The Paper Menagerie
Head of Zeus, 464 pages
Review by Iain Maloney
Career-spanning collections rarely achieve coherency let alone combine into something greater, often coming across as snapshot collages, scrapbooks of ‘other things’ the writer has worked on in between novels. Ken Liu is not only a prodigious and prolific short story writer giving him a well-sown field of work to pick from, but his writing tends to circle a handful of key themes, making the curation of a collection less problematic than for a more flighty writer.
At the heart of The Paper Menagerie stands one of the most important and controversial topics of the early 21st century: migration. Liu’s characters are avatars for alienation, immigrants ostracised by ‘native’ populations, emigrants leaving behind home and family; sometimes for a better life, more often through necessity or force. His characters transcend borders and accepted lines of identity, their mixed heritage and cultures turning them into outliers, expressions of a future in Liu’s own words ‘more universal and more atomistic’.
The title story is a perfect example, since it deals with the ‘three-body problem’ of identity: where a child is sent into eccentric orbits by the gravity of parents of different ethnicity. A Chinese-American boy grows up hating his mother and her ‘otherness’ because it leads to him being bullied at school. He pushes her and her love away, embracing his father’s Americanness, refusing to speak Chinese at home or eat Chinese food. Since his mother lacks any ability with English, he effectively silences her. After her death he rediscovers the menagerie of origami animals that she magically brought to life when he was young. The memory of her reanimates the magic.
The bonds of magic run deep in this book, as does the tension between old and new, between heritage and independence, between ancient magic and modern technology. In ‘Good Hunting’, the son of a demon hunter and the daughter of a hulijing, a beautiful demon that steals men’s hearts, are both left rootless and directionless when magic drains from the world. However they discover that the magic hasn’t gone – rather it has adapted and shifted into technology. Together they bridge the gap between the past and the future, offering hope and continuity.
But it is the stories of leaving and arriving that bring this collection together and raise it to great heights. Chinese immigrants clash with Manifest Destiny in the Old West in ‘All The Flavours’, winning over the wagon-train settlers with their flavourful food. The phrase ‘all the flavours’ perfectly sums up Liu’s take on universal humanism and multiculturalism. The Chinese men introduce their neighbours to the delights of spice, sourness and bitterness, but the ‘five flavours’ Lao Guan has been raised to accept as ‘all the flavours’ doesn’t include whisky. Both cultures learn from each other, both are enriched and the new year’s bash at the end shows an almost utopian view of multiculturalism, before someone inevitably spoils the party.
Likewise in the Hugo award-winning ‘Mono no Aware’, a solitary Japanese man who escaped Earth on an American vessel before an apocalyptic asteroid collision clings onto his heritage because it connects him to the parents he left behind. His fading memories of the language and culture make him unique on the spaceship, the last Japanese in the universe, but it is these very traits – the mono no aware, the feeling of transience that underpins much of Japanese culture – that allow him to sacrifice himself for the greater good of humanity.
This sublimation of national or ethnic identity into a wider human one is given fuller exploration in ‘The Waves’. We are shown a possible evolutionary future for our species where we upload ourselves into a collective, achieving both peace and immortality.
But it’s the jaw-dropping final story where Liu shows his bravery and originality. Presented as a film documentary with directions describing action on screen and editing choices, ‘The Man Who Ended History: A Documentary’ is the story of a scientist and a historian who together open humanity’s brutal history to a level of examination we have long avoided. Akemi Kirino is a Japanese-American physicist who cracks time-travel. By using quantum entanglement, she creates a method by which people can experience moments from the past, entering into them as ghosts but receiving the full unfiltered sensory input from whatever period they’ve visited. The catch is that the trip can be taken only once before the connection is destroyed and that moment sealed forever. You only get one chance.
Evan Wei is her husband, a Chinese-American historian with an intense interest in the notorious Japanese Unit 731, which carried out medical experiments and biological weapons tests on thousands of Chinese prisoners during World War Two. Along with the Massacre of Nanjing and the use of comfort women by the Imperial Army, this is the most controversial aspect of Japanese history, with far too many historians and politicians at best fudging, at worst outright denying the existence of the unit and the crimes with which it is accused. Wei uses Kirino’s technique to travel back himself and witness the crimes first hand, before opening the process to family members of those who died in the experiments.
History has long been tied with personal identity, particularly in this age of nation states, and while every nation has crimes they are happy remain hidden in the past, no nation is above using their neighbours’ crimes as a weapon against them. The ongoing controversy between China and Japan over this period being perhaps the most vocal example. Liu explores the fuzzy frontiers where the nation state ends and the individual begins. He raises the question that were these controversies solved once and for all – if we could witness first hand human vivisection in Harbin, or rape and slaughter in Nanjing – if we could provide irrefutable evidence and in effect bring the past alive today, would it make things better or worse? By hanging onto our history are we letting go of our future? Like the Chinese and Americans sharing dumplings and whisky in the Wild West, could we not achieve something better if we focussed on what we can learn from each other rather than what once divided us? Perhaps, as in ‘The Waves’ and others, when we are shorn from the anchor of history we can truly become ourselves. Stephen Dedalus casts a long shadow over this collection with his famous wish to awaken from the nightmare of history.
Ken Liu isn’t just an entertaining and original author – though he is certainly that – he is an important one. At a time when foreigners are vilified, ‘immigrant’ is seen as an insult, the Japanese media are wringing their hands over a ‘hafu’ – a mixed heritage woman – winning the Miss Japan beauty contest, and the phrase ‘mud-blood’ is surely not more than a Trump press conference or two away from making an appearance in the US election, here is an author using his life experience, his talent and skill as an author and every genre and literary tradition at his disposal to make the case that we are humans and individuals before we are ethnic groups or nationalities, and that multiculturalism is our future.