Light on Formosa "A Pail of Oysters," by Vern Sneider (G. P. Putnam. 311 pp. $3.50), records the lije and aspirations of a simple Formosan peasant. Pal Frank, who reviews it here, is the author of "Hold Back the Night," a novel of the Korean War, and "The Long Way Round," the memoirs of a Far Eastern correspondent.
By Pat Frank
IT is not often that one is privileged to read a novel like the new one by the author of "The Teahouse of the August Moon." Vern Sneider's "A Pail of Oysters" combines beauty of expression, originality of thought, and contemporary historical importance; it is a bright light thrust into the infected peritonium of Formosa, into a region murky with propaganda. It is a true light, which shows nothing as sheer black or white, but in many shades of gray.
It is a novel that will infuriate some, and delight others. It may be denounced by the China Lobby's kept journalists and legislators, yet it may also be vilified by the Communists. Its theme is quite simple. The people of Formosa are Formosans, not Chinese Communists or Chinese Nationalists. Since about the last person a visiting American is likely to meet in Formosa is a true Formosan, Mr. Sneider presents an entirely new picture of the strategically and politically important island. Formosa is more than a pawn in the world struggle. It is at least a Castle, but within the Castle its rightful owners (if you believe in Woodrow Wilson's selfdetermination of peoples) are at best servants and at worst slaves. The Castle is presently the property of Chiang Kai-shek. If Chiang were not in occupancy, and protected by the American Navy, it would be subject to Mao Tse-tung. Mr. Sneider carefully points out the similarities between the two, as dictators, and operators of police states. Strangely, their methods stem from the same source—the Kremlin.
Among all Formosans Li Liu is the poorest and most humble. He is of a family of oyster growers who work in the tidal flats. In the beginning he saves a pail of oysters from scavenging Save-the-Country soldiers who guard the flats against invasion by the People's Liberation Army.
To understand this book it must be understood that this pail of oysters is as important to the family of Li Liu as a bank account, insurance, and credit, all combined, is to an American family. This pail of oysters can be traded for rice, millet, a new needle to replace the one that broke, and quinine to keep the father alive.
Li Liu is trusted with some of the oysters to trade for rice in the farmland that lies back of the tideland. So begins an adventure that takes him to the capital, Taipei, and companionship with two people his own age, a brother and sister owned by an entrepreneur of the city. In his skilful presentation of Formosans, the characters make statements shocking until examined, evaluated, and finally judged true. Like the Japanese occupation of Formosa. "The Japanese took," says a landowner, "yet they gave, too. They gave us electric lights; and the great irrigation ditches which bring water so we can grow rice . . . and the improved rice. They took, but they always left plenty for us . . . not like these swine."
Two Americans rise as strong characters. Both are correspondents. One is "an old China hand" who accepts corruption and prefers to look the other way while murder is done. The other is "a good man." We have "bad men" and "good men" in our ubiquitous Westerns, and so we might as well have them in our Easterns.
Mr. Sneider was a platoon commander in the Pacific, and a commander of regimental scouts during World War IL As a member of U. S. military government he bossed a city of 5,000 refugees on Okinawa. He went to Korea in 1945, and had charge of sheltering and feeding a million refugees fleeing from the Communists north of Parallel 38. His novel, I feel, should be especially recommended to Congressmen and statesmen who "made" Formosa for forty-eight hours on Far Eastern junkets, and who were most unlikely to meet, or talk to, anyone like Li Liu, or his friends, Precious Jade and Didi. If they read it they will comprehend why all our money and all our men can't put Chiang Kai-shek together again.
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