Notes Reading Notes

The Man with the Compound Eyes

By Wu Ming-Yi, 2011

Translated from the Chinese by Darryl Sterk.

There’s something pretty special going on here. In translation, the publisher likes pointing to comparisons with David Mitchell or Murakami but comparing it to a Miyazaki film would be more descriptive of the images and themes.

In short: the Pacific trash vortex is disrupted by a powerful earthquake and Tsunami which breaks it up into multiple clustered ‘islands’, and sends one careening towards the East coast of Taiwan. It smashes ashore, flooding coastal villages, smearing the beaches with plastic trash and poisoning traditional fishing grounds. Riding the trash island and brought ashore when it impacts is a young man Atil’e. Outcast from a mythic proto-Taiwanese, proto-Melanisian/Polynesian oceanic culture, Atil’e is banished from the island in a traditional ritual, separated from the ocean spirits of his ancestors, and subsequently thrown into a modern world that he has no understanding, experience or language to describe. The ‘wise fool’ naivety of Atil’e contrasts with the realist stories of Alice of Han Chinese descent, a suicidal literature professor grieving for the unexplained loss of her husband and son, and the interconnected stories of Dafu and Hafay, indigenous Taiwanese whose opportunities in life have been circumscribed by colonialism, changing economic circumstances and climate change.

The story sets itself up as an ecological tragedy/dystopia, and subtly reveals its deeper underlying theme to be about the nature of memory, writing and storytelling. This deeper meditation on writing is a powerful reflection of the ecological theme of change which anchors the story.

The man with the compound eyes represents the idealised narrator, the multiple perspectives through which a fictional world can be viewed and a story can be told. As the narrator relating the story, he is an observer only—he cannot intervene and change the course of events. At first, he appears almost like an avatar of nature, cruelly aloof, and possibly a metaphor for scientific detachment or indifference. His deadpan, descriptive and fact-obsessed speech reinforces this. One of the most moving passages in the story is where his compassion towards humanity is suddenly revealed in an almost cinematic way through his compound eyes welling with tiny pinprick tears.