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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Old Capital

Chu T'ien-hsin

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To purchase The Old Capital

Title: The Old Capital
Author: Chu T'ien-hsin
Genre: Fiction
Written: (Eng. 2007)
Length: 220 pages
Original in: Chinese
Availability: The Old Capital - US
The Old Capital - UK
The Old Capital - Canada
  • A Novel of Taipei
  • Chinese title: 古都
  • originally written between 1992 and 1996
  • Translated and with a Preface by Howard Goldblatt

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Our Assessment:

B+ : intriguing perspectives and presentation

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Taipei Times . 9/9/2007 Bradley Winterton

  From the Reviews:
  • "Basically this is an attempt at a modernist masterpiece, something on the lines of Ezra Pound's Cantos or a Taiwanese prose version of The Waste Land. (...) Even so, much of The Old Capital is so reminiscent of Western high-art classics of the early 20th century that it's hard to take seriously as a contemporary work. But to give credit where it's due, nothing else like it has ever appeared locally, certainly not in English translation." - Bradley Winterton, Taipei Times

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The Old Capital consists of four stories and a novella, and throughout there is a focus on place and identity. For the first-person narrators (or the second-person subject) much is anchored in literary (and other) reference, starting with the titles of the pieces: 'Death in Venice', 'Breakfast at Tiffany's', or the title-novella, taken from Kawabata Yasunari's The Old Capital (a text that is then also integrated into the piece itself). These are stories written out of 1990s Taiwan -- a perspective that colours them all -- but with the foreign and distant playing a significant role, often as a study of contrasts -- though not necessarily in the most obvious ways.
       There's a wandering feel to the narratives, the protagonists with aims that they're not quite certain of: write a story, buy a diamond, meet up with an old friend. In 'Death in Venice' the narrator admits that: "when I'm writing, the tiniest factor can enter the process and cause a dramatic shift", and for most of these characters (and stories) their lives themselves are like that. They don't go in a straight, direct path.
       The stories are fairly tightly focussed on a short present period, but reflection and especially reminiscence (specifically of foreign places and past times) figure prominently, to convey where, essentially, these characters are coming from -- and where they are now.
       In 'Breakfast at Tiffany's' facts (about diamonds) are something for the narrator to fall back upon as she tries to justify herself, but as in the other stories facts and specifics only provide a vague sort of foundation, not quite enough to stand on.
       In the title-piece , written in the second person, the protagonist moves between Kyoto and Taipei and memories of her youth (and her friendship with A, whom she expects to meet (that's the plan, anyway) but hasn't seen in ages). She refers to music, literature, and politics to try to situate herself, and considers Taipei from the foreigner's vantage point (as she is mistaken for a tourist) . It is a neatly all-encompassing work, both commentary on current Taiwan (and especially Taipei -- "Taipei is a pestilential place":, she quotes, noting that: "Dissatisfaction with the place did not begin with you") and reminder of recent and more distant pasts (including the Japanese colonial period).
       The characters attempt to get to the root of something: "I needed a diamond ring in order to regain my freedom" the narrator in 'Breakfast at Tiffany's' believes, or in 'Man of La Mancha' the narrator worries about the impression he'd make if suddenly struck dead, leading him to deal with everything from what would be found in his wallet to location:

     I even stopped roaming wherever my feet took me, as I'd done when I was younger, just so I wouldn't be found dead on a beach where people came to watch the sunset.
       The characters constantly look for fixed points to hold onto, but the general feel in these pieces is of being untethered in the contemporary world: a hold is hard to find. Chu T'ien-hsin works this well into her stories. Her approach isn't particularly subtle, yet it doesn't feel forced, and with the twisting spirals of connexion (particularly in the long title-piece) she uses it to very good effect. There's much here that is Taiwan-specific, and a few pages of endnotes provide only so much that helps explain it, but enough of substance carries easily across any borders.
       Unusual, but worthwhile.

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The Old Capital: Reviews: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Taiwanese author Chu T'ien-hsin (朱天心,Zhu Tianxin) was born in 1958.

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© 2007-2021 the complete review

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