It is one thing to be lulled into a sense of progress, learning Chinese from a book, by readings ingeniously limited to the words each lesson introduces; quite another to be confronted by those words in the wilds of the language at large. That native habitat finds them consorting promiscuously with strange characters in more configurations than were sketched by Bosch: phrases, formalities, compounds and commercial puns, the elaborate titles of common dishes. Walking down the street, my head swiveling at ads, is to see some word I thought to know leering at me from a coupling at whose meaning I can only guess. This induces in me something like the vertigo of chancing on a girl, believed demure, in some obscure debauchery: lightheaded from the loss of some certainty.
Of the 3000 characters Chinese is said to employ on a common basis, I now know, I would venture, 500: which is to say my chances of recognizing a character are roughly those of losing at Russian roulette. I conceived of the 15th Taipei International Book Exhibition (TIBE) as a citadel of language: a chance to glimpse words at work and play in all the possibilities print offered. I would pick up one, maybe two new expressions. Mostly I would wander in studious bewilderment. My first stop was, just past Google, the pavilion of the Bureau International de l’Édition Française (BIEF), to pay homage as a translator of French to this distant outpost of the Republic of Letters. I returned there several times over the course of three visits to the fair, which I never did entirely cover.
Anyone deriving from my orbits some erroneously Franco-centric notion of the floor plan might be briskly disabused thereof with a glance at the map by whose lights, were booth size any indicator of real-world real estate, France, while still outsizing Google’s domain (but only just), would cover less than half the feudal holdings of Japan’s manga emperor Tohan, its shelves heavy with revues thick as phone books. With some geographic justice, none of these in square footage could rival Russia. As this year’s guest of honor, it boasted both the smallest books—a collection of exquisite miniatures, including Chekhov’s Guinness-recordholding “Chameleon”—and the largest pavilion: yards of carpeted steppe, dotted with scarlet cushions, right under where the roof drew like a giant breath up past stacked balconies toward a skylight vault. Of course booth size and location signified no more secret hierarchy than the pecuniary, and certainly not the geopolitical; no surprise to this jaded shopper, who regularly mistakes, while strolling chain bookstores, the piles of sales displays for bar graphs of publisher funding. Still, I would’ve liked, from idle curiosity, to see last year’s floor plan overlay this year’s in some informative animation of who’d shrunk or grown, gone or stayed. » Read the rest of this entry «