Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Review: Bridge of Birds, by Barry Hughart

'Take a large bowl,' I said. 'Fill it with equal measures of fact, fantasy, history, mythology, science, superstition, logic and lunacy. Darken the mixture with bitter tears, brighten it with howls of laughter, toss in three thousand years of civilization, bellow kan pei--which means "dry cup"--and drink to the dregs.' Procopius stared at me. 'And I will be wise?' he asked. 'Better,' I said. 'You will be Chinese.'
Of course, the tales of Master Li and Number Ten Ox are written with an audience of us pink-faced occidental barbarians in mind, a heritage (and, I assume, lineage) which Mr. Hughart shares. What we really end up with is a fusion of western storytelling (which playfully gifts some traditions and allusions directly to the older culture) and a Chinese setting and worldview that borders on mythic. I have no idea how Chinese it really ends up being, nor can I say precisely how deeply the history and folklore finally career off into the metatextual weeds. In the quote, a throwaway as far as the plot is concerned, the venerable but flawed sage Li Kao has just sold that Procopius a bill of goods with regards to silk production (so there's one early swerve). In terms of cultural history, Hughart is taking sudden turns and and liberally imbibing reality and fantasy, but who cares when it's such a fun ride. Kan pei!

I don't normally re-read very often, but this is probably my third time through this novel. I wanted something comforting for the plane ride to my most recent program crucifixion last month. Bridge of Birds unfolds wonderfully, riding along on that lovely re-imagined setting that has room for everything from ghosts to chemistry ("The supernatural can be very annoying until one finds the key that transforms it into science."), incorporating wild extremes of political horrors, human dignity, and real beauty. Hughart wrote a couple of sequels (one of which I reviewed), but you can only crack open the beginning of the story at the beginning. It remains pleasant to meet Ox and Master Li again for the first time. The middle of the story gets shaggy, and a little generous with ridiculous coincidences, but the ending remains sweet as ever. This is, at the end of the day, a princess story that can get even a guy like me a little sniffly.

As I read, my thoughts wrestled with similar questions as I found in the previous book (why do I love these drunks who wreck stuff and take liberties with the female students?) and, as it turned out, the next one (how can I take so much pleasure reading this Humbert monster?), which I guess makes it a surprise theme, and worthy of a review, comfort pick and all. Bridge of Birds has a spectacular body count, and yet it still goes down like a bedtime story. Not just talking historical bodies here, of which there are no shortage, but gory mass executions, unrepentant murders, torture and dissection, and bloody violent retribution, no few of which our beloved heroes are responsible for, or which occur with their sanction. For an explanation, I suppose we can start with the characters themselves. Li Kao is one of fantasy literature's finest rogues, and one half of one of its finest duos. Allegedly too bored with actual crime, he turned to detective work as a more worthy intellectual challenge. Apparently a decrepit alcoholic, he cavorts and argues like Father William (Lewis Carroll suffuses this fictional China), finding a curiosity, joy and satisfaction in life that is infectious to the reader. Master Li is sufficiently wise--and crafty--that he can distinguish the worth of others accurately, and apply the slight flaws in his character to only the deserving, letting (we discover to no great surprise) his affection for the gentle and the just survive unmolested. His counterpart, Number Ten Ox, we understand isn't the most reliable narrator ever, and much of his modesty is stylistic, but the big-hearted innocence of this character still manages to shine through in the pages, even when neck-deep in Li Kao's elaborate gambits of discovery.

This triumph of tone and theme over the bloody details is something that only happens in fiction, really, and children's literature and folklore has always thrived under that approximation. Bridge of Birds is explicitly intended as the marriage of these old forms with something like reality. ("Nothing on the face of this earth--and I do mean nothing--is half so dangerous as a children's story that happens to be real," says Li Kao) I mean, I've spent more than enough time reading books that explore that conceit, but Hughart does an exceptional job of embracing the unapologetic, eternal unreality of these old stories, and adding just enough cynicism and humor to give even deeper power to the simple ideas of love, justice, and beauty. It's doing something more elaborate than messing around with archetypes, it's finding the right adult setting for an entire storytelling form, and Hughart's imaginative view of China works brilliantly here. Injustice and superstition have rooted deeply in the old soil of its civilization, but human love has formed the bedrock, and in its most honest cases, becomes almost transcendent. The weight of the place is rock-solid and ancient, a seamless mixture of opposites, as timeless as a fairy tale.

32 comments:

switters said...

I love that. "You will be Chinese."

I was telling bacon at that other place that I find myself wrapped up in the books I'm rereading, as if I'm living within them, and whether or not he, as a novelist, thought that was unhealthy. He said, more or less, maybe, maybe not. Typical Canadian.

You should probably be reviewing books for a periodical. I've said it before, but I don't mind saying it again. Really well done.

Keifus said...

All those centuries of civilizaiton, not changing particularly fast through most of them, has got to lend the average citizen a certain perspective. I found myself wondering if the story gets better (or less good) for the real sinophiles out there, the ones who could better spot the many places Hughart is pulling our legs. I tried to get August (Mr. MIA) to read it, but I doubt he ever did.

I'm sure bacon's right--there are points where comfort or escape can be healthy or not. You seem at least pointed the right way lately.

(And on your last note and mine, I'm looking forward to eventually reading your Ohio memoir, whenever it all happens to come together.)

Ben There said...

Nice. I think I'm going to have to read this book (that I've never heard of - but hey - thanks for expanding my horizons).

Keifus said...

Hi Ben, it was a popular among certain sorts of sf nerds 10 or 15 years ago, which is where I came across it.

Guy Fawkes said...

I surf the web periodically for new reviews of Hughart's works, such as yours, and am constantly pleased with the joyful insights his books seem to generate in reviewers. I purchased a signed first edition of Bridge of Birds on eBay some years ago while Mr. Hughart was TOTALLY unknown (he's moved up to "relatively" unknown). The inscription: To Ralph & Marian, who will hate it, and Max and Molly, who will love it -- and darn well should: they edited it a few years ago by digging toward China when I was off track and peeing upon my left foot when they approved. Barry

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