Updated with pictures and additional excerpts and reflections from reading the different editions of the novel.
"Suddenly, the sound of the zither turn...moreUpdated with pictures and additional excerpts and reflections from reading the different editions of the novel.
"Suddenly, the sound of the zither turned loud and forceful, with the implication of battles and fights, but the flute play remained elegant and graceful. After a while, the zither play also turned mild and gentle, and both the zither and the flute switched between high notes and low notes back and forth. All of a sudden, the sounds of both the zither and the flute changed completely, as though there were many zithers and many flutes playing together in an orchestra. Although the music had changed into something magnificent with many complex florid notes, each tone and cadence stayed clear and meaningful and the melody remained pleasing and moving. Linghu Chong could feel that his mind had been completed captured by the music, and almost couldn’t help standing up. After a while, the tone of the zither and the flute changed again. This time the flute took over the lead and the zither simply accompanied with soothing chords. Soon, the sound of the flute ascended higher and higher. Out of nowhere, feelings of grief and sadness rose and washed over Linghu Chong’s heart. He turned to look at Yilin, only to find tears rolling down her cheeks like streams. A loud ring echoed suddenly, then the zither and the flute fell silent at the exact same instant. Silence swept across in all directions; all that remained was the moon, shining high and bright in the indigo sky, casting still shadows from the endless trees on the ground."
Xiao Ao Jiang Hu or The Smiling, Proud Wanderer* is one of the last wuxia novels written by Jin Yong and is one of the few that is not explicitly set in a specific historical period, although there are internal clues that point to the Ming Dynasty. In his postscript, Jin Yong explains that this was deliberate, as he "intended to employ the characters within the novel to depict certain universal phenomena from the three thousand years of Chinese political life."
Indeed, the vicious politicking and back-stabbing intrigues among the Five Mountain Sword Schools and their enemy, the Sun Moon Holy Cult (Riyue Shenjiao) that form the meat of the novel can be easily transposed to any political stage. However, considering that the novel was written at the height of the Cultural Revolution, it is not hard to see whom Jin Yong aimed to satirize:
“This time, the Sun Moon Holy Cult had come to Huashan and had planned everything meticulously. Not only had all the masters from the cult came out, they had also gathered all the subordinates from each clan, each stronghold, each cave, and each island to force the five mountains sword schools to submit to them. If the five schools didn't want to submit, then they would immediately be annihilated. Then Ren Woxing and the Sun Moon Holy Cult would control the world. They would continue with Shaolin and Wudang schools, and none from among the orthodox path would be able to resist. The business of long live the chief and unifying the Jianghu was to be settled today on the Peak of Morning Sun at Mount Huashan.
Linghu Chong was hesitating in making a decision. But hearing Shangguan Yun praising him with 'Long live Vice-Chief, your benevolence is endless', even though it was still not as much as what Ren Woxing was accustomed to receive, if he really became the Vice-Chief then this slogan would forever follow him. He felt it was very comical and couldn't help uttering a laugh. This laughter sounded like a ridicule and when they heard it, everyone on the Peak of Morning Sun became quiet all of a sudden.
Another person said, "Sacred Chief illuminates the world making our Sun Moon Holy Cult favored by the common people, also like the rain coming down after a long drought. Everyone's happy and they're giving thanks."
The only thing missing are the Little Red Books.
Those who cross party lines are subjected to "struggle sessions" in which people are forced to denounce each other under the pain of death, such as in the scene at Liu Zhengfeng's hand-washing ceremony at the beginning of the book. Even people like him who attempted to retire from public life and thus remain neutral in the fierce factional fighting cannot escape their fate. The hero's quest turns into a search for peace and human dignity, by the means of principled retreat from the corrupt and merciless jianghu, a metaphor for the political life. The theme of disillusionment with politics and ideologies is embedded in the narrative through layers of truths that gradually reveal the true state of the world to the protagonist. His struggle is not against foreign domination, as in earlier Jin Yong novels, but in keeping himself free of "improper" attachment to the corrupting world of power politics. Ultimately, the story is a cautionary tale against totalitarian brain-washing and mindless conformity.
It is not surprising that this book (and other Jin Yong titles) was banned in China during the Mao era.
"Linghu Chong laughed loudly. “Little nun,” he said, “Do you want me to win or lose?” “Of course I want you to win,” Yilin said, “When you fight while sitting down, you are the second best in the world, you won’t lose to him.” “Good!” Linghu Chong said. “Then please go! The quicker the better, the further the merrier!”"
Expelled from his sword school for consorting with the ideologically unsound and falsely accused of stealing a precious martial art manual, Linghu Chong became a jianghu pariah. He spent a significant part of the novel either being imprisoned or gravely injured. Like Dumas’ Edmond Dantes, while detained at the Cliff of Contemplation atop Mount Hua, he met a venerable master who imparted to him the long lost, incomparable sword art of the Nine Swords of Dugu (Dugu Jiujian). His further wanderings embroiled him in the bloody warfare between the “righteous” and “unrighteous”, during which it was gradually revealed that many of the “righteous” were just as morally bankrupt as the other party --- including his master, that shining paragon of Confucian virtues, the “Gentleman Sword” Yue Buqun. Linghu Chong is a particularly likeable, sympathetic hero --- he's like a funnier Yang Guo from Shendiao Xialu without the abrasive cockiness. In contrast to his seemingly easygoing, wine-loving, raffish persona, Linghu Chong was internally torn by his growing awareness of the fact that everything that he dearly held to be true --- the moral and martial superiority of his "righteous” school, the goodness of the master who raised him, the love of his master’s daughter, and the brotherhood that he had counted upon --- were just as illusory as the ideological distinction between the righteous and unrighteous. His desperate desire to return to the filial fold of his master’s family and regain the love of his beloved xiao shimei (apprentice sister) made him a pitiful figure at times.
"The two swords met with a resounding clang and the points of both swords vibrated. Both of them immediately thrusted forward at the same time towards each other's throat. Their speed was unmatched. Looking at both swords thrusting forward at such speed, it seemed that no one would be able to go up to save them and they would both meet common ruin. The crowd called out in surprise. But the crowd heard a sudden ringing sound and saw that the points of both swords pushed against each other in mid air, generating sparks and then bent together to make an arch."
Fortunately, he was fated to meet Ren Yingying, the Holy Maiden of the Sun Moon Holy Cult, who got him through the various low points of his life and taught him the transcendent art of the qin (zither). The uber-competent, shrewd, occasionally ruthless Yingying is a familiar Jin Yong love interest archetype. Their initially tentative relationship gradually blossomed into a redemptive romance that provides a welcome contrast to the dark tale of betrayal and deceit (their banter, which mainly consists of him making innuendoes to the prim and proper Yingying, who invariably blushed with prudish embarrassment, is amusing, if a bit repetitive --- if you like wuxia heroines who blush a lot, Yingying is your girl).
"Half of the girl’s face could be seen from the reflection in the water. Her eyes were shut tight, and her long eyelashes swayed in the breeze. Even though he could not see very clearly from the reflection in the water, he could still tell that she was a gorgeous-looking girl seventeen or eighteen years of age."
Meanwhile, we are treated to the deliciously convoluted plot, highlighted by thrilling sword fights --- which could be both lyrical and brutal at the same time, murder mysteries and intrigues to obtain a perverse martial art manual that requires its practitioners to castrate themselves (Freudian subtext, anyone?).
"Dongfang Bubai pulled out a green silk handkerchief from his side and gently wiped off the sweat and dirt from Yang Lianting's forehead. Yang Lianting became slightly enraged and berated him, "A grave enemy is right in front of us, why are you still wasting time with these useless pleasantries? Beat them away first and we'll still have time for intimacy later."
Grotesque comedy abounds, provided by the cheeky, smart-mouthed Linghu Chong himself, the Six Peach Valley Immortals, who serve as the court jesters of the story, or the hilariously unreasonable Monk No Comandment (Bujie), his student Monk Cannot Have No Commandment (Buke Bujie), and No Commandment's wife, the "mute" Granny. A gag that runs through the story is the bad luck that befalls Linghu Chong whenever he meets "unlucky" nuns, culminating in him inadvertently becoming the first ever male leader of the Hengshan School --- a school of nuns (Yingying promptly relieved him of the embarrassing fact by coercing various male riffraffs under her command to enter the school). The climax is a gory Machbetian bloodbath in which the ideology of good and evil is finally revealed to be no more than a veil for the naked struggle for power.
"The fifteen masked men slowly approached forward, their thirty eyes shone through the holes on their masks like the eyes of fierce wild animals, filled with cruelty and hostility."
The Smiling, Proud Wanderer showcases Jin Yong’s masterful, mature style, with vividly realized, affecting characters, nearly perfect in its blend of page-turning wuxia action, political satire and romance. Read it because it's just a sheer good story.
* The title has been variously translated into English as Smiling, Proud Wanderer, Laughing in the Wind, State of Divinity and Blood Hot Cold Proud (whoever came up with that title deserves to be shot). It literally means “Laughing Proudly at the Jianghu (the World of Rivers and Lakes, i.e. the martial world)." In the novel, the phrase stands for "to live a carefree life amidst the mundane world of strife."
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)
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.
Now I know why Charlotte Bronte said this of Jane Austen: "The passions are perfectly unknown to her: she rejects even a speaking acquaintance with th...moreNow I know why Charlotte Bronte said this of Jane Austen: "The passions are perfectly unknown to her: she rejects even a speaking acquaintance with that stormy sisterhood". I love Jane, but Charlotte REALLY knows how to write about passion, romantic or otherwise. If Jane’s books are stately minuets in which the smallest gesture has its meaning, Charlotte’s is a spirited, sweeping tango of duty and desire. A perfect blend of passionate romance, gothic mystery, romantic description of nature, social commentary and humor, all rendered in vivid, gorgeous prose. One cannot help to admire Jane Eyre, the little governess who could. She rises above her harsh upbringing to become a governess, poor but ever fiercely independent. Even the promise of love and comfort with the man that she worships is not enough to sway her from the path of integrity. One cannot help to admire Charlotte, who makes her intensely human; a woman of virtue, yet one who is not above jealousy and doubts, and who constantly struggles with the personal cost of her decisions. A deeply felt, and ultimately moving story of love and redemption that will linger long after the last page is turned.
Persuasion, Austen's last completed novel, has little in common with her earlier, more celebrated works. There is comparatively little in the way of s...morePersuasion, Austen's last completed novel, has little in common with her earlier, more celebrated works. There is comparatively little in the way of surprising plot twists, clever witticisms, or amusing comic moments. It even lacks a heroine that we could look up to, or even identify with. It is as if Austen had dispensed with nearly all conventional means that novelists use to hold the reader's interest. Shorn of literary ornamentations, Persuasion is instead a moving story of lost love and regrets, second chances and reconciliation, told with remarkable economy and precision. What is lost by the exclusion of the qualities that are usually present in her works, is amply compensated by a greater clarity of focus and depth of feeling. The mature Austen was no longer interested in amusing us with her cleverness, or with being a moralist, but instead chose to delve into the secret depths of men and women's inner lives, resulting in a deeply affecting contemplation of the limits of romantic love and devotion.
My Wordsworth edition contains an earlier draft of Chapter Eleven of Volume II, which omits Captain Wentworth's letter (surely the mother of all love letters!) and the fascinating discussion on the constancy of love among men and women between Anne and Captain Harville. Fortunately, Austen changed her mind and rewrote that part. The ending would have lost much of its impact without them.
The other surprising element in the novel for me is the 'feminist' (or perhaps proto-feminist?) depiction of Mrs. Croft and her marriage to her husband the Admiral. While criticism of society's treatment of women, particularly women who are either poor or low in rank, has always been implied in her previous novels, it has never been as explicit as in this one.
It is a tragedy that Austen passed away soon after completing Persuasion, and thus we are left with a mere glimpse of her mature style. It would have been fascinating to know what her subsequent novels would be like.(less)
What I learned from this book (in no particular order):
1. Swedish billionaires furnish their multi-million dollar apartments with IKEA ---...moreILLUSTRATED!
What I learned from this book (in no particular order):
1. Swedish billionaires furnish their multi-million dollar apartments with IKEA --- well, at least ONE peculiar Swedish billionaire.
[image error] Poang Chair $40
2. Asperger's Syndrome may give you the idea that a T-shirt that says ‘I’M AN ALIEN’ is acceptable office wear, but also photographic memory and phenomenal mathematical ability.
3. "Sweden is one of the countries that imports the most prostitutes per capita from Russia and the Baltics". Naughty Swedes.
4. The best computer in the world is a Mac, but no matter what computer you have, Asphyxia WILL suck up all your digital secrets.
5. You can live on Billy's Pan Pizza for days on end and STILL look like an anorexic teenager.
6. All rapists and violent sex offenders should have these words tattooed on their stomachs: "I AM A SADISTIC PIG, A PERVERT AND A RAPIST". The tattoo should be done by an amateur and not be removable even by laser. Repeat offenders will be tattooed on their foreheads. It is recommended that the subject be tasered first before undergoing this involuntary procedure.
7. "There were not so many physical threats that could not be countered with a decent hammer". Buy a good-sized one from the hardware store and keep it in your bag always.
8. Failing that, a girl must always have the following ready: a. keys (to scratch an opponent's face); [image error] b. a can of mace, though it's illegal in Sweden; and
c. a taser (a 50,000 volts jolt to the crotch will incapacitate even the burliest of men).
9. "Men could be as big as a house and made of granite, but they all had balls in the same place". A crucial fact to remember in a fight, especially if you are fighting a 300 pounds, six foot six giant with hands as big as frying pans.
10. A cigarette case is a useful tool for digging yourself out of a grave.
"`You judge very properly,'' said Mr. Bennet, ``and it is happy for you that you possess the talent of flattering with delicacy. May I ask whether the...more"`You judge very properly,'' said Mr. Bennet, ``and it is happy for you that you possess the talent of flattering with delicacy. May I ask whether these pleasing attentions proceed from the impulse of the moment, or are the result of previous study?''
``They arise chiefly from what is passing at the time, and though I sometimes amuse myself with suggesting and arranging such little elegant compliments as may be adapted to ordinary occasions, I always wish to give them as unstudied an air as possible.''
Mr. Bennet's expectations were fully answered. His cousin was as absurd as he had hoped, and he listened to him with the keenest enjoyment, maintaining at the same time the most resolute composure of countenance, and, except in an occasional glance at Elizabeth, requiring no partner in his pleasure."
Absurd cousins, hysterical mothers, giggly airhead sisters, aristocratic snobs --- Austen mercilessly skewers them all with her rapier-sharp wit and unerrant eye for the ridiculous. No one escapes her scrutiny, and everyone makes a fool of themselves at least once in the merry-go-round of the Regency mating game. Even her shrewd, feisty heroine almost fell for a charming cad, before she is finally rewarded with the ultimate prize in the matrimonial game.
If the plot seems banal or overtly familiar to 21st century readers -- boy meets girl, misunderstanding ensues, boy and girl overcome their issues and live happily ever after -- this is because Austen's novel is the original template for countless romantic comedies written over the last 200 years. Being the original prototype, however, does not diminish Austen's masterpiece. Beneath all the romance and comedy that make it such a delightful read we are constantly reminded of the darker undercurrents that animate the surface narration. Mrs. Bennet's hysteria stems from the necessity of securing husbands for her five daughters, who all would be condemned to penury should they fail to marry well before their father dies. The slightest deviation from society's prescribed mores results in the destruction of reputation and even ostracism. Any contact with one's social superior, at a time when birth and wealth trumped any other qualities, always comes with the possibility of insult or mortification. In Austen's world, dinner parties and balls are battlefields and romance is a deadly serious business.
" We mortals, men and women, devour many a disappointment between breakfast and dinner-time..."
Delusions, self-induced or otherwise, form the central...more" We mortals, men and women, devour many a disappointment between breakfast and dinner-time..."
Delusions, self-induced or otherwise, form the central theme that runs through Middlemarch. Dorothea Brooke, thirsting for knowledge and a meaningful occupation, deludes herself that she would gain those things by marrying Casaubon, a cold, obsessive scholar more than twice her age. Casaubon himself is mired in self-delusion about his life-long research, which Dorothea soon finds out to be obsolete. The idealistic Lydgate deludes himself that by marrying the pretty but high-maintenance Rosamond Vincy he would gain both beauty and love, without having to give up the ideals that he lives for. Rosamond's delusion is that by marrying Lydgate, whose fledgling medical profession she despises, but whose aristocratic connections she covets, she would gain status while being maintained at the high standards that she has gotten used to. Bulstrode, MIddlemarch's banker and pious benefactor, has successfully deluded the whole town of his decidedly unpious past before it came back with a vengeance in the form of a certain Mr. Raffles. Mr. Brooke, who champions the liberal spirit of the Reform Act, is under the delusion that by merely being idealistic, he has changed the world, while neglecting to reform his own estate. The main interest of the novel consists of seeing how these very human characters cope with the consequences of their delusions.
Dorothea soon realizes that Casaubon and his work are not what she thought they were, but she holds up her end of the bargain by being a loyal spouse to him, though her heart sinks when she imagines the loveless and futile years that stretch out before her. Casaubon's sudden death mercifully terminates the disastrous marriage, and Dorothea's integrity, after further trials and tribulations, is ultimately rewarded by her finding love with Will Ladislaw. Lydgate discovers how his love of a pretty face slowly compromises his ideals and ends up in mediocrity, very far from what he aims for as a young medical reformer. Rosamond selfishly persists in her delusions without any regard for what it costs her husband. She finally gets what she wants, but at what price? Bulstrode's past misdeeds eventually catch up with him and destroy the life that he has so painstakingly constructed in Middlemarch. Mr. Brooke's political dilletantism never change the world, but it successfully opens up a path to meaningful occupation for an otherwise aimless young man.
Meanwhile, all of these characters' struggles are contrasted with the Garths' earthy integrity. Mr. Garth is an estate manager who does his job capably and honorably, without any pretensions to status or unearned wealth. Fred Vincy and Mary Garth are the only couple that is not under any delusions of each other's characters and goes on to a long and happy union.
Eliot's writing is infused with penetrating insights into human nature without ever losing compassion and understanding for their frailties and errors, a quality that she shares with Tolstoy. She never sentimentalizes her characters, except perhaps for the idealized Garths. They are all believably human, and they drive the narrative instead of the other way around. Eliot also has a great eye for the ludicruous and her wicked sense of humor constantly enlivens what could have been a ponderous account of provincial English life. One may read Middlemarch for the portrait of a Midlands town on the cusp of industrial revolution in 19th century England, which Eliot admirably delivers, but ultimately it is Eliot's insight into the universal human condition that makes it eternally relevant.
Finally, this book is a profoundly wise, if rather melancholic, reflection on the loss of youthful hopes and ambitions, and their replacement by the more realistic (and inevitable) compromises of maturity. Which, Eliot says, is not a bad thing in itself, as " the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs".
A beautifully written historical novel about 1830's India in the grip of the opium trade. The characters are just as diverse as the British Empire its...moreA beautifully written historical novel about 1830's India in the grip of the opium trade. The characters are just as diverse as the British Empire itself, each with their own dialects and idiosyncracies, all brought together by the opium trade's many tentacled hands into the Ibis, on a voyage that will irrevocably changed them forever. The author has obviously done a massive amount of research into the period, and this novel is so rich with details that it could veritably serve as an encyclopaedia of early 19th century Indian life, both at sea and on land. However, this was never allowed to stifle the narrative, which deftly moves between a half-dozen main characters and different settings with ease. The novel is as chock-full of exciting incidents as a door-stopper 19th century adventure yarn, without abandoning a realism which makes it a compelling page-turner. The humorous episodes, largely supplied by the Falstaffian figure of Baboo Nob Kissin, enlivens the story between accounts of opium addiction, imprisonment and various corporal punishments.
Ghosh's experiment with Anglo-Indian dialects adds tremendously to the authenticity of the voices of the characters, although sometimes it could be rather distracting, especially in the earlier part of the story. There is a glossary ('The Chrestomaty') appended to the end of the book, which is quite useful to decipher the various lingos, but regretfully, not all of the words used is included. Obviously, it would be more helpful if all the words are included so that readers wouldn't miss any bit of dialogue.
Probably Ghosh's best and most impressive work to date. As this is said to be the first part of a projected trilogy, I'll be waiting with bated breath for the next installment.