[Review] A Story About a Memory: Michael Kaan’s The Water Beetles

{Written by Natalie Liu, this review is part of the “Writing Hong Kong” Issue (December 2017) of Cha.} {Return to Cha Review of Books and Films}

Michael Kaan, The Water Beetles, Goose Lane, 2017. 360 pgs.

Water BeetlesThe Water Beetles is a novel about a young boy’s coming-of-age during the Japanese occupation of Hong Kong and China. The Japanese occupation isn’t a subject to write about lightly, especially since it is still so relevant to our lives—the continued contention over the Nanjing Massacre, comfort women and the other Japanese war crimes ensure that the wounds of history are still raw and bleeding even after almost eighty years. Even now, the mere mention of the words “Japan” and “war” in the same sentence evokes grisly images of skeletal limbs and bayonetted bodies. Thus it was a welcome surprise to discover that, though The Water Beetles is full of horror stories about the war, it is not really about the war at all.

The Water Beetles is an interesting read and certainly very immersive. Planning on getting a head start on my reading, I started it one evening at nine and was surprised to find myself finishing it four hours later. Kaan’s prose is generally spare though occasionally poetic in introspective segments, and it sweeps the reader along in a story that dives in and out of time. The book begins by introducing readers to the protagonist, Chung-man, when he is twelve years old and marching to an internment camp during the Japanese occupation of China; a chapter later, we are reassured that Chung-man has survived this infamously lethal experience, as he is now eighty-six years old and residing in Kuala Lumpur with his daughter.

There are horror stories aplenty, as one would expect from a novel about a war. As the story progresses, Chung-man marches deeper and deeper into the darkest depths of the human psyche, witnessing atrocities with such a matter-of-fact tone that the reader, too, is lulled into a state of suffocating numbness. The segments with the elderly Chung-man, alive and grieving, struggling with modern concerns like cellphones and end-of-life care, act almost as breathing holes in the narrative. The novel shows readers the war’s horrors and allows them to visualise the various ominous ways the story could go, with the constant reassurance of an older narrator who survived the encounter. This is why I say that The Water Beetles isn’t really about the war at all. Kaan isn’t concerned with making a statement about the bygone war, or even the goodness or cruelty of people, because he doesn’t allow the horror of the war to cut bone-deep. Juxtaposed against the elderly Chung-man’s musings on mortality, the atrocities in the novel become something manageable—there is no suspense, because of the certainty that the protagonist emerges alive if not unscathed.

Instead, the feeling I get from the novel is that of a constant reaching for an absent father. It is there in twelve-year-old Chung-man’s furtive observation through a keyhole of his father at work with a stock ticker, and it is there in his own son’s and daughter’s interactions with him as an elderly man—interactions that are full of searching silences and things unsaid. It is there in Kaan’s dedication of the novel to his father’s memories, especially in his acknowledgment that the book “draws on [his] father’s memoirs and his few oral stories from the Second World War.” On this point, Kaan has been told that his father “didn’t talk about it [the war] much … [Kaan] didn’t know the details of it except for a few stories here and there,” until his mother gave him a copy of his father’s memoirs and the idea for the novel was born.

The figure of the absent father starts and ends the novel, and Kaan tells his story with dogged determination, chasing the father’s story through time and space. Ultimately, there is a disconnect between the author and the father he is trying to reach through the novel, just as there is a disconnect between the elderly Chung-Man in Kuala Lumpur and the twelve-year-old Chung-Man struggling to survive in rural China. This is because, as Kaan astutely notes in a section about the elderly Chung-man, “living memory is barren.” What we are left with is akin to Frankenstein’s Creature, a set of stories built on the skeletons of memory and bulked out and fattened up with other stories. The war is a memory from my grandmother’s generation, but has now become a story for younger generations to tell. It is a story that keeps being told, each time a little embellished, each time a little transformed, until its damp dark reek will largely have disappeared. Writing from a distance, everything turns into a story eventually.

Let me end with a personal story, which is perhaps similar to Kaan’s.

My paternal grandmother says she was born in 1924, and so she would have been sixteen when Japanese forces occupied her birthplace of Zhongshan. Inspired by The Water Beetles, I asked her about her memories of the war, but she refused to talk about them. When I asked my father about this, he told me that she had only talked about the war on one occasion.

The story she offered him was garbled and confused: sometimes she is sixteen and a mui tsai (domestic servant) in Shanghai, sometimes she is fourteen and hiding in the mountains; one moment she sees the Japanese forces spearing their pigs, and in the next, she has never even seen a Japanese helmet. There are things that the mind won’t remember, my father told me. In all probability, she really was in Shanghai and indentured to a family who kept her safe as the war raged on. Her memories of marrying my grandfather and fleeing China in the 1950s are much more coherent, almost as if she had been sleepwalking up until that point. She is my only remaining grandparent and slipping slowly into dementia. She calls my brother by my father’s name, talks of our home as if it were only a stop on the way back to her house in bygone Tsin Shui Ma Tou village, looks for roads and pathways in our protean city that are no longer there.

What remains for her, and what stories are left for me?

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Natalie Liu is currently reading for an MPhil in English (Literary Studies) at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. Most of the time, she works on her thesis about Anglophone writing and translation. Occasionally, she is a director of plays, writer of prose that lurk in hard drives for years on end, and baker of bread. Her next projects are: a really good sourdough loaf, Macbeth with HKU’s Shax Theatre, and the submission of her thesis, not necessarily in that order.

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