THREE-LEGGED HORSE by Cheng Ch'ing-wen


Age Range: 1895 - 1945
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An appealing empathy with the fates of embattled “little people” distinguishes this fine collection of twelve stories (from a forty-year oeuvre of nearly two hundred) by a popular Taiwanese author only now appearing in English translation. Cheng’s characters are most often small-town souls burdened if not traumatized by their country’s long experience of Japanese occupation (1895-1945) and by its subsequent transformation from an agrarian to an urban culture. The narrator of “The Last of the Gentlemen” offers a valediction to a dead friend that also becomes a lament for the society’s drift toward an impersonal industrialization; “Betel Nut Town” subjects an inchoate love affair to the contrast between city and village; and the title story depicts a guilty survivor of WWII (when he served with Japan’s colonial police force) now “atoning” for this treason by carving deformed (i.e., “three-legged”) wooden horses. Equally affecting are several pieces that examine troubled family relations, including quietly powerful characterizations of a man dominated by his wife’s unpleasant family (“The Mosquito”), a young woman in conflict with her demanding mother-in-law (“Autumn Night”), a mother and son estranged by their separate experiences of deprivation and misery (“Thunder God’s Gonna Getcha”), and the wary partners in a marriage that only gradually becomes trusting (“Secrets”). Two stories are especially impressive: “The River Suite,” about a young ferryman who’s inspired by the spirit of his late grandfather to an act of courage and to pursue, perhaps belatedly, his heart’s desire; and “Spring Rain,” about an orphan who endures a childless marriage and the death of his wife before finding in total selflessness the fulfillment previously denied him. It’s a typically understated story, capped by a beautiful Chekhovian conclusion. Chekhov, in fact, would have understood the compassionate sensibility animating these gently harrowing, unpretentious, absorbing tales. More of Cheng’s fiction would be welcome.

Pub Date: Jan. 7th, 1999
ISBN: 0-231-11386-2
Page count: 226pp
Publisher: Columbia Univ.
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 15th, 1998