascribes his wife’s purchase of a kettle in lieu of what she had set out to buy in the first place as a glitch in a plan that had brought on devastating consequences for it was what had eventually introduced the couple to the narrator’s future enemy, Luo Yiming. Consequently it is Yiming’s spur of the moment decision to alter his cycling routine that brings him in a confrontation with the narrator early on in the novel, one that costs him his sanity, a moment as defining as the one in which he chose to forsake an honourable life those many years ago. Eventually, it is the narrator’s own cowardly choices and ultimate selfish act that costs him ‘his entire being’.
‘My Enemy’s Cherry Tree’ is a story universal in its core message about the beauty and fragility of life. It is a novel that speaks to all hearts, regardless of where they come from. It is about innocence stolen by hungry ambitions, money, greed, power and even love. It is about flawed downtrodden characters on a noble quest for an elusive redemption. Heart-achingly beautiful – an uncontested triumph.