A blind puppeteer reviews the pivotal relationships of his life, stringing together a tale of youthful pride, a tragic fall, long decades spent wandering in penury, and a late-life triumph achieved through the revival of his dying art.
In the early 20th century, Taiwan is still a colony of the Empire of Japan, and Chien Tien-Kuo is a rising star of potehi, a form of puppet theater brought to Taiwan during the Qing dynasty. Raised in his family’s puppet theater troupe, Chien’s talent announced itself at an early age as he mastered with startling ease the advanced techniques of his lineage.
Just as Chien’s talent is blossoming into full maturity, potehi performances are banned by the Japanese governor-general, along with other local forms of theater. Unwilling to stand by and watch as his art form is suppressed, the cocky Chien teams up with a passionate Japanese puppeteer to innovate a new form of puppet theater better suited to the cultural politics of the times. Chien’s first taste of success, however, turns tragic when he is kidnapped and blinded by jealous rivals who want the Book of Marvels, a two-volume manual that records his family’s puppeteering secrets. Reduced to begging in the streets, Chien must face the loss of his dreams and ambitions – or is there yet some way for this blind puppeteer to stage a miraculous comeback?
Narrated in the first-person, the novel follows Chien through his childhood in the puppet theater, to the loss of his vision, to his peripatetic wanderings across Taiwan, to his hard-won artistic triumph – each of its sixteen chapters revolving around one significant figure in his life. In the telling, Chien’s life story becomes inseparable from his evolving reflections on potehi, Taiwan’s traditional hand-puppet theater: its slow decline and later revival under the shifting tides of politics, the inter-troupe rivalries of his youth, his personal development as an artist, the exacting aesthetics of performance, and of puppet manufacture.
By turns despairing, wistful, and triumphant, the linchpin of Puppet Dreams is the unique narrative voice of Chien: a master storyteller determined to give an account of his victory over the vagaries of fate and the pivotal relationships that shaped the course of his life. Set against the rich backdrop of Taiwan’s modern history, from the pre-war period of Japanese colonization, to the post-war period of authoritarian rule, and, eventually, democratic reform, this sweeping novel is a tale of the triumph of art over adversity that operates on numerous levels, from the personal to the political.