The Bear Whispers To Me: The Story of a Bear and a Boy by Chang Ying-Tai and Darryl Sterk (translator)

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The Bear Whispers To Me: The Story of a Bear and a Boy by Chang Ying-Tai and Darryl Sterk (translator)

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Category: Literary Fiction
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Tanja Jennings
Reviewed by Tanja Jennings
Summary: Literary translator Darryl Sterk brings Chang Ying Tai's evocative imagery and melodious language alive in his careful translation of the story of a lonely boy, a bear and an outcast which unwinds through a son's discovery of his father's journal. Painfully poignant, poetic and philosophical, it is a book to be returned to, although it is not without some clunky colloquialisms, which is why it scores a 4.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 184 Date: May 2015
Publisher: Balestier Press
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 9780993215407

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Award winning Taiwanese writer Chang Ying-Tai's emotive, elegiac fable is a meditation on the art of storytelling. Its immersive detail and enchanting musical cadences give it a magical, dream like quality. It is a special work as it is one of the few examples of Taiwanese fiction available in English. The blind Paiwan poet Monaneng said of aboriginal Taiwanese culture:

With tender care let us set in motion our blood that is once again warm.
Let us recall our songs, our dances, our sacred rituals.
And the tradition of unselfish mutual coexistence between us and the earth.

This is exactly what The Bear Whispers to Me effortlessly does. It is a sensual feast which conjures up an alpine world of cool breezes, butterfly shadows, bird calls and insect cries. Pictorial language such as a ray of sunlight penetrates the canopy and shines on a big, beautiful conch shell, like a burst of silver in a crypt, at first glance the light of the stars seems white, but looking again you see it isn't a pure white; it is tinted with silver, light gold, crystal blue and pale orange and ancestral proverbs like:

When a needle falls in the forest, the eagle sees it, the deer hears it and the bear smells it. The eagle, deer and bear are the eyes, ears and nose of the Celestial Spirit

communicate the majesty, beauty, sensitivity and ever-changing colours and patterns of the natural world.

The book is also a testament to the power of the oral tradition, the value of recording memories and the importance of a cultural identity. It is a story within a story in the manner of Chinese boxes. It's a tale of father and son and of the loss of a sacred way of life. It's also about the desire to connect with others. Its prologue introduces the reader to a lonely boy turned sleuth as he uncovers his father's past with the help of a scrapbook of drawings and a diary album captioned with proverbs. He then interprets his findings as he brings his ten year old father's world to life and recounts his relationship with his grandfather Momo, his encounters with a bear cub, a bear man, a snake charmer, a tonic hawker, a sexually burgeoning girl called Lotus and creatures of the forest. His great grandfather, who is his father's spiritual guide, presides over the alpine world in the form of a ray of light, a gust of wind, a leaf or a glimmering moon shadow imparting tribal wisdom on the ways of bears, hunting songs and herbal remedies.

The boy creates a magical world but how much of it is in his imagination or his father's imagination inspired by the storybook his father Momo gave him as a child? It tells of the serene surroundings of an indigenous Taiwanese people who have since been assimilated into Chinese culture. Chang Ying-Tai recalls this simpler way of life through episodic prose which celebrates the rhythmic, repetitive dance of nature while weaving the intertextuality of Chinese legends from the era of The Three Kingdoms and Taiwanese folklore into the plot. Enfolded into this are lyrical Taiwanese choral melodies in tribal language. According to The Taipei Times, Taiwanese poetry is difficult to translate and a bit like trying to describe what music is like to a deaf man. It is the same with these verses of hunting songs which are alive with assonance and alliteration and lose their beauty in translation.

What is the difference between a story and reality? What are the dried bodies of Praying Mantises used for? How do you capture a boar? Which bird's eggs are powdery white with brownish red speckles? Discover the secrets of nature and read The Bear Whispers to Me. It will open up a whole new world.

For more stories about bears try Moon Bear by Gill Lewis which is set in Laos and exposes the terrible bear bile trade or the surreal and imaginative A Boy and a Bear in a Boat by Dave Shelton. If elegiac fiction appeals read Canton Elegy: A Father's Letter of Sacrifice, Survival and Love by Stephen Jin-Nom Lee and Howard Webster. If you would like a taste of the different lives of native peoples check out My Outdoor Life by Ray Mears or to learn more about aboriginal art dip into Aboriginal Designs by Penny Brown.

Buy The Bear Whispers To Me: The Story of a Bear and a Boy by Chang Ying-Tai and Darryl Sterk (translator) at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy The Bear Whispers To Me: The Story of a Bear and a Boy by Chang Ying-Tai and Darryl Sterk (translator) at Amazon.co.uk


Buy The Bear Whispers To Me: The Story of a Bear and a Boy by Chang Ying-Tai and Darryl Sterk (translator) at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy The Bear Whispers To Me: The Story of a Bear and a Boy by Chang Ying-Tai and Darryl Sterk (translator) at Amazon.com.

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