Tuesday, May 31, 2016

PLA 'Stride' Military Exercises: Is Taiwan in the Crosshairs?

While it may be tempting to see connections between large-scale drills and Tsai Ing-wen’s election in January, 2016, Zhurihe is not evidence of escalation 

As the People’s Liberation Army prepares to hold large-scale annual exercises at a training base in Inner Mongolia this week, speculation has been mounting as to whether the drills are aimed at “separatist forces” in Taiwan following the Democratic Progressive Party’s (DPP) victory in the January elections. 

Fueling the speculation are media reports that suggest a connection between the media attention 'Stride' 2016 Zhurihe (跨越-2015·朱日和) has been receiving in China and a visit by President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) to an Air Force Base in Hualien on May 29, her first as Taiwan’s commander in chief. 

My article, published today in The News Lens International, continues here.

The 'Chinese Taipei' WHA Controversy: Time to Think Strategically

President Tsai has been heavily criticized by the green camp for ‘failing’ to uphold the nation’s ‘dignity’ at this year’s WHA meeting in Switzerland. In reality, Taiwan’s participation was a small victory. 

The political storm that continues to rage over Minister of Health and Welfare Lin Tzou-yien’s (林奏延) “Chinese Taipei” remarks during his address at the World Health Assembly in Geneva last week highlights a longstanding difficulty among many members of the green camp to differentiate between tactical and strategic approaches to defending Taiwan’s sovereignty. 

Anger over Lin’s use of a formulation that is self-abasing is certainly justified. After all, the notion that “Chinese Taipei” could have 23 million citizens, or that it stands for an entire nation, is indeed preposterous. Moreover, the fact that he did not once mention the word “Taiwan” in his five-minute speech has drawn accusations that President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文), who was just a few days on the job, had failed to uphold Taiwan’s sovereignty and denigrated the nation by playing into Beijing’s hands. 

My article, published today in The News Lens International, continues here.

Monday, May 30, 2016

Looking for the Real ‘Troublemaker’ in the Taiwan Strait

Global headlines have a tendency to portray Taiwan and the DPP as the cause of instability in the Taiwan Strait. But things are a little more complex than that 

It has not even been two weeks since Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) was sworn in as president of Taiwan, and already the old global editorial practices and inherent biases are once again rearing their ugly heads. Tensions in the Taiwan Strait, we are told, are “rising,” all implicitly because President Tsai has refused to acknowledge the so-called 1992 consensus and “one China” framework in her inaugural speech, or because she heads a “pro-independence” party. For those of us who have been following the politics of the Taiwan Strait over the years, that language is oddly familiar. And the worst part is, it’s also misleading. 

Much of this comes from the framing that editors worldwide rely upon to help make sense of the complex Sino-Taiwanese relationship to their audiences. 

My article, published today in The News Lens International, continues here.

Sunday, May 29, 2016

The Plan Taiwan Needs to Defend against China

A few recommendations to increase Taiwan’s deterrent capabilities 

After eight years of relative calm in the Taiwan Strait, Taiwan turned a page in its history on May 20, when Tsai Ing-wen of the Taiwan-centric Democratic Progressive Party was sworn in as president. While it may be premature to argue that the cross-Strait relationship has now entered a new, and possibly more conflict-prone, era under Tsai, we must nevertheless keep in mind that the military option to impose unification was never obviated by Beijing, and that as its power grows that option may look increasingly inevitable. Therefore, as the Tsai administration performs the onerous act of balancing between stability in the Taiwan Strait and meeting the expectations of its China-wary citizens, it must continue to prepare against the eventuality that China could resort to force of arms to break the status quo. 

Although not exhaustive, the following discussion looks at a number of areas that will be key to Taiwan’s ability to defend itself against external aggression in the coming years. 

My article, published today in The National Interest, continues here.

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

The Next Step

I would be lying if I said that the past couple of months haven’t been a difficult period for me. It all began with an irony, when, on the day that Commonwealth Magazine (天下雜誌) published its feature story about me and my journalistic vision for Taiwan, my employer, the Thinking Taiwan Foundation, informed me that Thinking Taiwan, the commentary and analysis website I had launched in June 2014, was to close shop. I was also told that my contract with the Foundation would be terminated prematurely. All of a sudden the long-term project that I had spearheaded was no longer long-term; I fought for the site’s survival and argued for its continuation, but sadly the powers that be had, well, all the power. As of May 20 — inauguration day — Thinking Taiwan was no more…

Luckily for me, the stars were once again aligned in my favor. After a period of grieving (and a pair of academic events in the U.K. that could not have occurred at a better time), a new opportunity came my way. This was proof (if proof was needed) that there is life after 小英, the person who convinced us to remain in Taiwan days before my spouse and I were set to leave the country to seek our fortunes elsewhere. With hindsight, it is now clear that this unexpected development at the Foundation and the severing of my association with Tsai Ing-wen “brand” was a blessing in disguise: after all, the principal role of a journalist is to speak the truth to power and to hold government to account. Tsai, my former employer, has become president. She and her administration are now fair game.

So here’s what’s happening. Starting on June 1 I will be assuming a new position as chief editor of The News Lens International, the English-language sister of The News Lens, an independent media launched in 2013. And here’s where things get even better. Unlike my situation at Thinking Taiwan, where I handled everything pretty much on my own, this time around I will finally have a team of writers and editors to work with. Not only will this allow me to build on the successes of Thinking Taiwan, it will also give me a chance to expand the scope of our endeavors by focusing on the entire Asia Pacific region. With help from our contributors across the region and all over the world, I intend to turn TNLI into the platform for the exchange of ideas within this extremely important and exciting corner of the world, from Taiwan to Malaysia, Hong Kong (where we also have an office) to Singapore.

Out of the ashes of misfortune arose opportunity. Needless to say, I am very excited to be joining this young and dynamic team!

Monday, May 23, 2016

Tsai and the Southbound Policy: Window Dressing or the Real Deal?

The strategy should be multifaceted and not solely aimed at the enrichment of the few. Can they make it happen? 

Much has been said in recent months about President Tsai Ing-wen’s (蔡英文) “southbound policy,” part of her administration’s goal of reducing the nation’s reliance on China. Sometimes referred to as the “southbound policy 3.0” because of previous — and largely failed — attempts since the 1990s, the plan, or at least the little that we know about it, seems to be primarily focused on trade and economics, which suggests that this could be a mere continuation of past efforts to redirect capital and manufacturing toward ASEAN members. However, focusing on trade alone would be both a mistake and a missed opportunity. 

In order to make meaningful contributions, the policy will have to be more than a slogan. It must be part of a strategy. Consequently, the new Southbound Policy Coordination Office that has been created at the Presidential Office will have to adopt a multifaceted approach to engagement with this vibrant part of the world. 

My article, published today in The News Lens International, continues here.

Friday, May 20, 2016

Taiwan's first female president walks tightrope as she takes office

Tsai Ing-wen is inaugurated in a ceremony high in color as the world looks on 

Tsai Ing-wen, Taiwan's first female president, was sworn into office Friday, facing two very different sets of expectations -- from those who voted for her and a Chinese leadership that wants the island on a tight leash. 

Although she was given a strong mandate in the January elections, with her Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) gaining control of the executive and legislative branches of government, a souring relationship with Beijing could undermine her ability to accomplish what she has set out to do at home. 

My article, published today on CNN, continues here.

Thursday, May 19, 2016

520 Inauguration: Out With the Old and In With the…?

Incoming president Tsai Ing-wen must avoid the temptations and mistakes of the past 

Eight years ago today I opened an unsigned editorial about outgoing president Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) with the following lines from former Czech president Vaclav Havel: “As you know, the president must carry out his responsibilities to the best of his abilities and conscience, but it must be done with taste and skill, otherwise one might become an object of ridicule, or provoke general hostility.” Those words are no less true today than they were when Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九), who will be stepping down on May 20, was about to take office in 2008. 

Whether Ma succeeded in meeting Havel’s benchmarks is debatable; many would argue that he didn’t, and that this is why his party, the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT), suffered such a setback in the January elections. One unquestionable accomplishment of his, though—and this may very well be an unintended outcome—is that after eight years in office, Ma leaves Taiwan much more unified than it was before, much more so, in fact, than when Chen stepped down. However, this unity should not be taken for granted and could be ephemeral; it must be cultivated lest this unique moment be overshadowed by a return to divisions of old. 

My article, published today in The News Lens International, continues here.

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Pro-Unification Groups Pressure Tsai to Recognize ‘1992 Consensus’

Unable to summon more than 500 followers at every event he has organized since his return to Taiwan in 2013, Chang An-le's antics are more show than substance 

Pro-unification groups gathered outside the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) headquarters in Taipei on Wednesday afternoon to pressure president-elect Tsai Ing-wen, who will be inaugurated on May 20, to recognize the “1992 consensus,” which authorities in Beijing have touted as a non-negotiable precondition for continued stability in the Taiwan Strait. 

Led by Chang An-le (張安樂), chairman of the China Unification Promotion Party (中華統一促進黨), about 500 protesters, part of the “518 Action Coalition,” called on Tsai to adhere to the “1992 consensus” to ensure “cross-strait peace.” A large number of participants were visibly associated with criminal organizations; several dozen police blocked the entrance to the building. Police estimates of a crowd of 1,000 seem inflated. 

My article, published today in The News Lens International, continues here (photo my the author).

Saturday, May 14, 2016

After British Queen’s ‘Rude Xi’ Remarks, New Tape of Ma-Xi Conversation Emerges

The following is a leaked excerpt from a dinner conversation held between Chinese President Xi Jinping and Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou in Singapore on 7 November 2015. The authenticity of the information obtained has yet to be ascertained. (Warning: this is satire.)

Ma:     I apologize in advance for the giggling. Alcohol does that to me.
Xi:       My sources tell me you giggle less when you’ve had a few.
Ma:     Your intelligence is very accurate, Chairman.
Xi:       I got this from Facebook. In fact it was a post from your wife, last week I believe.
Ma:     You have Facebook? I thought…
Xi:       Who do you think’s been teaching that Suckerman Chinese?
Ma:     I believe it’s Zuckerman, Mr. Xi.
Xi:       Never heard of him. Anyway, let’s make that our little secret, shall we? My wife cannot know, or she will most assuredly kill me in my sleep.
Ma:     Smother you with a pillow? That’s always been my greatest fear.
Xi:       Impossible. We sleep in different rooms.
Ma:     Why is that?
Xi:       We’ve been watching House of Cards. Seems to be the cool thing to do.
Ma:     H’mmm. House of Cards. Sounds like a good title for my presidency…
Xi:       [Sneezes violently].
Ma:     Mr. Xi, let us move on to pithier matters, shall we? I am getting a lot of pressure regarding the missiles. I was wondering if…
Xi:       What missiles?
Ma:     The missiles you’re aiming at us.
Xi:       They’re not aimed at you. They’re solely for cloud-seeding purposes.
Ma:     I understand, Mr. pres—
Xi:       Watch it Mr. Ma!
Ma:     My apologies, Mr. Xi. Still, can’t something be done about them?
Xi:       How many of those are there again?
Ma:     Sixteen-hundred’s the number, I am told.
Xi:       Ah yes, such a large number. I am always amused by all those 
           Western “experts” who seem to think that we could fire all those 
           missiles at once. My dinner is delivered late half the time, Mr. Ma. 
           Do they really think we can pull off something like this? Still, it’s 
           useful. The notion scares people, I guess.
Ma:     Very much so indeed.
Xi:       I’ll tell you what I’m going to do. I’ll remove ten of them, but you must promise me you won’t tell anyone.
Ma:     Thank you. That’s 1,590, I feel much safer now.
Xi:       Now, in return for that favor, Mr. Ma…
Ma:     Yes?
Xi:       Let’s talk about those scammers.
Ma:     Ah yes, such a great movie that was!
Xi:       Movie? I didn’t say anything about a movie.
Ma:     Is this not the movie produced by that American film company that sold its soul to the mighty Renminbi?
Xi:       I’m not talking about movies, Mr. Ma. The real thing. Scammers.
Ma:     Scanners? Surely you’re mistaken. We stopped making those a long time ago. In fact, I’m pretty sure your side makes them now.
Xi:       Scammers, Mr. Ma. Scammers.
Ma:     So what about those souls?
Xi:       Beg your pardon?
Ma:     Did they sell theirs—the Americans?
Xi:       Oh I have no doubt, Mr. Ma.
Ma:     All right. As long as the planes they’re put on have some cartoon on the fuselage, you know. You can’t use Hello Kitty—we’ve got those already.
Xi:       What about Disney characters? Mickey Mouse would work?
Ma:     You got copyright for those?
Xi:       [Chuckles]
Ma:     Perfect. Well, that’s all taken care of, then.
Xi:       Indeed. Of course you’re aware we’ll have to put hoods on their heads, you know, for dramatic purposes…
Ma:     The Americans?
Xi:       No, the scammers.
Ma:     Oh?
Xi:       But I promise you that Mickey Mouse will prove most comforting to our police officers. After all, it’s not every day that we kidnap nationals from other countries.
Ma:     [Giggles]. Sorry, it must be the wine. Where is this delicious wine from, anyway?
Xi:       France, I am told.
Ma:     You must mean China.
Xi:       Well, the label says France…
Ma:     Yes, the label [winks].
Xi:       Cheers.
Ma:     I wish they would make songs about me too.
Xi:       Oh please. They’re they very reason I’m cracking down on free expression across China. If it doesn’t stop I’ll have to imprison every opera singer and everyone with a Casio under his bed. It’s abominable.
Ma:     It’s better than having shoes thrown at you.
Xi:       I’ll take a shoe any day. At least the pain goes away pretty quickly.
Ma:     You tell that to Commissioner Liu. He’s been complaining of headaches ever since that little devil Wei-ting scored a direct hit.
Xi:       Who?
Ma:     Never mind. You’d never have heard of them anyway.
Xi:       Oh I’ve heard of Liu. A delightful critter. But Wei-ting?
Ma:     A devil, truly. He’s given me heartburn.
Xi:       I’ll have the MSS look into it.
Ma:     You’re telling me you’ve no idea who the young man is?
Xi:       I have no idea what’s going on in that countr—
Ma:     Careful, Mr. Xi.
Xi:       Right, right. In that province of yours.
Ma:     I feel we’ve made such progress, Mr. Xi. Such statesmanship [raises glass]. To everlasting friendship! [Xi sneezes loudly again].

Tuesday, May 03, 2016

Taiwan 'Erased’ From UN Tourism Map

A top three destination for Chinese tourists in 2014 did not make the cut on a UN map 

Something’s wrong with the UN World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) map of the top 10 destinations for Chinese tourists in 2014, which was recently reproduced on the Center for Strategic and International Studies’ (CSIS) new China Power Project website. Despite being the third-largest recipient of Chinese tourists that year, with 3.98 million arrivals, Taiwan is not mentioned. 

My article, publishes today in The News Lens International, continues here (photo: J. Michael Cole).

Monday, May 02, 2016

Convergence or Conflict in the Taiwan Strait: The Illusion of Peace? to be released in September 2016

The English-language version of my book 《島嶼無戰事:不願面對的和平假象》will be published by Routledge in September 2016!

Years of rapprochement between Taiwan and China had convinced many that the Taiwan issue had been resolved, and that it was only a matter of time before the two former opponents would reunite under One China. But a re-energized civil society, motivated by civic nationalism and a desire to defend Taiwan’s liberal-democratic way of life, has dashed such hopes and contributed to the defeat of the China-friendly Kuomintang in the 2016 presidential elections. 

This book draws on years of on-the-ground research and reporting to shed light on the consolidation of identity in Taiwan that will make peaceful unification with China a near impossibility. It traces the causes and evolution of Taiwan’s new form of nationalism, which exploded in the form of the Sunflower Movement in 2014, and analyses how recent developments in China and Hong Kong under "one country, two systems" have reinforced a desire among the Taiwanese to maintain their distinct identity and the sovereignty of their nation. It also explores the instruments at China’s disposal, from soft power to coercion, as well as the limits of its influence, as it attempts to prevent a permanent break-up between the two sides of the Taiwan Strait. Finally, the book argues against abandonment and suggests that international support for Taiwan as it negotiates its complex relationship with China is not only morally right but also conducive to regional and global stability. 

Acting as both a sequel and a rebuttal to earlier publications on Taiwan-China relations, this book takes an intimate and anthropological look at Taiwan’s youth and civil society, and applies this to traditional analyses of cross-strait politics. It will appeal to students and scholars of Taiwanese Politics, Chinese Politics, International Relations and Sociology. 

Paperback: 9781138696242 pub: 2016-09-14 
Hardback: 9781138696235 pub: 2016-09-14

A Personal Journey in Books

Books have been a true constant in my life, a safe, unfailing refuge from the demands and frustrations of everyday life. I find myself returning to it in times of uncertainty, when life throws me a curveball or does not yield, if life can be said to yield at all, the hoped-for dividends. Literature in particular has been like oxygen for me, and my relationship with it was in my mind this past weekend, prompted, I suspect, by my efforts to dig out one specific book from the 30 crates or so which, having run out of shelve space in my home, occupy one-fourth of my study. As I sought that particular book I felt I was journeying back in time; the idiosyncratic scents, above all, teasing the parts of my brain that are closely associated with memory.

My lifelong encounter with books has its own narrative, a series of impressions anchored in time, like biographical red flags. It goes something like this.

Oddly, I have very few memories of the books that I read in my childhood — not the French-language ones, that is. Sure there was some science fiction (the Anticipation series which a cousin collected) and whatever it is that we were force-fed in primary school, but none of these can be said to have affected me in any meaningful way. I do remember repeatedly flipping through the pages of a French translation of Solzhenitsin’s The Gulag Archipelago in my parents’ collection, but its sheer size was too daunting and I never plunged in.

For reasons that I still cannot fully understand, my emotional connection with books, and with literature in particular, was sparked when I started reading English. I had been reading H. P. Lovecraft in French translation for a while, but only when I acquired the English originals, the Del Rey paperbacks with the macabre covers by Michael Whelan, did I feel like I was plunging into a forbidden universe. It was only then that I got the frisson. I’ve long outgrown Lovecraft, but the smell of the ink is something that I still associate with late evenings in bed, turning the page to “The Horror at Red Hook” or “The Case of Charles Dexter Ward.”

From that same period, I associate the Dragonlance series with long summer afternoons, Stephen King’s The Stand with efforts to read in class and not get caught, and J. R. R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings with Christmas, upstairs at my uncle’s house, unwilling to leave behind the hobbits and other creatures which inhabited that expansive universe.

My first contact with “real” literature occurred during college — at St. Lawrence College in Quebec City, to which I had applied, as a francophone, to improve my English. It was tough going at first; not so much the reading but the writing, until one professor warned me that if my writing did not show improvements fast I might have to leave the college. Needless to say, this was a warning that I took seriously, and I did what was necessary to avoid expulsion.

But I digress. College was my first brush with Shakespeare. Richard III, King Lear and Macbeth in particular I found enthralling, but admittedly I felt lost at first, only getting part of what was going on. I did fall in love with iambic pentameter, though, and for years afterwards would try to mimic the metering. What else do I associate with that period? Thoroughly enjoying my first Graham Greene (A Gun for Sale), Hemingway’s Old Man and the Sea and Steinbeck’s The Pearl, and strangely having to read Flaubert’s Madame Bovary in English translation in a class run by a professor I did not particularly like but who, a quarter of a century later, I still associate with leather skirts and high boots. I still fondly remember Lorne Coughlin, who would walk into the classroom with his inevitable “good morning to you too.” It was Coughlin who first introduced me to another C — Joseph Conrad. He’d often mention Conrad even though he wasn’t on the reading list. So I jumped in on my own with Heart of Darkness. Coughlin seemed mightily pleased when he saw me reading it, as if he’d scored some secret victory. We also did Beowulf, which I remember reading from that unwieldy bible-papered Norton anthology, and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock and Murder in the Cathedral by T. S. Eliot, poetry by Wallace Stevens (“The Snow Man”) were also highlights during that period. There were several others, but this is what had the greatest effect on my young mind, at least that can remember. 

There was, at the time, a particular sense of magic associated with books that with age has dissipated somewhat. I still get a thrill when I first open a book (which I find much more enjoyable than finishing one), but it’s not the same. Age, I assume, does that.

My move to Montreal in the summer of 1994 is also a period that I associate with an intense engagement with literature. It brings to mind Steinbeck’s East of Eden and The Grapes of Wrath in my bedroom, writing down every word I didn’t understand and memorizing the definitions; Michael Moorcock on the bed in the guest room at my mother’s house when I visited on weekends; long magical summer afternoons in the park near the Olympic Stadium reading Conrad’s Nostromo and Lord Jim, and Conrad again in winter with Under Western Eyes and The Secret Agent; winter is also Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment; Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities in my bed, one of the rare books that actually made me cry; Mann’s short stories; Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man with late-night reading disrupted by a phone call from the police informing me that the front window of the store where I worked part time as an undergraduate had been smashed by a brick; Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, which we were not required to read in whole but that I did; Nabokov’s Lolita, which totally fascinated me; Joyce’s Ulysses, which I felt once in a lifetime was more than enough; Jane Austen bores me; Achebe’s Things Fall Apart; Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty Four, which I’d reread years later and think of as a completely different novel; Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day moves me, and I skip several classes to read The Unconsoled at the university library; Mann’s The Magic Mountain I associate with several things: an internship at CBC Newsworld in Calgary, breathlessly awaiting 5pm whereupon I’d head for the park and continue reading, ducks in the river, a performance of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream on the green grass, and several typos in the Modern Library edition. It was on that same trip that I bought my first of many biographies of Conrad. Returning from that trip I stopped by the bookstore where I worked before heading home, as I’d received a large shipment of books from the Everyman’s Library — pretty much the entire collection of Dickens. Mann’s Doctor Faustus brings to mind summer, coffee, sitting by the balcony and Gustav Mahler while my girlfriend was on a trip with a cousin. Oscar Wilde (not Dorian Gray, which I had read years earlier) is lying on the carpeted floor of my second apartment in Montreal, the ceiling fan circling above my head, before the furniture had arrived. Montreal is James JonesThe Thin Red Line and From Here to Eternity, which when I finally saw a copy at the bookstore (reprinted to coincide with the release of Terrence Malick’s film version of Thin Red Lineliterally made me jump in place, to my mother’s (and another customer’s) amusement. Montreal is also Michael Crichton, devouring his thrillers outside the classroom, just before class, while my classmates talked among themselves. For quite a while I wanted to be the next Crichton and began reading every copy of Scientific American and Discover magazine for the next science-based novel plot.

My Signet Classics paperback copy of Hamlet gets devoured, literally, by a friend’s dog. Golding’s The Lord of the Flies is an Irish pub and a dark-haired man, much better looking than me and slightly older, competing for my girlfriend’s attention late one evening, when he asked me why I would ever bother reading such a book. How could I not, was my indignant response. Eco’s The Name of the Rose in paperback, Foucault’s Pendulum, which I enjoyed even more, in hardback. Naipaul at a coffee shop near McGill University, long afternoons and evenings; Nabokov again late at night at a different coffee shop, literally stunned by the brilliance of his prose; Thomas Harris with summertime (Red Dragon with a splitting headache). I read almost everything by Polish journalist Ryszard Kapuscinski during that period; Imperium and Shah of Shahs are standouts; HessSteppenwolf Gunter GrassThe Tin Drum, accompanied by Gorecki’s Symphony No. 3.

Edward Said comes in at this point; so does Carl Sagan, whose ability to articulate science for a general audience had, I believe, a strong impact on my own writing; his novel Contact makes me think of the Montreal subway and wormholes. Oliver Sacks also makes his appearance; Awakenings moves me deeply.

Graham Greene and John Le Carré came later, after I had moved to Ottawa in 2003. Greene I associate with heartbreak after a failed attempt to convince a Japanese woman to come live with me in Canada; on the way back from Tokyo I decided to spend a week in Vancouver, where I devoured many of Green’s novels; Our Man in Havana stands out from that period and is, in my opinion, one of the funniest novels ever written. More Greene (Comedians, Honorary Consul, Quiet American) after I return to Ottawa, sitting outside at a coffee shop near the Byward Market. Mishima, Murakami and Tanizaki also enter into my life during that period as I tried to make sense of the Japanese mind and perhaps discover the key to A—’s heart (no success there; she was already married); Murakami’s South of the Border, West of the Sun on the plane back from Tokyo; Vargas Llosa’s The Feast of the Goat with too much Cuban rum and Elliot Goldenthal’s Frida soundtrack; several failed attempts to read the Peruvian author’s The War of the End of the World, which I’d only complete years later in Taipei during a cold January spell and boy was that a great novel; Robert Stone’s Damascus Gate is sitting on the floor of my first apartment in Ottawa before my furniture came in; the other novels come later, with A Flag for Sunrise and Dog Soldiers coming much later; I meet Stephanie due to Nabokov’s Pale Fire; Yu Hua’s To Live is in a car between Ottawa and Toronto. Robert Littell’s The Company and William Shawcross’ The Shah’s Last Ride are intimately associated with the thirteen-month recruiting with CSIS. As my brief career in the intelligence world was coming to a painful close it’s Koestler’s Darkness at Noon, Huxley’s Brave New World, and a lot of Le Carré (the Karla trilogy, The Night Manager, and The Little Drummer Girl, which I finished on the beach in Cuba, along with Greene’s The Power and the Glory). Robert Fisk’s Pity the Nation, about the war in Lebanon, has a marked impact on me; I give a copy as a present to the intelligence officer who accompanied me during my field training in Toronto; I also give a copy of Greene’s The Heart of the Matter, which I associate with heartbreak in New York City, to another friend at the intelligence agency; New York also brings back memories of Ivan Klima (Love and Garbage). 

My work in intelligence makes it nearly impossible for me to take spy novels seriously; only Greene, Len Deighton, Eric Ambler, Furst (on his best days) and Le Carré succeed in making me suspend disbelief; the others I give up after a few chapters.

Taiwan is Mishima, more Le Carré (earlier works during my first months on the island; A Most Wanted Man I associate with our decision not to attend the Dec. 31 fireworks at Taipei 101 and instead a very cold night at home under the blankets), some Greene, Waugh (Black Mischief and Scoop had me laughing to tears), Rushdie’s Shalimar the Clown (second attempt after a first one, back in Ottawa, had brought back painful memories due to its associations with terrorism) and Shame, Camus, J. G. Ballard, Anthony Burgess (at long last!), DeLillo (slightly overrated in my opinion), Victor Serge, Ismail Kadaré (in French), Akutagawa during a particularly violent afternoon thunderstorm, Paul Bowles; finally a successful attempt to finish Vasily Grossman’s monumental Life and Fate, also finally reading Naipaul’s excellent A House for Mr. Biswas; Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s The General and His Labyrinth is, to my memory, sitting on a bench in Daan Park.

There’s a lot more, for sure, and I have barely mentioned all the non-fiction that I read. But this gives an idea of the invisible thread that runs through those years joining books with places, people, coffee, and life experiences. I often imagine myself being asked the typical question, If you were sent to a deserted island and were only allowed five books, which ones would you bring along? My initial response would be, Only five? Ok, if I must…

1. Thomas Mann, The Magic Mountain
2. Joseph Conrad, Nostromo
3. Mario Vargas Llosa, The War of the End of the World
4. Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov
5. Vasily Grossman, Life and Fate

I “pray” that I will never be asked to make such a choice and that my collection of 3,000 books or so will always follow me, wherever I end up.