With a little defeatism, one could bet on the Taiwanese island kingdom sinking into the sea before the first troops from the People’s Republic of China invade. In her “Notes from a Threatened Country”, Alice Grünfelder rightly points out that Taiwan is not only facing adversity from its overpowering neighbor, but also from climate change.
But while the awareness of the military threat is still ubiquitous, hardly anyone wants to know anything about the massive rise in the Pacific level and the simultaneous drying up of the legendary Sun-Moon Lake. According to some forecasts, the capital city of Taipei has just over a decade to flee future floods.
A more sensible environmental policy lies in the hands of the Taiwanese. The appeasement of the great dragon can only hope that the existing forces will uphold the shaky peace: the refusal to openly declare their independence combined with Beijing’s current problems; the family, cultural and economic ties with the mainland; and the one-China policy, which the United States has not questioned and which, even after Joe Biden’s recent promises of war, promises only half-hearted assistance.
Between travel guides and the academic fruits of Taiwan studies, there isn’t much that would give you access to this country through reading – apart from Taiwanese literature itself. Without a place on the Man Booker Prize longlist, a storyteller like Wu Ming-Yi, highly acclaimed in his homeland, would probably have it too. His novel The Man with the Compound Eyes is now with Matthes
Alice Grünfelder’s attempt to illuminate all layers of the island impressionistically with “Clouds over Taiwan” is worthy of all honor simply because it fills a gap. It can only be compared with the “Instructions for use for Taiwan” that the German writer Stephan Thome, who lives there, published last year. The sensuality that the author strives for takes you into the smells and sounds of this world, into its light and into its subtropical vegetation.
For her, the quotidian of the garbage truck blaring “Für Elise” has the same weight as the history of the Japanese colonial rulers who ruled until 1945. The encounter with the Wing Chun Methuselah Lo Man-kam, who under different circumstances could have become a second Bruce Lee, occupies her no less than a trip to the homeless of Taipei. And the reflections on her own writing and her Western observer position take up as much space as the search for traces of the 228 massacre of February 28, 1947.
Chiang Kai-shek, the leader of the anti-communist Kuomintang, sent soldiers from Nanjing to Taiwan to enforce the rule of his governor, the military governor Chen Yi, against insurgents. Up to 30,000 people are said to have died at the time.
This carefree simultaneity of the non-simultaneous, which also jumps back and forth between prose and poetry, has its charms: Isn’t it exactly this non-hierarchical way in which one gets to know a country? As a snapshot in Corona times, “Clouds over Taiwan”, as this result of a six-month stay is titled, has many qualities of a knowledgeable reportage. Alice Grünfelder also has the privilege of studying for two years in Chengdu, the capital of the Chinese province of Sichuan. The culture is not completely foreign to her. The problem is that her book wants to be more literary than it is in its journalistic nature.
Above all, one can see from this text how little it has detached itself from the notebook from which it originated. In the morning, in the afternoon… On Monday, on Saturday… You trudge with the author through a scree of dates that have no place in the organization of the material according to alphabetical keywords.
Even more disturbing is the inflation of this Abécédaire with verbs of looking: I see … I look at … My gaze moves … For sheer seeing, one sometimes no longer sees what the author actually sees. And how often does the self-confessed peripatetic reveal how she moves: I’m walking… I’m walking… If you don’t let that tire you, you may well feel like jumping up and hiking through Taipei with Alice Grünfelder.