(This article is originally published at Okapi)
In historical overview, every change of Taiwan’s government has been determined by the outcome of a war. Had a victory gone the other way, Taiwan as it now is would not exist. History is irreversible, and to fantasize about “what ifs” is futile. Instead of lamenting the past in his novels, Chu Yu-Hsun looks to the future, contemplating how Taiwan might negotiate its next historical fork in the road and build a better Taiwanese national community.
Chu has borrowed the trappings of science fiction, collecting wartime testimonies in the style of a documentary novel. As a literary genre, science fiction can be highly political, constructing utopias or dystopias that criticize reality. Chu’s novel is difficult to compare to these works, being in a style all its own. Unlike Andrew Yeh’s Green Monkey Syndrome, in which the tide is turned by non-existent weapons, Chu’s is ultra realistic, the narrative’s advancement and resolution owing nothing to the constructs of science fiction. The book’s borrowings from various literary genres and its interplay between fiction and reality are in fact used to assist readers in better understanding the author's conjunctural analysis. Chu clearly believes the current reality can serve as a methodology, in this case for continuing Tsai Ing-wen’s strategy of nation-building.
The bones of Secret Testimony are an analysis of Taiwan’s present reality, with five sets of narratives fleshing out Chu’s imagined Taiwanese national community. His focus for these is on accounts at odds with the national community’s narrative.
The first set of testimonies, “Memoranda for the Taiwan People’s Liberation Front”, draws on the 1950s-era Taiwan Province Working Committee and Lü Heruo’s account of the Luku incident, but unlike the members of this former underground party, the fictional members of the “TPLF” (Taiwan People’s Liberation Front) have no left-wing ideology. In their narratives, a socialist motherland is simply the motherland; in the absence of socialism, however, the characters’ emotions are of less substantial, the narrative tension weaker. The story becomes more of a commentary and interrogation of the existing leftist line: will nothing but an empty Chinese nationalism remain? Yet it also evokes Taiwanese history, represented by the Luku incident. The Nationalist government’s comprehensive campaign against left-wing elements and the onset of the White Terror, leading to the future breakup and vulnerability of the left-wing, was prompted by the double edifice of the international cold war and the civil war between the Kuomintang and Communist party. The ambiguity of the narratives illustrates the multifaceted nature of textual interpretation.
To negate the grand unity of Chinese hegemony does not automatically justify a comprehensive envisioning of the Taiwanese national community. Chu employs several additional testimonies as reverse discourses on areas where this national community should be more tolerant:
● The Chinese prisoners of war who become “new nationals” in “When Will You Return” correspond to Taiwan’s current second-class citizens, its “new residents”.
● “Last Day of a Private Art Museum” describes state violence during mobilization for war.
● “News from the South” alludes to Liu Liankun’s espionage and the Taiwan Strait crisis of 1996; the characters are descendants of the Kuomintang in northern Thailand, and latent communist longing has become the key to the reversal of victor and loser in a stealth attack on chauvinism.
● In presenting an individual narrative viewpoint that differs from that of the mock author’s preface and critical introduction by fictional Chinese scholars, “Ghost Temple or Hall of Valor?”– the fifth and final testimony – problematizes the idea of a single linear national narrative.
Interestingly, the political advisors in “News from the South” have advance knowledge that China will launch a foreign war as a result of internal political strife, so they rush to save their wives and children by sending them out of northern Thailand. Taiwanese president Chiang Chih-yi’s resolution to deceive the enemy requires the simultaneous concealment of the Taiwanese people, use of extreme force in the form of war, compelling the loyalty and solidarity of the Taiwanese people, and carrying out preparations for mobilization under nationwide conditions of total war. The section “Ghost Temple or Hall of Valor?” is even more explicit, showing that Taiwan could have prevented the Chinese army from landing and so reduced casualties, but that in choosing to lure the enemy farther in, it was able to wreak destruction on the People’s Liberation Army. In exchange, Taiwan attained its future independence and more space. This costly strategic operation was in fact the doing of the United States, prompted not by the well-being of the Taiwanese people, but by US political interests rooted in its desire to remain dominant in the international order.
Clearly, a small country survives a conflict between larger countries by simultaneously acting as both a lever and a pawn. How can freedom, democracy, openness, and transparency come from power games carried out in the shadows? War means that deception is the rule; in exceptional conditions, this is even more true.
The question for the critique becomes, is a nation-state constructed for the people or for the state? The interests of the state are not equivalent to the interests of the general public. A more inclusive, tightly knit Taiwanese national community would expand and strengthen the country’s mobilization system, thus drawing a lesson from the colonial period, when the Japanese empire actively sought to assimilate the Taiwanese people for the purpose of recruiting greater numbers of loyal Taiwanese soldiers. Are the casualties of a generation to become the heroic spirit of national mourning, or nonentities written in lowercase? The death penalties decided by those in senior positions, China’s internal instability, and the calculation of US national interests are almost like fate. The Taiwanese people, collectively and individually, live and die based on these circumstances. Is there no brighter path? This question may be equally difficult for author and reader alike to answer, both within the context of the book and in that of the larger world. In either case, the only solution is to confront the current reality and make a choice.
As discursive fiction, Secret Testimony employs clever mechanisms and allusions that read as just a bit too politically correct. Compared to the castle-in-the-sky aesthetics of the ivory tower, however, literature’s practical social intervention is more powerful. Regardless of whether readers accept Chu Yu-Hsun’s political stance and aesthetic style, it is difficult to deny that Secret Testimony successfully demonstrates “the novel as topical analysis tool” at its pinnacle.