Last week I bridged the gap between 2018 and 2019 with the novels of Qiu Miaojin, Notes of a Crocodile and Last Words from Montmartre, and began my new year of reading on a high note.
I first read Notes of a Crocodile, then Last Words. The former is the Taiwanese author’s semi-autobiographical debut novel, first published in 1994, the latter a series of genre-bending letters published a year after she committed suicide in 1995. Since the time of her death, these two books have established the author’s reputation as a talented prose stylist who dealt openly with lesbian themes at a time when the closet still structured gay and lesbian life in her home country.
NYBR recently has published both books in English, with Bonnie Huie translating Notes of a Crocodile and Ari Larissa Heinrich taking on Last Words from Montmartre. While both have been positively received, they are the only full-length books Miaojin finished.
Both books are inventive and playful as well as contemplative and melancholy. They fully render the isolation of the closet and the passion of intense romance, and they are full of clever experiments in form. Each lacks anything approaching a cohesive plot, though Notes of a Crocodile is the more accessible out of the two, in that it, unlike Last Words, has well-defined characters, a clear narrator, and a measured pace.
A coming-of-age story set in Taipei during the late eighties, Notes of a Crocodile follows an eclectic bunch of queer college students as they come to terms with their sexuality in a vehemently homophobic milieu. The novel, narrated by the lesbian protagonist Lazi, is divided into eight loosely chronological notebooks, each of which consists of a fast-paced series of short vignettes, diary entries, aphorisms, criticism, and letters. The main plot, focusing on the students’ first serious relationships, features romantic descriptions and philosophical conversations about love, longing, and death. The melodrama and angst of these chapters is counterpointed by bits of wry satire that imagine Taiwan has been invaded by benign humanoid crocodiles, a clear metaphor for the presence of gay people in the nation. The satire at first acts as a fine palate cleanser, but it becomes tiresome and distracts from what’s inventive and clever about the novel. In spite of that, the novel is unforgettable and well worth reading.
A fast-paced series of experimental letters, Last Words from Montmartre rhapsodizes about art, intimacy, and death. Across twenty chapters, or ‘letters,’ an incredibly unreliable narrator muses about the downfall of her past romances with women and considers what it means to live and die authentically. Knowing that the book was written shortly before the author killed herself, readers are tempted to identify Last Words as Qiu Miaojin’s suicide note, a sincere account of personal ruin, but the letters are full of artifice and cleverness, even when they recount great pain and anguish. The letters blend genres, and the author-narrator darts between disparate tones and subjects. Refined cultural criticism precedes outbursts of anger and self-pity; banal descriptions of daily life follow philosophical musings about romance and desire. The book blurs the line between art and life, fiction and fact, and it seems best approached as a sequence of moving self-conscious writings on love, creativity, and self-representation.