book review: Notes of a Crocodile by Qiu Miaojin

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NOTES OF A CROCODILE by Qiu Miaojin
translated from the Chinese by Bonnie Huie
★★★☆☆
NYRB Classics 2017
originally published in 1994

 

An occasional pitfall of reading literature from a country other than your own is that you aren’t approaching it with the necessary cultural framework to make it comprehensible. This isn’t always the case, of course; some stories are more universal than others, and some books do a better job of contextualizing the relevant sociopolitical elements. But in Notes of a Crocodile, a book about a group of queer students in Taiwan in the late 80s, I felt desperately out of my depth, and I felt like so many of my attempts to engage with this book were met with stony silence on Qiu Miaojin’s part. But I want to stress that this isn’t a fault of the book itself. I can imagine for the right reader that a book like this would be sensational. Personally I felt like I was missing references and subtleties that a Taiwanese reader (and especially a queer Taiwanese reader) would easily pick up on. I’m glad to have read this book and grappled with it as best I could, but this wasn’t the easiest or most comfortable reading experience for me.

Narrated by a nameless protagonist, nicknamed Lazi, Notes of a Crocodile chronicles the trials of a group of queer students living in late 1980s Taipei. It’s also punctuated by a series of interludes which imagine that the country have been invaded by humanlike crocodiles; a clear metaphor for a society that sees queerness as an epidemic. (The homophobic obsession of early 1990s Taiwanese media with homosexuality is explained in a little more detail in this LA Review of Books review by Ari Larissa Heinrich, who has translated Miaojin in the past.)

This book is light on plot, and whatever plot does happen usually happens off-page and is narrated to the reader much later; instead the focus is on the internal. To me Lazi felt more like an embodiment of what it means to be queer in Taiwan than an established character in her own right – while we learn almost nothing about her past or her personhood, pages and pages are devoted to philosophizing about what it means to be a woman who loves other women; what it means for your sexuality to be interpreted as a political statement. To me the philosophy ranged from stimulating to repetitive, occasionally too mired in intertextuality to drive any particular point home. This result is a rather rambling meditation that again, I tried to engage with – occasionally successfully, occasionally not.

My other main takeaway from this is is that I think I would have appreciated this book more if I’d read it in my early twenties; I hate to sound callous but the sheer amount of self-destruction in these pages did become tiresome after a while. This book never lets up from its relentless angst and self-absorption, and the whole thing is of course shadowed by the tragedy of Qiu Miaojin’s suicide at age 26. I ultimately think this is worth a read, but I think I find Qiu Miaojin herself more intriguing than this particular book.


You can pick up a copy of Notes of a Crocodile here on Book Depository.

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17 thoughts on “book review: Notes of a Crocodile by Qiu Miaojin

  1. Great review! I think you’re right that this is a book best read in, or close to, college. The amount of self destruction, inaction, and angst seems like it’d be more difficult to take in as you become more established in life.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Absolutely – I think I would have eaten this up in college, but now in my old age (lol I’m 27) I was finding myself SO FRUSTRATED with the main character for destroying everything good in her life for no particular reason. (I mean, okay, societal context was the reason and I get that and I get that this is a pedestrian complaint but I can’t remember the last time I was this annoyed at characters behaving in such thoroughly frustrating and solipsistic ways.)

      Liked by 1 person

    • This book was just so much trickier and slipperier than I wanted it to be, because its themes are so universal but its execution is just… impenetrable at times. I do hope you have a slightly better experience with it if you end up reading it! Though I will say, since I know short is a selling point for you, it took me SO LONG to get through like, 220 pages or whatever it is. It’s such an unexpectedly dense book.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Yes!! It always makes for such an extreme case of ‘it’s not you, it’s me’… Like it’s not you, it’s my entire culture and upbringing and education and academic background and

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I’m always disproportionately disappointed when a book with a great cover ends up not being as good as I’d hoped, and I loved the cover on that one. Boo.

    You make a really good point about having the cultural background to appreciate certain books or stories. It’s too bad when that becomes an issue but it is unavoidable sometimes, as much as we read to try to expand those horizons. And I so know what you mean about appreciating something more even if you’d come to it just a few years earlier. That’s been happening to me a lot lately. Older and wiser, I guess? Time to retire.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Right??? I so wanted the crocodile cover to live on my shelves forever but it looks like I’ll be donating it, alas…

      Absolutely; this was just a perfect storm of not being tailored to me as a human/my academic background – I’ve never really studied Taiwanese history…. at all, actually, and while I was obviously able to gather contextually that it was quite a homophobic society, I’m sure I missed SO MANY subtleties with the crocodile metaphors. Like, the whole thing about Taiwanese media targeting gay people in the early 90s – that went COMPLETELY over my head until I googled some reviews after I finished.

      I felt a bit silly being like ‘this book is sooo early 20s’ when I’m only 27 lol but it’s kind of staggering how differently I respond to that kind of narrative now than I did when I was the same age as the characters. I mean, there are only so many hours I can spend with characters who think they invented angst without losing my mind. Is this what old age feels like??

      Liked by 1 person

      • I know!! I love holding on to the ones with great covers, it makes me happy.

        What you’re describing about the history and the homophobia at that time sounds super interesting, but I could imagine this not being the best entry point for learning about it, considering the perspective of the narrator and all the use of metaphor. I kind of hate when I have to google other reviews to understand what I’ve read, it always makes me feel totally inferior even when it’s a case of just not having the right historical or cultural knowledge, like here. But I take it personally!!

        You’re right, it is staggering…just those few years start making all the difference, you know? I guess it is what old age feels like, lolol, but I like to think it’s lots of been-there-done-that dumbness that I can now translate into “wisdom” and that means not wanting to spend that much time with people who still need to get there themselves!

        Liked by 1 person

      • Oh I am right there with you – I’m always a bit ‘ARE YOU CALLING ME STUPID’ at books that assume knowledge from the reader that I don’t have – it’s frustrating! Especially when something is outside of my own cultural framework – like, how could I possibly have known any of this – but it still makes me feel like a subpar reader.

        There is nothing more annoying than watching people or fictional characters sabotage a good thing for quite literally no reason at all; I really fail to stay engaged when I’m just thinking ‘why are you being such an idiot.’ My patience for people playing games with each other and their own happiness has significantly decreased in the last few years. I hate complication where there doesn’t need to be any!

        Like

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