Jin Yong's novels are fascinating on several different levels. John Hamm, the author of this book, the only in-depth study of the “Jin Yong Phenomenon...moreJin Yong's novels are fascinating on several different levels. John Hamm, the author of this book, the only in-depth study of the “Jin Yong Phenomenon” in English, enumerates some of the qualities that make Jin Yong’s fiction appealing to its audience and particularly interesting as a subject:
"Jin Yong’s work is lauded for its panoramic and emotionally charged engagement with Chinese history; its seemingly inexhaustible inventiveness and the dazzling complexity of its plotting; its range of vivid, multifaceted characters and psychologically adventurous exploration of human relationships; its integration of modern sensibility and Western literary techniques with the inherited material of the martial arts genre; its reinvention, through the rejection of Europeanized elements, of Chinese vernacular prose; its ability to wed a breadth of learning and profound insights on life with the most crowd-pleasing action and melodrama; and its effectiveness in accessibly introducing Chinese culture and values to a socially, geographically, and generationally diverse readership, including such a “disadvantaged” elements as the younger generation of Chinese overseas."
Hamm uses media studies approach to investigate how Jin Yong's intertwined roles as both author and publisher, as well as owner and chief editor of the Ming Pao Daily, where the stories were initially serialized, impacted the dissemination of the novels and the propagation of the ideas therein. Apparently, Jin Yong was also a canny newspaperman/businessman who was able to use the enormous popularity of his serialized fiction as a financial leverage to establish a publishing empire, which in turn he used to promote not just the novels, but also the films, TV serials, comic books and other products based on them. But this was not Jin Yong's sole agenda. Hamm argues that from the earliest days of Ming Pao in the late 1950s, Jin Yong had "used his unique role as both author and publisher to shape the conceptual contexts for the acceptance of the martial arts fiction and to open the possibility of his own work's serving as a bearer of literary and cultural capital." This is remarkable as Ming Pao Daily began its life as a tabloid in which "extracts from the international wire services jostle for attention with photographs of bathing beauties and sensationalistic reports of car wrecks, abductions and crimes of passion." Hardly a promising platform for the promotion of works projected to bear literary and cultural capital. Not to mention that the Chinese literary establishment and the communist government had both declared martial arts fiction to be "poisonous weeds" steeped in the feudal past. Indeed, Hamm later points out that many of the decisions taken by Ming Pao's founders in its early days were made in response to changing social circumstances and market opportunities rather than according to any preexisting vision. However, Ming Pao subsequently evolved into a prestigious paper, largely thanks to Jin Yong's influential editorials on mainland politics and its staunch opposition to the Maoist regime. Jin Yong began to position his publications, including his martial arts fiction, as a repository of traditional Chinese values and culture --- "a Chinese cultural nationalism that defined itself in large measure against the excesses of the mainland's Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution." Perhaps it is more plausible to regard this era as the starting point for Jin Yong's didactic project, when the urgency of preserving traditional Chinese culture and values became more pressing under the pressure of attacks against them in the mainland.
The continuous revisions of the novels through the following decades (there were three major revisions, the last finished in the 90s) were aimed at consolidating their position as literary classics, with further polishing of the prose, more refined characterizations and the inclusion of additional cultural and historical allusions. This "canonization" process, actively encouraged by Jin Yong and his publishers, reached new heights in the 80s and 90s with the publication of the Collected Works of Jin Yong both in Taiwan and the mainland, whose governments had previously banned the novels for various ideological reasons. In the mainland, this process was not entirely free of controversy, as evidenced by the "Wang Shuo incident" in the late 90s, in which China's literary enfant terrible, famous for his profanity-laced "hoodlum literature", declared that Jin Yong's fiction is one of the "four great vulgarities of our time" (the other three "vulgarities" are the "Four Heavenly Kings" of Canto-pop music, Jacky Chan's action films and Qiong Yao soap operas). Hamm thinks that Wang Shuo's criticism stemmed from the North/South geocultural division that runs through China --- "It is their identity both as southerners and as products of the foreign-tainted periphery that condemns Jin Yong and his peers to the category of the "four great vulgarities." Despite the very public run-in with Wang Shuo, the general trajectory of the "canonization" process in the mainland seems to have been largely positive, with the acceptance of the works and the author himself into prestigious academic and literary cycles, albeit with some qualifications. Hamm suggests that this might have something to do with Jin Yong's rapprochement with the post Deng Xiaoping (“I have read your novels.”) mainland regime, but he admits that the Jin Yong phenomenon was "no longer nourished principally by the Ming Pao and Yuanliu conglomerates and other institutions with direct commercial interest, but riding free and evidently self-sustaining on the seas of media attention."
Besides looking at the Jin Yong phenomenon through the media studies angle, Hamm also analyzes six major novels, including the patriotic epics The Eagle-Shooting Heroes (Shediao yingxiong zhuan) and its sequel, The Giant Eagle and its Companion (Shendiao xialu) --- these are official, but what awkwardly translated titles! --- and two fascinating late novels, The Smiling, Proud Wanderer (Xiaoao jianghu) and The Duke of Mount Deer (Luding ji).
Hamm interprets these novels as literature of exile and displacement, largely set in pivotal moments in Chinese history, usually during a dynastic crisis, which eventually ended in foreign subjugation. In a sense, these stories are attempts to make sense of China's long and complex history, in which a proud nation is more often than not had to endure humiliating colonization by non-Han "barbarians". Hamm traces the evolution of Jin Yong's ideological stance through these novels, from his initial position on "Han self-determination" through political/military struggle, as reflected in the earlier novels, including Heroes and Companions, to skepticism toward politics as a means to achieve this aim, as reflected in Wanderer, and finally to a pragmatic accommodation of colonization and pan-ethnic solidarity in Mount Deer. This reading is quite obvious, considering Jin Yong's personal history as a mainlander who fled to Hong Kong soon after the Communist takeover, which came on the heel of the Japanese occupation and civil war that wracked the mainland during his formative years. It is illustrative to compare the various exit strategies that his heroes used to deal with the political crisis in the mainland: Guo Jing, the epitome of Confucian patriotism, sacrificed his life in the eventually futile defense of the city of Xiangyang against the Mongol invasion; Yuan Chengzhi, escaping the imminent Manchu victory, left China for the peaceful Nanyang island of Borneo --- like so many overseas Chinese over the centuries; Linghu Chong, disgusted with the "dystopia of political life", retreated into reclusion "of individual liberty given solace and substance by romantic fulfillment on the one hand and transmitted cultural practices on the other"; Wei Xiaobao, who in contrast to any of these other protagonists, was pragmatic to a fault and probably had no single patriotic bone in his body, took himself and his seven wives to the remote province of Yunnan, fleeing from "the knot of conflicting loyalties in which he had become enmeshed" --- instead of from foreign occupation or immoral politicking like his predecessors.
His last two books, in which Jin Yong gradually subverted the paradigms of the genre that he had done so much to advance, are the most interesting. In Wanderer, the martial arts that in the earlier novels empowered their heroes to uphold justice and fight foreign invaders is represented as "not merely a tool for the ambitions of the ruthless and hypocritical, and not merely as inhumanely savage in the most significant instances of its deployment, but also structured around an intrinsic perversity that comes to symbolize the violence and unnaturalness of the quest for power." Likewise, where Heroes "envisions China's martial (wu) and cultural (wen) arts as complementary and mutually fulfilling, Wanderer suggests that for all their structural and stylistic affinities, their fundamental aims are incompatible."
The last book, Mount Deer, is even more radical: Wei Xiaobao, the protagonist of the novel is the antithesis of Jin Yong's previous heroes: not only that he didn't know any martial arts, he was also largely amoral. After spending his entire literary career writing about heroes who represent cherished traditional Chinese values, Jin Yong created a character that reflects the other side of the national characteristics. According to the author, Wei Xiaobao's two most distinct traits, namely his capacity to adapt to his environment and his loyalty to friends, are among the major reasons for the Chinese people's survival and historically unique resilience. However, "the lying and scheming to which Wei Xiaobao's 'adaptability' led him should be understood as revealing the weaknesses of the Qing society in which he lived, and would properly disappear under more enlightened social condition; indeed the prevalence of the 'Wei Xiaobao style' of cronyism, self-interest and disregard for the law has a great deal to do with the Chinese government's continued failure to get on the right track." The Han nationalism that was so prevalent in the earlier novels has been replaced by a sort of a compromise: a non-Chinese emperor like Kangxi could be a legitimate ruler, as long as he fulfills the essential requirement for enlightened rulership according to the Chinese classics, which is to display benevolence toward his subjects. Surely, living under the “benevolent” British colonial government in Hong Kong is much preferable to living under the tyranny of the Han Chinese Maoist regime on the mainland, even if the price is the "bastardization" of one's cultural identity, as reflected by Wei Xiaobao's ethnically uncertain patrimony:
"Wei Xiaobao, with no further ado, drew her aside into her chamber and asked her a question he'd been saving for a very long time, a question that had been brought again to the forefront of his mind as he had stood watching the burning boat near Siyang. The old Triad's words were still ringing in his ears, “A man can only be who he is." And who was Wei Xiaobao? "Mum, tell me, who really was my dad?" Spring Fragrance Wei looked him straight in the eye. "How the hell should I know?" Wei Xiaobao frowned. "No seriously, I mean, when I was in your belly --- who had you been doing it with?" "I was a beautiful woman in those days, my boy. I had lots of different customers everyday --- I couldn't possible worked out who it was!" "Were they all of them Chinese?" "Well, let me see now, I had Chinese, I had Manchus, Mongols ---." "No, I mean, did you ever have any foreign devils?" "What kind of shameless slut do you take me for!" came the angry retort. "Do it with one of them! With a big nose. Not on your life! Hot piece popping tamardy! If a single one of those great hairy Russians, or red-haired Dutch devils, had ever tried sneaking in here, I'd have booted them straight out the door!"
Wei Xiaobao heaved a sigh of relief. At least that possibility had been ruled out. His mother looked up. There was a twinkle in her eye. She seemed to have remembered something. "Wait a minute, though. I do recall, around that time, having a regular who was a Muslim. Very good-looking fellow he was, too. I sometimes used to say to myself, now my Xiaobao's got a fine nose, just like his." "So you had Chinese, Manchus, Mongols, Muslims --- what about Tibetans. Did you ever have a Tibetan?" asked Wei Xiaobao. A glow of pleasurable recollection lit up his mother's face. "Why, now that you mention it, yes, of course I did! There was this Tibetan Lama. Every time he came to bed he'd start chanting his sutra. And all the time he chanted he'd stare at me with this really dirty look. His eyes'd be just about popping out of his head. Saucy pair of eyes they were too --- just like yours!""*
For all its worth, the continuing popularity of Jin Yong, "the single most widely read of all twentieth century writers in the Chinese language", suggests that somehow his stories have struck a deep chord within the Chinese mind. It is surely worth reading, and translating, as literature and also a means to understand contemporary Chinese culture. It surely adds another perspective to the ones suggested by the 'big bad China' cottage industry, the foot binding fetishist fiction, and the Gao Xingjian Nobel-prize winning novels. And they're immensely more enjoyable, too.
This is my little girl Jess' own review (with some input from Mom on spelling and grammar). Jess is 9.
Hi again everyone! Jess here. This time, I'm rev...moreThis is my little girl Jess' own review (with some input from Mom on spelling and grammar). Jess is 9.
Hi again everyone! Jess here. This time, I'm reviewing a comic about my most favorite character, Sonic the Hedgehog! I've been addicted to this character for the past 2 or 3 years. And by the way, I am not the kind of girl that would like girly stuff. I am a tomboy. Ok, that's enough about me, now about the comic. The characters in this comic are Sonic, Sally, Rotor, Antoine, and Dr. Eggman. In this comic, Sonic did what he usually did, smashing robots! But this time, he found something mysterious...it was some sort of a prison capsule. When Sonic broke the capsule, 3 mysterious animals came out...Sally, Rotor, and Antoine! After some introducing, Sonic decided to join them. Next they went to the Marble Zone, where they found Eggman and defeated him quite easily.
Well, that's my review. I hope you find it good and please like! (less)
This is my little girl Jess' own review (with some input from Mom on spelling and grammar). Jess is 9.
I really like the Thea Stilton books. They are r...more This is my little girl Jess' own review (with some input from Mom on spelling and grammar). Jess is 9.
I really like the Thea Stilton books. They are really interesting and fun to read. I decided to go on to this book 'cause I couldn't find Thea Stilton And The Dragon's Code. D: So in this book the main characters are the Thea Sisters which is a team of mouselets consisting of Nicky, Colette, Violet, Paulina, and Pamela. Nicky is from Australia and she's claustrophobic (meaning that she hates tight spaces.) Colette is from France and she likes to shop a lot. Violet is from China and she's always calm and she likes to drink green tea. Paulina is from Peru and she's a real computer genius! Pamela is from Tanzania and her most favorite food in the whole world is pizza XD.
In this story, the Thea Sisters went to Australia to solve a mystery involving ill sheep at Nicky's ranch. They soon figured out that a mouse called Mortimer McCardigan was the cause of the problem. Then Nicky's grandmother, Naya, told her to take a necklace with a picture of her clan on it. Nicky took the necklace with her on her journey to find the ancient Australian aborigines. When they found the aborigines, Nicky asked the elders if they knew a cure for the sheep illness. Then she soon figured out that the medicine that she needed was right inside her necklace all along! After that they heard a horrifiying shriek. It was Mortimer McCardigan, and he fell into a canyon (but he was able to survive ....LOL... what?)
So the Thea Sisters came to help him. And finally, Nicky and the other Thea Sisters returned home, to Nicky's ranch and got a letter from Mortimer saying that he was sorry. And that was the story.
I like the story and I find it interesting because I learned things about Australia that I didn't know. (One of the facts was: "The wallaby is a marsupial of tiny dimensions. It can reach a height of 12 to 40 inches, while the red kangaroo can grow to 5.5 feet tall. Kangaroos and wallabies can be found throughout Australia. They live in the desert and in wooded and rocky places".)
Thank you for reading and I hope you like it! -Jess(less)
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."
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 fact that you were able to turn this florid, utter drek of a novel into something like La Traviata is a testament to your geniu...more Dear Signore Verdi,
the fact that you were able to turn this florid, utter drek of a novel into something like La Traviata is a testament to your genius. This verbose, hypocritical drivel is a fast read, but other than that, has no redeeming quality whatsoever. Your Alfredo and Violetta are a vast improvement upon the repulsive Armand and Marguerite, and your divine music is a much superior articulation of the emotions that the author attempted to convey with such cloying sentimentality. What works in a few lines of libretto could be interminable in pages after pages of purple prose.
M. Dumas fils might have been the original author of this tale, but I'd take your version over his any time.
BookFiendUSA: So, how was it? My GR friends’ reviews are all over the place on this one. How does it compare to Virgin Suicides or Middlesex?
SandyBan...moreBookFiendUSA: So, how was it? My GR friends’ reviews are all over the place on this one. How does it compare to Virgin Suicides or Middlesex?
SandyBanks1971: It’s…OK. Not badly written at all, but nothing incredible either. I can’t compare it with Eugenides’ earlier works, as I have never read anything by him before.
BookFiendUSA: Seriously? You’ve never even seen the Sofia Coppola movie?
SandyBanks1971: Nope. But I’ve read the synopses of the earlier books, and I can tell you that there are absolutely no virgins, suicides or hermaphrodites in this one. Instead, we get a manic-depressive, a wannabe Christian and an English major.
BookFiendUSA: No hermaphrodites?
SandyBanks1971: No. But there is a Marriage Plot.
SandyBanks1971: It’s a common plot in 18th and 19th century literature. Typically, there is this girl --- the heroine --- and she has to choose between different suitors, and there will be all sorts of hijinks (pride, prejudices, misunderstandings, madwomen in the attic, etc.) before the nuptial payoff. Austen, Eliot and the Brontes used it extensively in their books.
BookFiendUSA: It’s a romcom!
SandyBanks1971: Something like that. The heroine in this book, Madeline, is an English major (“English was what people who didn’t know what to major in majored in.”) who is steeped in these books and has to choose between Leonard, the brooding, brilliant manic depressive, and Mitchell, the earnest, spiritually inclined sensitive guy. I looked forward to how Eugenides is going to use this sort of plot in a modern setting and how he is going to resolve it. As one of Madeline's professor muses, “What would it matter whom Emma married if she could file for separation later?” “How would Isabel Archer’s marriage to Gilbert Osmond have been affected by the existence of a prenup? ... Where could you find the marriage plot nowadays?” I’m also curious about whether the central romantic triangle is based on any particular 19th century novel (Franzen recently did this in Freedom).
BookFiendUSA: So ---?
SandyBanks1971: Eugenides does use the marriage plot, but the ending is a sort of a deconstruction of its traditional form. After all, in an age of gender equality and easy divorces, how could the Marriage Plot still matter? Leonard is obviously the Heathcliff type, and Mitchell is maybe a mix between Linton and St. John Rivers. Madeline is --- actually I don’t quite know who she really is, especially compared to the male protagonists. Eugenides gives her a pretty extensive biography, and an intermittent ambition to go to grad school and write for literary reviews, but other than that, she seems to be merely a flimsy foil for her suitors. Early on, we are told that she loves Austen and James, but unlike Mitchell and Leonard, whose lives are transformed by the books that they read, there seems to be hardly any connection between her and those books. In a pivotal moment, she reflects on…Madeline. Yes, this Madeline, the little convent schoolgirl from Paris.
Leonard ruminates on Nietzche and Mitchell has his Thomas Merton inspired epiphanies, and Madeline thinks deeply about Madeline? Why can’t she reflect on Wuthering Heights? Or, I dunno, Middlemarch? Or Persuasion? We never learn about what Madeline really thinks of the marriage plot --- and the obvious parallels to her private life --- either (her thesis is, after all, titled: “I Thought You’d Never Ask: Some Thoughts on the Marriage Plot”). If The Marriage Plot is meant to be a modern reworking of an Austen or Bronte novel, this lack of development of her character is big minus.
BookFiendUSA: Okay, so the major female character is lame. I get it. I’d rather read a ton of Madeline books than a Henry James, though. Now, some people think that this novel is terribly pretentious, with its Ivy League setting, WASP characters and lengthy Barthes quotations. Do you agree?
SandyBanks1971: Not necessarily. I mean, he’s writing about life in an Ivy League campus --- is there going to be an egghead or two, trust-fund babies, and academic egotists on steroid? You bet. To be fair, some of the kids are wealthy WASP types, but Leonard needs financial aid, and Mitchell is Greek and strictly middle class. There’s lots of name-dropping, but in most cases, they’re followed by sufficient exposition. The quotes are necessary to understand the characters’ mindset, as they live in books as much as in the real world. And Eugenides is actually poking fun, wryly, at some of the faddish academic theories:
“Madeline had a feeling that most semiotic theorists had been unpopular as children, often bullied or overlooked, and so had directed their lingering rage onto literature. They wanted to demote the author. They wanted a book, that hard-won, transcendent thing to be a text, contingent, indeterminate, and open for suggestions. They wanted the reader to be the main thing. Because they were readers.”
BookFiendUSA: Anything else that you like?
SandyBanks1971: I like how he writes about being in your early twenties, just out of college with your whole life stretching ahead of you. Grappling with issues, intellectual or otherwise. How everything seems to be of looming importance. How stuff happens, sometimes casually, that determine how you life the rest of your life. I think he captures that well, and can be quite eloquent about it. So I guess I’ll check out the suicides and hermaphrodites. (less)
Genghis Khan and his Mongol Horde were good news for the world. Really. Not convinced? Consider the following:
1. Genghis Khan was an advocate of human...moreGenghis Khan and his Mongol Horde were good news for the world. Really. Not convinced? Consider the following:
1. Genghis Khan was an advocate of human rights, specifically freedom of religion, freedom from torture and free trade (he got two of the Four Freedoms right, which is pretty impressive by medieval standards, especially when they still, like, burned heretics and unbelievers in Europe and elsewhere). GK forbade the use of torture in trials and as punishment. He also granted religious freedom within his realm, though he demanded total loyalty from conquered subjects of all religions. His own immediate family was religiously diverse: besides those who were Shamanists or Buddhists, a significant number were Monophysite Christians --- and later also Muslim converts. As for the free trade thing, it was more of a byproduct of the commercial opportunities that developed along the Silk Road (“history’s largest free-trade zone”), once the interior of the Eurasian landmass became safe enough to travel under the Pax Mongolica. Free trade as human right is still a pretty iffy concept, anyway.
2. GK created a hitherto unprecedented egalitarian society where men and some women (more on this later) advanced through “individual merit, loyalty and achievement”, instead through birth and aristocratic privilege. This egalitarian society was also incredibly diverse, comprising of people of different religions and nations. The Mongols hired European artisans to decorate their HQ in Xanadu, Chinese engineers to man their siege engines, and Muslim astronomers to chart their horoscopes. And they might have hired an Italian guy called Marco Polo to govern the city of Hangzhou --- who knows? But there’s no independent proof of it whatsoever.
3. GK was a proto-feminist --- well, he was sort of pro-woman, in the context of his era. He made it law that women are not to be kidnapped, sold or traded. Through marital alliances, he installed his daughters as de facto rulers over conquered nations. In Mongol culture, when the men went off to war, the women ruled the roost. And since Mongol men in the time of GK went really far away to conquer distant nations and did not return for years, the wives and daughters were the real boss at home (and also at the various Mongol courts, when many of GK’s male descendants turned out to be drunken incompetents). A successful queen like Sorkhothani, the wife of GK’s youngest son, was able to rule in her dead husband’s stead and made all of her sons Great Khans. Failure, however, could doom such women into cruel and unusual punishments, such as being sewed up naked into a rug and then pummeled to death (Mongols abhorred the sight of blood, thus the rug).
4. The Mongols promoted pragmatic, non-dogmatic intellectual development in the countries that they ruled. Although himself an illiterate, GK and his family recognized the value of learning and actively encouraged the development of the sciences. Under the Mongols, learned men did not have to “worry whether their astronomy agreed with the precepts of the Bible, that their standards of writing followed the classical principles taught by the mandarins of China, or that Muslim imams disapproved of their printing and painting.” New technology, such as paper and printing, gunpowder and the compass were transmitted through the Mongol realm to the West and sparked the Renaissance a few generations later.
5. The Mongols were for low taxes. GK lowered taxes for everyone, and abolished them altogether for professionals such as doctors, teachers and priests, and educational institutions.
6. The Mongols established a regular census and created the first international postal system.
7. The Mongols invented paper money (it was soon abandoned because of hyper-inflation, but they got the right idea) and elevated the status of merchants ahead of all religions and professions, second only to government officials (this is in contrast to Confucian culture, which ranked merchants as merely a step above robbers). They also widely distributed loot acquired in combat and thus promoted healthy commercial circulation of goods.
8. The Mongols improved agriculture by encouraging farmers to adopt more efficient planting methods and tools, as well as transplanting different varieties of edible plants from country to country and developed new varieties and hybrids.
Okay. So Pax Mongolica was basically good for the world. But wait, how about all of those terrible massacres, rapine and wholesale destruction of cities? Didn’t Genghis Khan famously stated that “the greatest joy a man can know is to conquer his enemies and drive them before him. To ride their horses and take away their possessions. To see the faces of those who were dear to them bedewed with tears, and to clasp their wives and daughters in his arms?”
Actually, Muslim chroniclers attributed that quote to him and it is highly unlikely that he ever uttered it. Muslims writers of the era often exaggerated Mongol atrocities for Jihad purposes.* The Mongols were very aware of the value of propaganda as a weapon of war and actively encouraged scary stories about themselves.The Mongols decimated cities that resisted them, such as Baghdad, the capital of the Abbasid Caliphate, but they generally let those that surrendered remain unmolested. At the end of the fourteenth century, Tamerlane piled up pyramids of heads outside the cities that he conquered, and as he (flimsily) claimed to be a Mongol, “his practices were anachronistically assigned back to Genghis Khan.” Three centuries later, Voltaire adopted a Mongol dynasty play to fit his own personal political and social agenda by portraying GK, whom he used as a substitute for the French king, as an ignorant and cruel villain. So basically, GK got an undeservedly bad rap.
Yay for Genghis Khan!
* “…more conservative scholars place the number of dead from Genghis Khan’s invasion of central Asia at 15 million within five years. Even this more modest total, however, would require that each Mongol kill more than a hundred people; the inflated tallies for other cities required a slaughter of 350 people by every Mongol soldier. Had so many people lived in the cities of central Asia at the time, they could have easily overwhelmed the invading Mongols. Although accepted as fact and repeated through the generations, the (inflated) numbers have no basis in reality.” (less)