How refreshing it is to discover a novel that doesn’t feel as though I’ve read it before; a novel that is different in theme, style and structure from the many whose pages I have turned over the last decade which seem to recycle a limited number of ideas. Furthermore, My Enemy’s Cherry Tree is cleanly and elegantly presented. Blank pages between its short chapters and sections allow for plenty of mental space in which to breathe in the poignant story that lies within the book’s covers. Its publishers, Granta Books, clearly paid heed to the nature of the material it was dealing with here and have made a commendable effort in matching the book’s contents to its outward appearance.
Wang Ting-Kuo (b.1955) is a highly respected, award-winning Tawainese author who began writing at the age of eighteen. On marrying, his father-in-law allegedly forced him to curtail his literary ambitions until he had established himself successfully in business and was able to satisfactorily support his daughter in married life. My Enemy’s Cherry Tree is Ting-Kuo’s return to writing and has won all of Taiwan’s major literary prizes. It is also the first time any of his work has been translated into the English language. Originally written in Chinese (so the title page states), the translators have done a remarkable job in managing to convey the graciousness of the narrative and in making the syntax sound convincing, at least to this reader. Chinese-speakers may disagree, of course, but unfortunately criticism about authenticity is something all translated work is subjected to, whether it is one of the great Russian classics, Thomas Mann, Marcel Proust or a novel just recently published.
The unnamed first person narrator tells the story of how he meets his wife, falls in love with her, tries to make her happy, goes half crazy looking for her, never dreaming he has lost her to the owner of the cherry tree.
“When fate lays a baffling tragedy at your door, it can often be traced to a playful remark made years before.”
The cherry tree stands in the garden of the banker and entrepreneur, Luo Yiming, who gives free photography lessons to the narrator’s wife, Qiuzi. As well as being real it is a metaphor for life, its joys and sorrows, its gains and losses. As a symbolic Tree of Life, then, the cherry tree is an invisible force which governs the threads running through the lives of the narrator and his wife, mirroring, as it does, the major events they experience; tragedy, love, knowledge, personal growth and ultimately loss in its various forms, rendering the human condition into its biblical context.
When the narrator first accompanies his new wife to Luo Yiming’s home he is consumed by curiousity about the man and his young daughter who watches the adults through the bannisters of the stairs, but never speaks to them. Gradually a fragile friendship establishes itself and the narrator and Qiuzi regularly lunch with her tutor. Never invited to witness them actually at the table together we are told of this fact in an abstract way. The narrator stumbles from one job to another in his search for work which will allow him to adequately provide for his wife. Eventually he secures a job in property development which takes him away from home for extended periods. A devoted husband, Qiuzi is never far from his mind, so on his trips home he watches for any changes in his wife. It is through the photographs she takes that he notices how she increasingly falls under the influence of her tutor, but neither of them mentions it. The angles and subject matter of the images are unlikely to come from Qiuzi’s narrow worldview and imagination alone, he thinks. One night when the narrator is home on leave they make unusually passionate love. When he wakes in the small hours of the morning Qiuzi is quietly packing a bag and leaves the house without a word, never to return.
“Only during a confrontation do we experience the sudden fear of losing ourselves when we cannot see our adversary, at which time darkness is tainted with terror and threatens to push both sides into a bottomless abyss.”
The characters of the narrator and his wife are exquisitely drawn. Supposedly deeply in love, they are sensitive to one another’s emotions, yet both are somehow vulnerable in their own way. His boss, known as Motor Boss as the property business is part of a larger conglomerate, the Motor Group, and the members of staff the narrator works most closely with are depicted more boldly, but still as people with great human compassion and respect for their fellow men.
Still pining for his wife years after she disappears the narrator takes a summer off work to open a coffee shop in a remote place not far from the sea where he and Qiuzi used to sometimes go when they first met. He hopes that this token of his affection will make her come back to him. The novel opens when a man, who may or may not be Luo Yiming, visits the shop, but they don’t exchange a single word. Soon afterwards a young woman begins to turn up regularly who may or may not be – but probably is – the daughter of the narrator’s enemy. Thereby the novel comes full circle.
“She had grown into a mature woman, but her slender figure was frozen in my memory of that day, as if meeting her just that one time had focused the impression sharply.”
There is no definitive indication that this story is autobiographical, but given the little information that has been made public about the author, and the fact that it is told by an unnamed first person narrator, there is at least some sense that it is not entirely fiction. Whatever the case may be it is a moving tale, beautifully told.
Any Cop?: One of the most remarkable novels I have read in a long time, it constitutes the sum of life as it is lived by every one of us and the people we meet along the way.