“I don’t know how other people endure the violence and cruelty they encounter throughout their lives,” remarks the narrator of Notes of a Crocodile (by Qiu Miaojin, translated by Bonnie Huie), a young college student named Lazi. She is mourning the end of a relationship with her troubled ex-girlfriend, Shui Ling—only she, Lazi, is the one who ended it. In part this book is about that very question–how its characters (young gay women and men living in Taiwan in the 1980s) hurt each other, acting out their own traumas on each other, and sometimes becoming cruel out of pain and confusion.
The book is experimental—it’s written in the form of eight notebooks or journals kept by Lazi throughout her college years—and is, according to the book jacket, a cult classic. It contains interludes of an allegory about a society infiltrated by crocodiles who are trying, but failing, to blend in with humans, who in turn are absolutely fascinated by this foreign species walking among them. It’s not hard to connect the crocodiles, who wish to blend in but can’t, with the young queer characters in the other sections of the book, including Lazi.
Lazi is a delightful narrator to follow for eight notebooks—witty, inventive, observant, writing in richly textured prose. But to me the most remarkable thing about the book is how nakedly, unashamedly passionate it is—not just about the romantic love Lazi shares with Shui Ling, but about everything. Lazi’s desperately unhappy and confused, trying to make sense of gender norms that don’t fit her, of her loneliness and others’, of why people are so unhappy and horrible to each other. She says things like, “My leaden heart cracked open with sadness.” Reading it, I felt like I’d normally cringe at such language, but I never did; Lazi is so genuine in her youth and sincerity and pain that I thrilled to every overblown metaphor. The book perfectly captures the unabashed rawness of adolescent feelings, but with the intelligence and power of language that comes to a mature artist.
For a more comprehensive and eloquent review, which I found really helpful in understanding this book and particularly insightful on the topic of the lack of adult characters, check out this essay by Franny Zhang in Ploughshares.