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  • "A Survival Manual for Teenagers": And Adults, Too

    Those who follow my reviews know that translated fiction is one of my obsessions, so I was delighted to discover NYRB's reissue of the Taiwanese cult classic of queer literature, Notes of a Crocodile. Described by its translator Bonnie Huie as a "survival manual for teenagers, for a certain age when reading the right book can save your life," Notes of a Crocodile nevertheless has much to offer adults, particularly those who are cisgendered. I must confess to being confused by the book's structure for a large chunk of its relatively modest length. Qiu Miaojin moves back and forth between two narratives, with their only connection being thematic. The first story is the one I was expecting from the publisher's description: that of "the coming-of-age of a group of queer misfits discovering love, friendship, and artistic affinity while hardly studying at Taiwan's most prestigious university." The second story provides the novel's title: a crocodile wearing a human suit, à la the dinosaurs in Eric Garcia's Anonymous Rex series, muses on how people vehemently advocate both for and against crocodiles, despite knowing nothing about them and not even realizing that at least one crocodile lives and works among them. At the risk of stating the obvious, the common theme is separation, isolation, and the tendency of some people to make authoritative statements about a group whose experiences they do not share: "In the final analysis, our knowledge and understanding of crocodiles is but a microorganism on a fingernail. But in the customary practice of advanced nations, we will safeguard information within the grip of our metal jaws, holding on as if our lives depended on it." Sound familiar? Notes of a Crocodile concludes with a message which should be emblazoned on the blackboard in every classroom in the world, from preschool to university: "The deeper you love, the deeper your compassion grows and the more you realize that the other suffers just as you do. When all is said and done, human civilization is ugly and cruel, and the only thing to do is to raze it to the ground so it becomes visible that kindredness is the one true constant in relationships." Just imagine the world that might result. This review was based on a free ARC provided by the publisher.

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