The Taïwanese friend (Bunun of Taïwan+English)


That winter, the sun was slowly descending on the bed, like a bored dog. The elections had passed and had not given the nation anything exciting. So in this small room with exposed brown beams, I tried to forget the calm of the capital by looking my boyfriend in the eyes.

He was twisting his mouth into an unattractive sneer. His voice was choppy and I couldn’t hear anything. The ambient cold had left me groggy, and while he was trying to make love to me, I was looking at a spider on the ceiling. I suddenly thought that the spider legs looked like nylon threads.

I wondered if by putting them end to end, it would be possible to knit a woman’s stocking. I was already imagining myself opening a spider yarn stocking store. I would have a fuchsia beanie, a smile because my store would be world class and thriving, and many friends in the fashion world. Also, as I grew older, I would become involved in arachnid advocacy, using my knowledge of their insect congregation and my altruism to help these strange animals.

Suddenly, as my boyfriend gasped, the spider fell on his back. He screamed, slapped me and turned around like a leaf disturbed by the wind. Then he looked at me menacingly.

— It fell from the ceiling.

— Honey, I had nothing to do with this, » I replied to the madman.

His mouth twisted, giving him a mocking pout. He certainly thought I had something to do with the attack. Then he started running back, but I was lost in my millinery dreams. At this point in my reverie, I had stores all over Paris, with gleaming windows.

Elegant women from Raspail and the posh neighborhoods came to greet me while he suffocated with pleasure. I had tea with scones while boxes of spider threads were delivered to my back room. I always had time to entertain ministers’ wives and fashionable singers in my salons.

As I was wondering what dress to wear to receive the wife of an African president, curious about my business, I realized that the spider was lying crushed on my lover’s back. My heart sank. The sun filtered through the blinds as if to warn me that I was in danger.

— Do you like this?

I became aware that we were making love, and I met his dull eyes. It was then like a pink cloud that exploded before my eyes. My dream WAS disappearing. I jumped out of bed like a ship in a literary storm.

I grabbed one of his poetry books

— Where are you going? What are you doing?

Then I locked myself in the bathroom and wrote my dream at the top of the pages with the pen I always had in my pocket. My lover was banging on the bathroom door like a detoxed idiot. I felt haggard, dizzy.

I turned off the bathroom light and cried. Then I opened the door. He was talking to me but I couldn’t hear him. I grabbed my maroon purse and ran into the apartment.

Once outside, my tears continued to spill out like badly extinguished lamps. Clouds were already covering Paris, evening was falling and the Lombard duke was already blinking. The security guard waved at me: my dress was badly put on and I looked like a prostitute myself.

Once home, my mother spent the evening telling me about her best friend, who had just invested in an apartment on the Normandy coast. Should the middle class rush to buy in the middle-sized cities on the coast? The beach was already really invaded by Parisians. Do the suburbanites still have a card to play? DO THEY? My mother took a drag on her cigarette. Her fat, puffy face puffed up as she spoke.

My room was smudged with pictures of people I didn’t like. Boring high school friendships that had sucked up all my hours. The top of the wall was covered with beer ads. I was trying to look modern and drunk at the time.

I was rereading my spider story, when I read the email I had received from a young writer from Taiwan whom I had contacted after loving his novel. The wind was blowing into my room from the poorly closed windows. I stood up and saw shadows cast on the bare walls of the room. The branches of the trees in our garden seemed to dance on the odorless plaster. He thanked me for my message, told me about the typhoons that hit Taiwan, asked me if I was writing, described the sunflower revolution against Beijing. He told me he liked hiking and photography. But above all, politics.

I would send him my texts, and he would talk to me about literature and poetry. He published pamphlets in the magazine « Katasang » (the nation). Gradually, I realized that he was more intelligent than me and knew more about the history of my country. But gradually I also realized that he was even more interested in politics than in literature or love. « The parliament is busy », he told me one day, exultant, on the phone. In Paris, the political scene had become dull, no politician stood out anymore, the cold walls had lost the taste for politics.

I would send him my texts, and he would talk to me about literature and poetry. He published pamphlets in the magazine « Katasang » (the nation). Gradually, I realized that he was more intelligent than me and knew more about the history of my country. But gradually I also realized that he was even more interested in politics than in literature or love. « The parliament is busy », he told me one day, exultant, on the phone. In Paris, the political scene had become dull, no politician stood out anymore, the cold walls had lost the taste for politics.

Sometimes reality meets dream in a macabre dance. I didn’t know this man, he didn’t know me. But in our exchanges, I no longer needed to dream. I was accessing that part of reality that is already beautiful. While my mother talked to her friends about real estate sales, I bought brochures about Taiwan. I began to learn Bunun, the language of her ancestors. Bunun is a language that I found easy, like other aboriginal languages it was not a tonal language and it used the Latin alphabet.

« The Taiwanese refer to us in their language as huanna, savages, » he raged. And he sent me photographs of himself taken at demonstrations. He said he had received two stitches from a punch from an opponent. I don’t know if he said that to impress me, but I believed him. Even the Taiwanese baseball team did not find favor in his eyes, and when I told him about the Hongye‘s (literally: red leaf) victory over the Japanese Wakayama team, he was angry with me, « You know that I don’t feel completely Taiwanese.

Then our relationship became more and more strained. One day, I did not hear from him anymore. He sent me an e-mail on my birthday to tell me that he had been imprisoned. « Madu saikin su », he signed (I love you very much). I called him one last time. He was elated, passionate, and enraged, he scared me. I hung up trembling and looked out the open window: politics had devoured him, now I was completely alone.

He then sent me letters from Taiwan in which he only described the rebellion in which he was actively involved. I didn’t answer anymore. I sometimes listened to Taiwanese songs, kuzakuza tu sintusaus (ballads for work) while sweeping my Parisian apartment. Bunun music uses many wind instruments, made of bamboo like the Jew’s harp, the flute or the drum. This music always made me feel nostalgic, without me understanding why. As if something was missing in my life now.

But I spent more and more time alone. I walked around Paris, looking for the ghosts of tranquility.

I was delighted to learn that one of my short stories about botany had won a prize in a contest. I was invited to Canada and invited to the reception to receive the prize. When I arrived, a fashionable writer complimented me by leering at my cleavage. There were a lot of people at the reception and I was starting to feel sick. With a glass of champagne in hand, I locked myself in the bathroom and closed my eyes. I thought about my friend from Taiwan. Who knows what he would have thought of me with that glass of champagne in my hand. I was ashamed of myself and threw up several times that night, as if to atone for what I had become, a bourgeois, fashionable writer.

I didn’t know what had become of my friend. I tried to contact him through his sister, but I failed, she did not answer me. Maybe he had gotten married. My heart sank as I realized that I had fallen in love with him since our first exchange. Writers are sometimes fantastic creatures. Instead of giving up the thought of meeting and talking to him again, I called another Taiwanese friend. Together we made a plan for one night. I was to become famous in Taiwan, win the hearts of the people, so that he would recognize me, know that I loved him and come back to me.

And that’s what I did. I wrote « The Taiwanese Friend » in seven months. I had this other Taiwanese friend read it again, and then I told him « kusian saikin Taipak » (I am going to Taipei). He did not believe me.

Winter was approaching at a snail’s pace, and Paris was locked in silent suffering, like me.

The fascist party was threatening to take power in France and I had no time to write because I was working.

As for poetry. I considered it a minor art. I wrote a first novel, which was more of an absurdist novel than a sensational thriller. I read it to some close friends who found it funny but not very political. I was ashamed to have failed to write a political book, the committed face of my friend from Taiwan was floating in the air like a threat. The days were like dominoes falling in slow motion. My evenings had the pallor of frightened actresses, and ended with me rushing through translations before reading Kessel novels or sleeping under polluted skies.

I was coming back one evening from the apartment I had bought. The television was not turned off, my too tight scarf had left traces on my neck. The sun had gone down, ashamed to have to rise every day on a land left to the mercy of fate.

My former friend never knew about this. He had simply disappeared from my life. I wrote poems, sometimes something else. It was as if while writing I entered a cotton bridge. I couldn’t think of anything else, I was writing more and more. I realized that I was becoming as absorbed in literature as I had been in the days of my spider-frightened lover.

The time I had left from being locked up, I also used to get back to my novel. It was about a Taiwanese revolutionary. I spent my evenings alone, with a glass of wine in hand, writing and working on the style. It was a kind of love state. I didn’t read, but I wrote without hope.

And poetry, which I had always despised, seemed beautiful to me at that moment. I was finally publishing in several magazines. A publisher finally offered to edit a manuscript and I finished 2nd in a national award.

But when the invitation to meet my Taiwanese audience came, I did not mince my joy. I discovered Taipei for the first time, with a bouquet of orange flowers in my hand, in the wandering night.

And there I was. In Taïwan…

I was planted in the ground like a foreign flag. All of Taiwan was staring at me, or so it seemed. The sun was streaming in through a large bay window behind the spectators. Some of them, who had not turned off their phones, were scratching their ears. I, behind my glass desk, was waiting to be allowed to open my mouth. It must have been close to 8 p.m., the evening had started with trombones and electronic music at 6 p.m. I had hidden my uneasiness in the absorption of several Lexomil, taken with Bubble tea gin-lemon that I had tasted like milk. Men wrapped in shiny suits were grabbing my arm. I was tossed between several headliners, there a politician who had failed in the last elections, there, like me stunned by the noise, a writer of the new Taiwanese generation.

It had been two years since I had written my masterpiece, « The Taiwanese Friend », based on a true story. I had done all the cutting of the scenes while swimming in the Molitor pool. Paris was wide-eyed, raining ice cubes down my writer’s neck, but I never missed a pool session, my inspiration as an artist was at stake. In the evening, I would lie on a deckchair on my terrace, thinking about how I would use the economic benefits of « The Taiwanese Friend ». The light of the moon mixed with that of the stars, I lowered my eyes and fell asleep, no longer sure of anything, except that I had become in a short time the darling of the literary salons.

But today was different. I had set most of my story in Taiwan, and this was the first time I had set foot there. Pop music jumped in my ears. I was startled. It was time to jump in, and I began my speech by recalling how delighted I was to be invited to speak in the heart of Taiwan.

Madikla patasan ti (this book is bad), I began to say, bantering with my audience.

After the speech, I wiped my brow. I was tired and wanted to go home to my partner. A woman in a tight white dress moved past me, holding a glass with a greenish liquid macerated in it, topped by a wedge of orange. We faced each other for a few moments, I understood that she wanted to talk to me, certainly so that I could dedicate « The Taiwanese friend » to her. But what she said to me tore my hearing.

— Your friend, the one the book is about.

— You mean the hero of the novel? I smiled at her, not really paying attention at first.

— I know him.

— You know him…

— You don’t know him, do you? You wrote a whole novel about a dream.

I shivered. It seemed to me that the room was getting colder. A dagger was cutting into my heart. So, someone, in this compressed crowd, had seen through me.

She lived not far from the Taiwan Festival Palace, in a small, cramped apartment, which you entered by poking your head through heavy red theater curtains.

— Would you like some 珍珠奶茶 pearl tea (pronounced zhēnzhū nǎichá)? She inquired.

I was still tired from my speech, but I stretched my legs under the varnished wooden table and accepted her invitation. The stranger must have been in her forties, her hands were fine, elegant. On small tables behind us two boys were playing ball.Are they your sons?

— My nephews. I have no children. You know… Madu kaimin patasan ki (we love this book) in Taiwan. You really wrote like a Taiwanese author.

I shrugged my shoulders. She brought the tea glass. She had hung a mint leaf on the yellow straw that was floating in the glass. I thanked her at once.

— Now, » she said, « I will tell you everything.

I opened my eyes wide. The moon seemed to be shaken by the wind through the window. I heard the sound of crickets, then nothing. While waiting for her to speak again, I unconsciously closed my eyes. A smell of iodine rose to my chest. The smell of the South China Sea, with its frigates trembling under the storm.

My interlocutor was also a bunun. She wore a hat a long rust and gold skirt.

— I met him on Mount Yu Shan. Your friend. He was planting a white flag, the flag of the revolution. I was younger, prettier, we talked.

I didn’t dare ask him if he had mentioned my name. I let her continue.

Asa kata tu madaidaz imita tu ludunan aupa ludunan hai sintuhumis Dihanin (you must cherish all those you love).

I nodded.

— We made love in a blue clearing, 10 kilometers from the Seven Star Mountain. There was an earthquake that night. Those eyes were on fire and… You don’t mind if I tell you the truth. You loved him, didn’t you?

I looked down. My swimming sessions between the walls covered with pearly marble slabs of the Molitor pool came back to me. Her question brought back memories that the publication of « The Taiwanese Friend » had not been able to bring back. I had the impression that someone was trying to plunge my head into a pool of makakazav (freezing cold) water with a walking stick. I looked up, though, and she continued.

— Of course you loved him. It’s kind of weird to talk about him now that he’s dead.

— He’s dead?

— Didn’t you know that? You came here looking for him, didn’t you.

— I came to promote my book.

— I knew him. I talked with him, I made love with him one night. But I was nowhere near his family. I did not attend the funeral.

Mitmaz mataz (what did he die of), I asked him.

The red curtains in the hallway shook and lifted, revealing the scowling muzzle of an English bulldog. Maï, that was the stranger’s name, took him in her arms and caressed his short grey and white coat while laughing.

— Two bullets; in the heart.

I shook my head back and forth. The muffled atmosphere of the small apartment seemed stifling. The night was reflected in a tear that ran down my right cheek.He always had courage, » I said.

— Did you have a prophetic dream? Is that why you came?

I thought that the novel I had written was the dream she was talking about.

— The bununs, of which I am a part, distinguish between the honorable death of old age and the death that is too brutal. People who die the second death are buried at the very site of their demise, you see. He is still there. His skeleton haunts the forecourt of the presidential palace.

In Bunun mythology, heaven is called Maiasang, » I whispered. I’m sure he’s gone to it.

Who knows, » she said. But the Taiwanese friend talks about him, doesn’t he? Why didn’t you come to Taiwan before to meet him? You should go back to your country. There is nothing for you here anymore. You know, we bununs think that a hunter who sees a hashas (bird) flying on the left side of his body should run away. I am your bird of ill omen.


Tuk zazaku (he was like me). I came to drown my regrets in the Taipei sky.

My eyes closed. The pool that drowned the bottom of my consciousness flowed back before my eyelids in icy waves. That night I walked for a long time in the streets of Taiwan. Nobody recognized the fashionable writer I had become. No one. I walked through the most deserted streets, only to get lost, and Mai’s question came back to me every time a light crossed my eyes. « Why didn’t you come to Taiwan before to meet him? And her laughter haunted me: « Are you tapu dadavus (addicted to alcohol) like all writers?

But, reader, this is now my version of Mai’s story. And the origin of the novel that shook up the literary codes of the small Formosa island. The man she met on the Yu Shan (literally: Jade Mountain), I knew him too.

I went to the north of the country, hoping to meet my friend who had not given me any sign of life; to the Bunun country. I was looking for a dream, I was fighting against windmills, I was blowing rose petals on the impossible. I attended the Ilisin harvest festival, which was a big gathering, but I did not see my friend’s eyes in the crowd.

I was taken to the Daerjie (literally: ear-shooting) festival, the main Bunun festival and a coming-of-age ceremony. I ate yams and millet while thinking about the future. The women were beautiful, wearing habag (long rectangular sleeveless tunic) and I felt jealous, thinking that my friend had seen these beautiful women before me.

The reflection of the sun on the horses’ coats burned my eyes. The sky was reddening, I was thinking about my literary career, which had started from a dream that I was realizing. In Nantou, in the township of Hsinyi, before the day of the speech, I looked for my friend’s features in the old women’s faces. But neither the clear rivers nor the flowers that were torn apart and trampled on the streets of Taipei could soften my regrets.

« Maki haiza su iti, saitia al nanimataz » (if you had been here, he would not have died). The book fall from my hands. Mai had not told me this, but this phrase hung over the night like the banner of an aborted revolution.

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