I waver between two or three stars for this book. The writing is serviceable, but often terminally pedestrian, and occasionally clumsy (“Stephen lifte...moreI waver between two or three stars for this book. The writing is serviceable, but often terminally pedestrian, and occasionally clumsy (“Stephen lifted searching eyes above the soup spoon as he sucked the liquid over his teeth”). The plotting is similarly ham-fisted, with its tepid “romances”, and unaffecting, though undoubtedly well-researched war scenes (“Stephen watched the men go on madly, stepping over the bodies of their friends, clearing one firebay at a time, jostling one another to be first to traverse. They had dead brothers and friends on their minds; they were galvanized beyond fear. They were killing with pleasure. They were not normal”). It’s as though Faulks had decided that, after dutifully wading through volumes of war correspondences and field reports, he would create certain characters representative of the era and then assign random period characteristics to them. They remain as shallow as a soldier’s hasty grave, and thus their historically accurate gory deaths are devoid of pathos. But the turning point for me was the totally extraneous subplot involving Elizabeth, Stephen’s granddaughter, and the eye-rollingly unbelievable climax of her story. In her late thirties, involved in an unpromising affair with an older married man, Elizabeth develops a sudden interest in her grandfather’s war diaries and discovers facts about her family’s past --- in a particularly slow-witted way:
“Elizabeth did some calculations on a piece of paper, Grand-mere born 1878. Mum born…she was not sure exactly how old her mother was. Between sixty-five and seventy. Me born 1940. Something did not quite add up in her calculations, though it was possibly her arithmetic that was to blame.”
Umm --- my nine-year old knows how old I am. Elizabeth was raised by her mother, Francoise, and is the managing director of her company. There is no indication whatsoever that her mother wants to keep any family history secret. The implication is that they are curiously dull, or so bovinely indifferent, that such basic facts simply never came up in their family life.
Or perhaps, her abject ignorance is a clunky plot device.
Whatever. By this point, I’m plodding through the story like a WW I soldier through waist-high muck. But wait, Elizabeth is also historically challenged:
Francoise: “I was sent to Jeanne from Germany, where I had been living, because my real mother had died. She died of flu.”
Elizabeth: “Of flu? That’s impossible.”
Francoise: “No. There was an epidemic. It killed millions of people in Europe just after the end of the war.”
Er, Elizabeth --- how did you get past high school?
Elizabeth and her married lover proceed to “create an autonomous human life from nothing”, and this is unequivocally portrayed as something gloriously life-affirming. Somehow, Stephen’s wartime heroism inspired her to conquer her impending mid-life/ biological clock crisis by procreating. Screw the wife and kids. They’re obliviously happy. Francoise is non-judgmentally supportive. Stephen’s legacy lives on. The end.
The Siege of Krishnapur succeeds because Farrell let his colonial characters expose their own tragicomic ridiculousness with minimal intervention. Her...moreThe Siege of Krishnapur succeeds because Farrell let his colonial characters expose their own tragicomic ridiculousness with minimal intervention. Here, in the last novel of his Empire Trilogy, he was much more heavy-handed, resulting in several main characters that are outright caricatures. Walter Blackett, the head of the eponymous British trading firm that grew fat on the pre-war Malayan rubber boom, is the Evil Capitalist-Imperialist-Racist who bumbles through his public and private lives with all the tact and sensitivity of The Office’s Michael Scott. At one point early in the novel, Farrell made him do a Bond villain speech while giving an explanation (to an appalled British army officer) on how his firm managed to drive down the selling price of Burmese rice:
“ ’You see, the Chettyar money lenders in Burma, and to a lesser extent, here in Malaya, too, acted on the peasants like saddle-soap on leather. They softened them up for us. Of course, some of the Chetties became rivals in the milling of crops but that couldn’t be helped. Without them to get the peasants used to dealing in cash (which, of course, in practice meant tricking them into debts they would have to pay up) rather than in barter of produce the merchants would have been all in the poorhouse, including Mr. Webb. One bad crop with forward contracts to fill!’ ”
Walter even has porcine bristles on his back, which “had a tendency to rise when he was angry and sometimes, even, in moments of conjugal intimacy.”
The other main character, Matthew Webb, the son of Blackett’s partner who comes to Malaya to inherit his father’s interest in the firm, is another caricature. Fat, bespectacled, a naïve idealist fresh from a League of Nations job in Geneva, he is the Pierre Bezukhov of the novel, full of lofty ethical notions entirely at odds with Blackett and Webb’s business practices (the book’s polemics on colonial economic policies are conducted largely through these two characters). Yet unlike Tolstoy’s lovable, redeemable dork, he is little more than an annoyingly passive windbag and his character’s naïve idealism is never tested in any meaningful way. He is so inconsequential that Farrell’s attempt in embroiling him in a love triangle reminiscent of the one in War and Peace falls flat on its face. The Prince Andrei character, the American officer Ehrendorf, seemed to be promising, but is then summarily dispatched without much ado once his usefulness as romantic foil is used up. The Helene Kuragin proxy, Walter’s pretty daughter Joan, is just as vacuously farcical and unbelievable as her father. The weakness of the central characters makes long stretches of this 700 plus pages novel (another Tolstoyan emulation?) quite dull indeed. Which is a pity, since Farrell had obviously done his homework and was perfectly capable of conjuring a plausible, grittily exotic version of pre-war Singapore replete with amusing, well-drawn colonial supporting characters.
“There, too, when you staggered outside into the sweltering night, you would have been able to inhale that incomparable smell of incense, of warm skin, of meat cooking in coconut oil, of money and frangipani, and hair-oil and lust and sandalwood and heaven knows what, a perfume like the breath of life itself.” (less)
Let’s cut to the chase: is it as good as the Sea of Poppies? The short answer is (regrettably) no. It is by no means badly written, but it simply does...more Let’s cut to the chase: is it as good as the Sea of Poppies? The short answer is (regrettably) no. It is by no means badly written, but it simply does not live up to the promise of its predecessor. Ghosh does a creditable job of telling us about life in the Thirteen Hongs during the interesting period that culminated in the First Opium War, and he chose a protagonist that is well-suited to the task of conveying the subcontinent’s perspective on the whole sordid affair --- but it somehow feels rather mechanical, as if he is merely following the dictates of history instead of creating his own vibrant, utterly believable version of a time long past (surely the test that anyone who dabbles in historical fiction must pass). He has obviously done his research: Pidgin English, the Chinese equivalent of the Anglo-Indian extensively employed in the first book; the Chinnery paintings; the surprising role of the Parsis in the British-led Opium trade; the Tanka boat people who eked out a living around the foreign merchant’s quarter in Canton; nearly verbatim quotes from historical figures who were involved in the war. These are well integrated, informative, and are never allowed to grow into overtly dominant historical voice-overs, yet something is missing from the story --- and it is not the history.(less)
Having just read a god awful Pride and Prejudice ‘sequel’, I wanted to read a bona fide Regency romance, and picked one by no one less than Georgette...moreHaving just read a god awful Pride and Prejudice ‘sequel’, I wanted to read a bona fide Regency romance, and picked one by no one less than Georgette Heyer, the originator of the genre, and perhaps the only romance novelist who comes with glowing recommendations from A.S. Byatt. Not being a romance reader, I didn’t know what to expect, but I thought that this book is one decidedly odd romance. Imagine pitching it as a rom com/costume drama script to a Hollywood studio executive:
Studio Executive (EXEC): “So what do we have here? A Civil Contract? Is it a John Grisham thing?
Scriptwriter (SW): “It’s a story about marriage of convenience in Regency England. A sort of a period rom com, actually.”
EXEC: “Oh, Jane Austen! Costume drama! Pride and Prejudice was pretty good, and that little Anne Hathaway movie did OK. Chicks like them. ”
SW: “It’s not from any Jane Austen book, but it's from a novel set in the same period. Specifically, it’s about the people who are involved in this marriage of convenience: the mercenary groom, the social climbing father-in-law, and the plain bride.”
EXEC: “You mean they marry just for the money?”
SW: “The hero --- Adam Lynton --- has to marry the heroine, Jenny, because otherwise he would go bankrupt. You see, the guy’s dad, the late Viscount Lynton, left the ancestral estate so deeply in debt that the only way to save it is for Adam to marry rich. Enters Mr. Chawleigh, a filthy rich, self-made man from humble backgrounds, who desperately wants to marry his daughter to the ‘nobs’.”
EXEC: “So this Adam guy --- he just ran with it?”
SW: “Uh, no. He’s kinda of reluctant, actually, being a gentleman and all. But as the head of the family, he needs to take care of his old mom, and provide dowries for his sisters. There’s just no other way out. He thinks that he’s sacrificing himself for the good of his family.”
EXEC: “Okay. So, how plain is the girl? I’m thinking Natalie Portman --- or that Hathaway girl. Just put her in some kind of a dowdy getup.”
SW: “Actually, she’s kinda short and plump --- “a little squab figure” is the word that’s used to describe her in the novel.”
EXEC: “Eh --- gotta get someone petite for her, then. But she’s basically okay looking, right?”
SW: “Umm, no. The novel says that she’s certainly not a beauty with her short neck and “mouse-coloured hair”. And she dresses funny.”
EXEC: (grumbles) “How’s that gonna sell the movie?”
SW: “But she’s a sensible girl, and pretty shrewd too. She knows that her husband doesn’t love her, but gets up early every morning just to make tea for him anyway. She personally embroiders his handkerchiefs with super tiny stitches. She makes sure that there’s hot supper on the table, no matter how late he returns home. Men like to be comfortable, and by golly, she’s gonna make him very comfortable.”
EXEC: “Is that all she does? No dashing across the moor on a spirited stallion? No clever, witty talk? No ahead-of-her-time intellectual interests?
SW: “Nope. She’s a born housewife whose sole purpose in life is to make her husband comfortable.”
EXEC: “Fantastic! We’re gonna have the movie picketed by every wannabe feminist in town.”
SW: “But she’s feisty --- in her own way. She keeps the ancestral house spick-and-span. She reins in her snobby mother-in-law like an expert horsewoman. She transcends her vulgar background to become a proper lady. And she eventually wins herself a handsome nobleman who in normal circumstances is way out of her league.”
EXEC: (skeptical) “But where’s the drama? That can’t be all there is?”
SW: “Before he was compelled to marry Jenny, Adam dated Julia ---the beautiful daughter of Lord Oversley, another rich nob --- and Jenny’s best friend from school. Julia’s dad put an end to their budding romance, because he wouldn’t have a bankrupt Viscount as son in law. But the two still have the hots for each other, even though Adam is now kind of married.”
EXEC: “So that’s what the audience has to sit through the movie? Whether plain Jenny will be successful in making her husband so comfortable, that he’ll overcome his first love and fall in love with her?”
SW: “Yep. That would be the gist of it.”
It’s as if, having written dozens of romances, Heyer decided to throw herself a challenge and deliberately picked the most unpromising premise for a romance. The heroine is hopelessly plain, and virtually has nothing to make her distinguished other than her ability to be an uber Martha Stewart. The hero, despite being conventionally handsome, married her for mercenary reasons. Despite all this, Heyer managed to tell an enjoyable, even occasionally amusing story about the coming together of basically decent people who try to do their best under tawdry circumstances. There is no passionate sighs or heaving bosoms here, just the gradual triumph of prosaic sensibility (and homemaking ability) over “impractical” youthful passion. That’s a pretty subversive notion for a romance.
The one interesting thing about Jenny for me is her true motivation in accepting the marriage of convenience. She knew that Adam was her best friend’s beau and yet has little compunction in ‘stealing’ him when circumstances permitted. This seems to be grossly at odds with the rest of her characterization as a modest, sensitive, eminently sensible little homemaker. She rationalizes her actions as making the best of a bad situation (“The choice is not between you, Julia, and me, but between me and ruin!”), but it doesn’t ring true to me (Come on Jenny, admit it, you’ve got the hots for the guy since like, forever --- and you snatched him up when there’s opportunity. I don’t blame you, girl). I wish that Heyer had explored this further, but perhaps it’s too much to ask from this genteel romance. (less)
What I learned from this book (in no particular order):
1. Titles in Regency England were not confined to the established noble order of Dukes, Marquis...moreWhat I learned from this book (in no particular order):
1. Titles in Regency England were not confined to the established noble order of Dukes, Marquises, Earls, Viscounts and Barons. Masters and Mistresses, as in Fitzwilliam and Elizabeth Darcy, Master and Mistress of Pemberley, are also titles. How come? Because they are CAPITALIZED.
2. In English, certain standalone nouns are always capitalized, such as “Housekeeper”, “Butler”, “Aunt”, “Town” and “Inn”. Sample usage: “Mr. Darcy took his Butler, Housekeeper and Aunt to the Inn that is closest to Town.”
3. Intense emotions and surprising plot developments could be most effectively invoked by the liberal use of exclamation marks, especially the double ones. The more exclamation marks there are in a paragraph or dialogue, the more intensely dramatic it is.
4. "She was a maiden, of course, but she understood the concept of the mating process. She grew up on a working farm after all! However, understanding the mechanics of the sexual act in animals is far different than comprehending all the nuances inherent with the activity between people." Animal activities, especially those of the sexual kind, just don’t have the same nuances as human ones.
5. "The clinical details of the art of lovemaking were candidly illuminated." Every maiden who is about to be married should have a “forthright and blunt Aunt” to explain the facts of life --- in the most clinical way possible.
6. When you are married, you must have your significant other close to you at all times. He/ she disappearing without notice for more than a few minutes is a legitimate cause for panic. You must also offer constant affirmations of your eternal love to your beloved, preferably in a frenzied, highly audible manner. An example: "I need you, my Elizabeth, my precious wife. God...please...do not ever leave me...I cannot live...Beloved!" Repeat ad nauseam.
7. "She had discovered that his eye color altered depending on his mood or what he wore." One of Mr. Darcy’s fascinating (supernatural?) abilities.
8. “His carefully regulated control slipped instantaneously and his groin responded alarmingly.” Another example of Mr. Darcy’s amazing abilities.
9. “Selfpromise” is a word.
10. People had “brunches” and played Beethoven’s Ode to Joy --- in 1816.
Other Random Observations
Number of exclamation marks used (double exclamation marks counted as two): 179*
Number of times the male protagonist used the phrase “my darling wife!” or variations thereof: 15*
Number of duel (with swords): 1
Number of times the male protagonist compared his spouse to a horse: 1
Solid prose with just the right amount of swagger and poetry, a bit thin on the plot, but with enough swirling capes and flashing daggers (plus a rive...moreSolid prose with just the right amount of swagger and poetry, a bit thin on the plot, but with enough swirling capes and flashing daggers (plus a riveting account of an Inquisition auto-da-fe from the victim’s p.o.v.) to provide the requisite chills and thrills ala Dumas, pere. The swashbuckling adventure is set in Perez-Reverte’s version of Spain’s 17th century golden age, when it had “Europe and the world by their tender testicles.” A Spain that boasted Cervantes and Velazquez among its citizens, but also hosted the Holy Inquisition and its egregious abuses. There are other historical characters and references, which full significance would go over the head of those who are not intimately familiar with Spanish history of this period --- mi, por ejemplo --- but the novel manages to be both entertaining and passionately informative about its subject, and that’s enough to make this a fast and interesting read.
Dejima, 1799. The Napoleonic Wars are raging in Europe, changing political loyalties seemingly overnight. The venerable VOC is teetering on the brink...moreDejima, 1799. The Napoleonic Wars are raging in Europe, changing political loyalties seemingly overnight. The venerable VOC is teetering on the brink of bankruptcy. Dutch East Indies is about to fall into British hands. Japan has been isolated from the world for more than a hundred years.
This book seems like a conventional historical fiction at first --- the premise sounds similar to An Insular Possession. And hasn’t Japan been done to death with Shogun and Memoirs of a Geisha? But right on from the second sentence, in which “a cacophony of frogs detonates” in a Nagasaki rice field, we are given an inkling that this is not the same old thing. Mitchell retains the full trappings of the genre: the meticulous research*, regurgitated through action and dialogue, the setting up of an exotic location, the gruesome surgeries, period stereotypes, and even a farcical incident involving a particularly embarrassing medical demonstration. But it isn’t a James Clavell, or even a Patrick O’Brian (however, more on this later).
The narrative in the first part, which takes place almost exclusively on Dejima, the claustrophobic, man-made island where Jacob de Zoet and his fellow traders are quartered/detained, is mainly from the point of view of the foreigners, Dutch, Prussian, Irish and Indonesian. The Japanese characters speak in a stilted language and their motives are for the most part seemed inscrutable. Haiku-like snippets pepper the narrative, and at their best they work like dots in a pointillist painting. De Zoet is being taken to Nagasaki to bow before the Shogun’s Magistrate:
“There is a row of stone idols: twists of papers tied to a plum tree.
The palanquins pass over an embanked river: the water stinks.
Wistaria in bloom foams over a crumbling wall.”
There are other narrative quirks that will either astound or exasperate, depending on your literary taste, but I love them. Not every single one of them works, but they are often startling, refreshingly inventive and kept me on my reading toes.
Mitchell is also an accomplished ventriloquist, with an exquisite ear for dialogue, and a keen understanding of the perils (and sometimes unintentional hilarity) of the interpreter’s trade, no doubt drawn from his personal experience in Japan. I like how he subtly illuminates the different points of view, Japanese and foreign, and shows us how much is lost in translation, intentionally or otherwise. This fascination with languages and words, especially the hybrid language that different peoples invented to communicate with each other, reminds me of Amitav Ghosh’s Sea of Poppies --- although it must be said that Ghosh’s linguistic experiments is much more extreme than Mitchell’s.
The first part anchors the story firmly on the bedrock of history, or at least the illusion of it. Yet just as you begin to get comfortable, the story morphs into a macabre thriller replete with sinister monks and sword-wielding samurais. And Mitchell does this effortlessly, changing gear with a sure hand, and we are in for a genuinely thrilling page-turner. Again, he retains the full conventions of the genre, and somehow even the most fantastical elements don’t jar with the earlier, more realistic tone of the story.
The third act is a fictionalized account of the Nagasaki Harbor Incident, plus the denouement of the second part, cleverly incorporated into the historical events that happened afterwards. Once again, the story takes another turn, this time into the realm of nautical historical fiction, with a nod to Patrick O’Brian’s The Complete Aubrey/Maturin Novels.
Mitchell dons an impressive number of literary hats here, but what ultimately makes this book so awesome is its wonderfully rich and inventive prose, its moving evocation of love and loss, loyalty and betrayal, and above all, the palpable sense of the mystery and ephemerality of human existence that infuses it.
“The truth of a myth…is not in its words but its patterns.”
1. The slave Weh’s narrative
If Mitchell intends the slave Weh to come from the Indonesian island of Weh, he should not have made him a kava-drinking animist. Weh islanders were Muslim Acehnese and Minangs, not animists, and they most surely didn’t drink kava (which is a Polynesian instead of an Indonesian habit). Perhaps Mitchell was thinking of Nias, another nearby island whose inhabitants were animists well into the 20th century. And they didn’t drink Kava either. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Weh_Island}
2. The use of the word ‘doubloon’
“…mestizos and doubloons; men fathered by Europeans.”
According to the online Merriam-Webster dictionary, doubloon means “an old gold coin of Spain and Spanish America” and not a half-caste (http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictio...). Perhaps Mitchell (or de Zoet) was thinking of ‘octoroons’ or ‘quadroons’, which are terms for mixed-race individuals.
3. The original language of the Psalms.
“How did you smuggle ashore this rattle-bag of uneven translations from the Aramaic?”
The erudite, multilingual Dr. Marinus seems to think that de Zoet’s psalms were a translation from Aramaic. I’m no biblical scholar, but I’m certain that they were originally written in Hebrew, not Aramaic. Or perhaps Mitchell wants to stress the point that Marinus, being a non-believer, is ignorant of biblical history? (less)
Jin Yong's first wuxia novel is set in the reign of the Qian Long Emperor, when the Qing dynasty was expanding its realm through the Uighur lands in C...moreJin Yong's first wuxia novel is set in the reign of the Qian Long Emperor, when the Qing dynasty was expanding its realm through the Uighur lands in China's far west. The main protagonist, Chen Jialuo, is the young helmsman of the Red Flower Society, a secret organization dedicated to the restoration of Han Chinese sovereignty, which they wish to accomplish through the secret tie between their helmsman and the Emperor. The plot is woven around two stories that date from this period in Chinese history: the rumor that Qian Long is in fact Chinese by birth, not Manchu, and the legend of the Fragrant Princess, a Muslim beauty who Qian Long took as his concubine. There is martial art fighting galore, especially in the earlier part of the book ---which could have been trimmed a bit --- and other exciting episodes: wolf packs, war scenes and a lost city in the desert. There are also poetic moonlit boat rides on the West Lake and a romantic journey through the Edenic grassland of Xinjiang. The characters are ably rendered, although not with as much depth as in Jin Yong's later works. The story is relatively brief at around 500 pages (an effect of the English editing?) and somewhat realistic for this genre, except for the tragic end with its echo of the Legend of the Butterfly Lovers (Liang Shanbo and Zhu Yingtai), China's Romeo and Juliet. It is interesting to compare this book with The Deer and The Cauldron, Jin Yong's last novel, which also takes place during the Qing dynasty and deals with similar issues of loyalty and patriotism.
I looked forward to read this book. I was ready for a sweeping saga about the turbulent years between the closing of the Victorian age and the dawn of...moreI looked forward to read this book. I was ready for a sweeping saga about the turbulent years between the closing of the Victorian age and the dawn of the Edwardian, with all its political, artistic and social ferment, and its culmination in the war to end all wars. Who can better chronicle these years than Byatt, with her deep knowledge of the period and her knack for creating affecting, memorable characters like Randolph Henry Ash and Christabel LaMotte in Possession: A Romance?
Her cast of characters here is vast, representing nearly the full spectrum of English society at the end of the 19th century. There are, among others, Fabians, potters, suffragettes, Theosophists, working class runaways, a city banker, a museum director, a Russian anarchist and a German puppet master. There are literally dozens of characters that we have to keep track of, and it could be quite a challenge to remember who is who and what their political/ philosophical views are. It doesn’t help at all that each character necessarily gets a short shrift, due to having to share the stage with so many others. This constant shifting of focus means that virtually none of the characters’ stories could be sufficiently explored, and that the ending is robbed of a much-needed poignancy.
We can see how she had researched the era extensively, down to its minutiae, and imbibed the spirit of the age. And it is all there on the pages --- historical voice-overs that read as if they had been pasted over from lecture notes or school textbooks. But instead of serving as a rich, multi-layered background to the story, the massive amount of data often overwhelms it, drowning the personal dramas with an intrusive recitation of dates and facts.
By the middle of the book, as the years and historical/ personal events pile up, Byatt seems to lose control of the narrative, resulting in something that reads like random updates from half-remembered Facebook buddies:
Charles/Karl: still secretly an anarchist and but am going to study at the London School of Economics anyway.
Tom: still aimless.
Julian: still gay.
Wolfgang and Leon from Germany: are here for summer camp and some skinny dipping.
A.S. Byatt: the Boer War is still going on.
You get the idea.
She seems to be very determined to update us on what everyone is doing, in strict chronological order, resulting in some clunky passages that seem to have been lifted directly from her character notes, such as “It was Hedda who, between 1903 and 1907, became more and more obsessed with suffrage, with opposition, with action, with revolt. She followed eagerly, the campaign of the militants, as they broke glass and set bombs, were imprisoned, and later took to hunger-striking and suffered forcible feeding (1909)”. This is in contrast to wonderful descriptive passages elsewhere in the book. In fact, the quality of the writing is very uneven, ranging from the aforementioned clumsiness to polished pieces that we have come to expect from a writer of Byatt’s caliber. I’m convinced that there is a much slenderer, but much better novel or two inside this loose, baggy monster of a book. What it desperately needs is a disciplined editor who can prune the unwieldy narrative and provide a better focus on the characters and issues. (less)
Note: this review is for the entire three-volume novel.
What I learned from this book (in no particular order):
1.“They are the cauldron and we are the...moreNote: this review is for the entire three-volume novel.
What I learned from this book (in no particular order):
1.“They are the cauldron and we are the deer”. For the common people, the subjects of Empire, their role is to be the deer. If the Emperor doesn’t like somebody, he is going to be put in the cauldron and boiled, just like a deer that is caught in a hunt. This is the meaning of the book’s title.
2. “Extreme confinement since infancy for Emperors surely led to many of the hideous excesses perpetrated by tyrants down the ages.” As imperial subjects, you are extremely lucky to get a monarch who is not merely sane but is also intelligent and capable.
3. Death by a Thousand Cut, or Lingering Death, is the worst way to die in Qing Dynasty China. You are not immune from it, even if you are a Jesuit priest. Better whip up that canon-making skills, Father.
4. ‘Losha’, otherwise known as Russia, is a huge empire to the north of China with a pesky habit of creating trouble at the border. It is a primitive country, inhabited by wild Cossacks and boorish foreign devils, but it needs to be placated, as it possesses muskets and cannons.
5. Russian Orthodox priests are equally adept at writing erotic love letters and Letters of State. When the Russian sovereign is also your lover, both types of communication can be conveniently merged in a single letter.
6. Russian women are beautiful, except for their noses, which stand up far too prominently from their faces. The blonde ones also have bodies that are disgustingly covered with yellow down.
7. Indecent assault is a legitimate Kungfu move, especially if you are too lazy to learn proper martial art.
8. “All emperors had sisters who were a bit crazy”. For ‘crazy’ read ‘nymphomaniac’. The great empires of Russia and China both have at least one of them.
9. All languages except Chinese is gobbledygook and every alien script is nothing but squiggly lines. Of course it doesn’t help if your good self is illiterate in any language.
10. “The tendency to insult the virtue of an adversary’s mother is more or less universal”. ‘Tamardy’ is an abuse, and NEVER call a Chinese person ‘turtle’ --- it is a grave insult.
11. Outlandish praises and idiotic slogans (such as ‘Long Live to Our Leader’ and ‘Victory to Our Great Leader’, etc.) are music to tyrants and cult leaders. Run-of-the-mill flattery will do for lesser personages.
12. Simultaneously impersonating a palace eunuch AND a Shaolin monk is surely no fun for a red-blooded teenage male, but it doesn’t matter if you can slip into a whorehouse for some serious romp. Get rid of that monkish habit first, though.
In his last novel Jin Yong (Louis Cha), the undisputed master of wuxia (Chinese martial art fiction) brilliantly subverts the conventions of the genre that he had done so much to popularize with his previous 14 novels. For a start, the protagonist of the story, Wei Xiaobao (‘Trinket’ in this English translation --- huh?!), is nothing like the typical wuxia hero. He is no patriotic Guo Jing who defends Song China from the Mongol hordes, or Yang Guo, the great xia (knight-errant) from The Return of the Condor Heroes (Shen Diao Xia Lu). Nor is he Zhang Wuji, the hero of Heaven Sword and Dragon Sabre, who led a successful rebellion against the Yuan Dynasty. Trinket is a bastard born and bred in a Yangzhou brothel. He is illiterate, foul-mouthed --- and too lazy to learn any kungfu, despite having the opportunity of learning from the best masters. He is also an inveterate gambler, a habitual liar, and a lecher who managed to marry seven (!) beautiful women. In another word, he is a lovable rascal.
Accidentally brought to the Forbidden City at the age of thirteen, Trinket impersonates a palace eunuch and strikes an unlikely friendship with the boy-emperor Kang xi. Aided by his natural cunning, he rapidly rises through the ranks to become Kang xi’s right-hand man, traveling all over China, Manchuria and Russia as His Majesty’s secret agent. In the process he gets himself tangled up with the Triads (in its incarnation as an anti-Qing resistance movement), the Mystic Dragon Cult, Mongolian lamas, Jesuit priests and Russian spies. At one point, he is simultaneously a top Qing mandarin, the master of a Triad lodge, the marshall of the Mystic Dragons and a Shaolin monk. Trinket has to use every guile and dirty trick in the book to manage his increasingly complex allegiances. For a while he manages to play his various patrons against each other to his personal advantage, and we are alternately appalled by his misdeeds, laugh out loud at his antics and marvel at his astonishing ability to bullshit his way of (almost) any situation. However, his high-wire act eventually fails and Trinket, a man with multiple, often conflicting identities, is forced to choose sides. Through the choices that he makes, Jin Yong questions the values of patriotism, primordial allegiances and conventional morality.
This novel was written during the height of the Cultural Revolution, and it is not difficult to detect allusions to the political situation in Mainland China at that time. The persecution of the dissident scholars involved in the writing of Ming history at the beginning of the book has an all too familiar ring. The leader of the Mystic Dragon Cult, with his outsized personality cult and fanatical, brainwashed young followers, bears a certain resemblance to Mao and his Red Guards. The story itself can be enjoyed on several different levels: as a rousing martial art romp, hilarious farce, historical fantasy, or cynical satire. Or you can just read it for pure narrative enjoyment. Hundreds of millions of Chinese readers can’t be all wrong. You will not be disappointed.