水曜日, 1月 28, 2004

I started on Barry Hughart's Bridge of Birds after Jaquandor recommended it (read his review here) and finally found time to finish it yesterday (and started on the second book immediately :p).

Bridge of Birds is what you never knew you wanted: a delightful fantasy/mystery set in medieval China. Exactly when and where in medieval China is a good question--Number Ten Ox lives within running distance of Peking, and it's apparently the Tang dynasty. In fact, Barry Hughart manages the extraordinary feat of getting the history wrong and the setting perfectly right.

As a lapsed Chinese history buff, it was fun to spot all the (intentional?) errors in the background. Hughart takes all the Chinese dynasties and meshes them together. Thus, we have a Sui Dowager (the Ancestress) living during Tang Tai-Tsung's reign, along with a Dukedom of Ch'in that's survived eight hundred years (the dynasty only lasted fifteen.) Tsao Hsuei-Ching is mentioned as a great writer, though he won't be born for another millennium, while the jia gu wen of the Shang dynasty shows up, though it too wasn't discovered until the Ching Dynasty. I don't say this to nitpick. Hughart's a genius--he doesn't let chronology keep him from capturing the essence of Chinese culture.

A minor (but telling) example:
"There really was a minor deity called the Princess of Birds, although not necessarily as described in the story, and she really did wear a crown that was decorated with three feathers from the Kings of Birds. We would have to be as blind as neo-Confucians not to guess what happened."

The "neo-Confucians" jab is technically unnecessary to the plot and historically inaccurate (these guys show up in the Sung Dynasty.) But where else in Chinese history could Hughart find such a large group of reactionary idiots? It's an obscure reference that completes the uniquely Chinese feeling of the novel.

As you may have guessed, the bridge of birds sort of refers to the Shephard (Niou Lang) and Weaver (Jhi Nyu) of the legend. Hughart has his own twist to the myth, which I actually prefer to its rather dull origin. There are many scenes in this novel where the author surpasses his source material: the dancing girl and her captain and Miser Shen's Ah Chen poignant stories in their own right.

I agree with Jaquandor in everything but my reaction to the last arc of the novel. The surprise of the ending is indeed wonderful, but it also sent chills down my spine. Indeed, I haven't had this many goosebumps from a book since reading the first third of Fellowship of the Ring. (Ringwraiths are scary.) Well, the Duke of Ch'in scared the crap out of me, too--call it ancestral memory of the original Qin Shihuangdi, but the Duke is just practically Poe-esque. Indeed, the more you know about Shihuangdi's motivations, the more plausible and terrifying the story becomes.

I wonder if I am unique in this reaction. Right now, I've started Story of the Stone, and the Laughing Prince is also keeping me awake at night. Read it and let me know.