Jim Grimsley's Reviews > Three Kingdoms
Three Kingdoms (4-Volume Boxed Set)
Jim Grimsley's review
Oct 09, 2020
This is a very old novel, the actual date of its writing in dispute, its authorship also in dispute, written out by hand, copied so many times that the state of the manuscript itself is the subject of much scholarship; the novel was revised by a writer in the Ming dynasty who, according to the translator, improved the novel greatly in form. It is a magnficent piece of work; like much that is magnificent, it exists in its own terms. Its ambition and scope sit like a mountain on the literary landscape. There is truly nothing else like it. The story of the collapse - or rather the long, slow death - of the Han dynasty and the emergence of three stable kingdoms from the wreckage. There are at least a thousand characters in the book, many of them major, all playing a vivid, palpable role in the proceedings, whether for a paragraph or for many chapters. The bulk of the book takes up the long conflict between Cao Cao, a noble who captures the last of the Han emperors and uses him as the center of a northern kingdom, and Liu Bei, a distant relative of the Han who attempts to defend the dynasty and reunite the many parts of China that have fallen away from the emperor's rule. This is not a modern novel in which characters deliberate about their actions and reveal themselves in psychological detail; this is a saga, an epic, in which the people are indicated by their deeds, their pronouncements, with an occasional reference to their private moments, their thoughts, their longings. Such a vivid piece of writing, it was exhausting at times to read it, coming in at over 2200 pages in four volumes. This is a book to study, one of the central texts of Chinese history and culture, helping to define the nation's ideas of legitimate rule, politics, honor, and military craft. There are moments of startling savagery: a meal in which the host, starving in a time of famine, cooks his wife to serve her up for dinner; the killing of a eunuch in the bedchamber of an emperor in which his murderers eat his raw flesh. There is no other experience in reading like this one. The kind of novel that a writer devotes decades to producing, the bulk of his life's energies, perhaps - though the reputed author is also said to have written The Water Margin (Outlaws of the Marsh), a book that is equally long.
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October 9, 2020 – Shelved