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Authors: Huang Fan

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BOOK: Zero and Other Fictions
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In
Zero
, there is a flattening of life, reducing it to a politically correct sort of conformity in which all individualism is discouraged. Most people stay on the straight and narrow, but the main character, Xi De, is different. (With his inquiring and skeptical mind, he is not unlike the writer in contemporary society.) From very early he is fascinated by the Dark Ages, the time before the new world order was established. This leads to discussions with an elderly history teacher. Xi De begins to doubt aspects of the official story and continues to observe things with a quiet skepticism. Eventually he discovers a hidden text by one of the early founders of the new order, and his doubts grow. Soon he is recruited by a revolutionary group that seeks to overthrow the totalitarian state. His rebel activities come to an end when he is captured and executed. In Huang's novel, even individualism and revolt are manipulated by the totalitarian system, the control of which is so absolute that it includes its own opposition. It tempts, and then destroys those who succumb. The novella is probably Huang's science fiction at its bleakest. His later science fiction works contain a heavy infusion of a postmodernist sensibility.
Huang Fan has had a tremendous impact upon the landscape of contemporary fiction in Taiwan. This is perhaps less apparent today, thirty years since he began writing. Through the critical lens of his fiction, with its political and urban content, he was a driving force in the pluralism that became the byword of Taiwan literature in the 1980s. The island's growing educated middle class was demanding more openness and liberalization. Pushing genre boundaries coincided with and encouraged further movement in that direction in society. It is hoped that this small selection of his work conveys just a little of his creative genius.
 
JB
Middlebury/Monterey
I would like to thank the following individuals and organizations. First, my heartfelt gratitude to David Wang for supporting this project and to Jennifer Crewe for making this book a reality. I would also like to thank my editor at Columbia University Press, Leslie Kriesel, for another fine job. Thanks also, as always, to my wife, Yingtsih, for her assistance and for her translation of “The Intelligent Man.” I also offer a tip of the hat to the anonymous readers of this book for their useful suggestions and comments. I would also like to acknowledge the support of the Chiang Ching-kuo Foundation for International Scholarly Exchange and Council for Cultural Affairs as well as
The Chinese PEN
, in which “The Intelligent Man” first appeared.
Mr. Han's face appeared on television, tired and dignified. It was June 24, 1978. No importance was given to the usual disorder in the world that day, nor was any new significance bestowed upon it. But for Lai Suo, who sat properly in front of the television and whose expression was by turns one of anger, depression, and pensiveness, it was the start of a series of losses and confusion run amok through time.
How to explain this?
After his initial agitation had passed, Lai Suo entered his bedroom, crying and tearing his hair. His wife stood at the locked door and called his name, but there was no response, so she went back to her cleaning. She liked to hose down everything in sight.
In the summer of 1979, Lai Suo, who was bare from the waist up and lying in bed in his apartment next to the freeway, discovered that his wife with her big butt, who was lying on her side next to him, was snoring away, whistling like a tea kettle. Throwing his robe over his shoulders, he stood on the balcony, looking up at the star-filled sky, peering into the dreamlike past and the unknown future. Only when the first light of morning from the east shone on his half-bald head, which resembled an egg, did he return to that time when he sat in front of the television in 1978—the beginning, end, and intermission in his life.
1
One week after getting out of prison, Lai Suo turned thirty. He wore an old gray woolen suit, was as thin as a matchstick (he had contracted a chronic stomach ailment), and had pronounced crow's feet at his eyes. His gaze never moved from his feet in order to avoid the looks of others. He stood in front of the desk of his older brother, the jam manufacturer.
“I can do any job; I won't make any trouble.”
“Never mind, Ah Suo, I'm your brother.”
He didn't meet his brother's sympathetic, caring eyes, for they always sent him scampering away in fright like a rat. In point of fact, he was indeed nothing more than a rat. He'd ratted on his fellow prisoners to make himself even more like a rat. At the age of twenty-one, as he stood before the presiding judge of the military tribunal, he once acted like a man. Impassioned, he mumbled his point and even shed tears. But the outcome wasn't quite what he had in mind, mainly because he was just an insignificant little person. He had stood at the university gate handing out mimeographed flyers, stammering the lines written on them. His strange manner had attracted the attention of the students coming and going, and they were soon laughing. As the laughter sounded, Mr. Han and a number of important subordinates were setting foot on Japanese soil. Several days later he rented a house on a secluded street in the Ginza district. After everything was taken care of, Mr. Han began storing up a great deal of sperm for his four future mixed-blood kids, much like collecting materials for the speech he gave on TV that day in 1978 upon returning home to the motherland.
Mr. Han was the very last person he worshipped. Later he learned not to worship any living soul because they all would die. The way he saw it was that the great would die, the stupid would die, and so too would he. Upon death, no one, regardless of who they were, seemed bad. Before Du Ziyi died, when he cut a fart, his face would swell and take on the color of pork liver before he released a miserable little tweeter. Du, whose head was filled with nothing but Communism, believed that Marx was something intermediate between man and god. For this reason, he would say to those with no education: “Divvy up the money of the rich”; to intellectuals he would say: “Class struggle is the impetus of social progress”; and to himself he would say: “Have no regrets.” But Du never once shared the food his family brought when they visited him in prison. He was a fat guy with a big round face, the spitting image of what he called the petite bourgeoisie. Just before dying, Du clutched his cellmate, with whom he had shared hardship and misfortune, and said, “Never believe anyone.”
Lai Suo never forgot those words. As he lay in bed, recalling the past, Mr. Han, Fatso, the Japanese, and the stern-looking judge, his tears once again began to fall.
“Don't bother your dad,” he heard his wife, who was standing by the door, say to their twelve-year-old daughter.
“Why is he making such strange noises in his sleep?”
“He is not feeling well.”
A little while later, he got out of bed and went to the bathroom to wash up. The bathroom was always immaculate. Distorted faces were reflected in the squeaky-clean mosaic tiles (facing the wall, he shook his head). The faces moving on the tiles metamorphosed in unpredictable ways, suddenly a toothy grin, eyebrows suddenly falling out and chin stretching, nostrils suddenly pointing upward, revealing a walnut-sized Adam's apple. “I've become thin.” He sighed. He stood on the scale next to the bathtub to weigh himself. The needle stopped at 46. It was the same as last month's record. But last month he had not worn a stitch of clothing. He had squatted naked on the scale while singing, “Sitting alone at night beneath the lamp, a cold wind blows over.…” He had sung only half the verse when his wife knocked on the door. “Ah Suo, what are you doing in there?” He threw open the door and his wife let out a piercing scream, and, looking quickly right and left, scolded, “You're going to die!” So now when he took off his pants and crouched on the scale, the needle spun reluctantly backward for a moment. Stepping naked off the scale, he sat on the toilet; the wet toilet seat made him shiver, sending a chill up his spine, where it bored deep into the base of his skull. Immediately he returned to the day on which he got married in 1963.
2
The bride's face was heavily powdered, her hair permed in ringlets. Her large backside indicated that she would later bear a great number of progeny for the groom. The wedding reception that day went smoothly, and the big gold “double-happiness” character in the hall added to the atmosphere. The bride's parents and her two brothers had come up from the distant countryside. Out of politeness, her brothers, who were chewing betel nut, spit the betel-nut juice into napkins, which littered the floor. Ah Suo's elder brother was very excited and went from table to table with his wine cup in hand, offering toasts. His face was flushed. At that moment, he suddenly announced to all assembled that he was giving several shares of stock in his jam company to his brother. The friends and relatives applauded. He wasn't drunk when he uttered these words. There were only two tables at the reception, and two of the seats were empty— they had been reserved for two important relatives, but they were unable to attend.
After the guests had left, Lai Suo quickly got under the covers, where he set to work stripping his bride bare. He was so intent on what he was doing that he forgot to turn off the nightstand lamp on which had been pasted the character for “happiness.” For this reason, the bride did her best, twisting and turning, looking here and there.
“Oh!” she shouted. “This is such a pretty room.”
“Hold still,” said Lai Suo, “or I'll never be able to get this button undone.”
In addition to undoing buttons, he could also thread a needle, sew a hem, and do calisthenics, all of which he had learned in prison. This morning, fifteen years later, he suddenly bent down and tried to touch his toes. Despite his exertions, he couldn't reach that spot twenty centimeters below his knees with his fingers. He was wearing a pair of shorts from which protruded his scrawny legs. His kneecaps looked like hard tumors. Lai Suo's wife stared at him uncomprehendingly.
“When I was young, I could touch this,” he squatted and patted the floor, “my palms flat, without bending my knees.”
“What's so good about that?”
Nothing at all, so forget it.
At that moment he was standing absentmindedly in front of the filter in the jam plant. The needle of the pressure gauge was steadily rising. The motor below was screeching. The syrup entered the filter, which looked like a bomb, through a pipe in one end and came out a pipe in the other end. Then it flowed precipitously into a condenser suspended in the air, emerging from which it was no longer syrup but rather a mass of shiny, gelatinous substance. The whole process was reminiscent of that used by God when he made man. Perhaps there are those who would say that a fetus takes shape from the blood concentrated in the womb.
But that is not what Lai Suo's mother thought. At only seven months, he was in a hurry to leave his mother's belly, bawling in a world that was not yet ready to receive him. His mother, whose face was pale, lay to one side while his father stood, in only a military undershirt, continuously wringing his hands, his head covered with sweat. A drop of sweat fell on the tip of the infant's nose—this is humanity's earliest recorded impression of falling rain. There were some other people standing around the bed as well.
“What are we going to do? What are we going to do?” Lai Suo's father kept muttering.
“Oh no! Why is his skin blue?” asked his second maternal aunt, who later had a son who worked for the American military advisers and therefore was absent from the wedding banquet.
“My son?” his mother said, closing her eyes. “Let me hold him.”
“You can't hold him yet,” replied the midwife. “He has to be wrapped in medicated cloth; otherwise he might change shape.”
It was most likely on account of the medication that he became uglier as he grew, reaching adolescence late at sixteen years of age. But adolescence wasn't all that troublesome for him. He was the smallest in his class and sat only a meter from the podium. The Japanese teacher was constantly but furtively scratching his crotch. He suffered from eczema but didn't think anyone could see, He was wrong.

Zhina
(China)!” said the Japanese. “All of you, repeat after me.”
“Cheena,” said Lai Suo.
“Do you all know that you are not Chinese but Taiwanese?”
“But Teacher,” replied one local student, “my grandfather said that we all came from China with Koxinga.”
“Bastard,” swore the Japanese. The teacher's saliva hit Lai Suo in the face, and when he raised his hand to wipe it off he discovered a pimple.
As the pimples began to grow, some began to fester. He was walking down the street in Dadaocheng, squeezing pimples as he walked, his face filling with red and white blotches. As he squeezed the fifth one, his companion, Little Lin, elbowed him.
“Hurry, look!” Little Lin whispered. “Isn't that Tanaka Ichiro?”
“Who is Tanaka Ichiro?”
“The Japanese guy who taught us history two years ago.”
Both sides of the street were filled with straw mats, on which knelt Japanese with their heads bowed. All kinds of things were spread out on the mats, including costume jewelry, fans, high military boots, and dolls dressed in kimonos. Lai Suo had just turned eighteen and the Japanese had surrendered not long before that. At first the locals didn't know what to do. Lai Suo's father, who worked for the Japanese, was only able to collect himself several months later. He rented a house near the Central Market and got into the fruit business. Fruits are good to eat but troublesome plants. During the day, Lai Suo would push a handcart along the Danshui River, where he would establish several bases of operation. Since he didn't possess a hawker's voice, he'd always sit on a cushion at the head of the cart with his bare feet in a basket, where he would absentmindedly rub the watermelons the size of human heads. In the evening, he put on a pair of noisy wooden clogs and sauntered around.
BOOK: Zero and Other Fictions
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