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Habeas Blogus

Book reviews, more for my memory than anything else.

Location: Austin, Texas, United States

Thursday, March 16, 2006

Bridge of Birds, by Barry Hughart

Started 3/9, Finished 3/16. I guess I'm slowing down a bit.

Bridge of Birds is considered "fantasy", but in truth I think trying to pigeonhole it into a genre is silly and a little bit disrespectful. It's a delightful read, charming and funny and skillfully done.

The story concerns a small village not far from Peking, China, around 640 A.D. All of the children of the village between 8 and 13 contract the same disease on the same day, and it is up to Master Li Kao, "a sage with a slight flaw in his character", and Number Ten Ox, the narrator of the story, to cure the illness. Hijinks ensue. Their journey will take them over mountains, under lakes, through caves, and overland in more than one flying conveyance. They encounter the Cavern of Bells, the Sword Dance, the Labyrinth of the Duke of Ch'in, and the Hand that No One Sees. They meet people who help them or hurt them, sometimes they hurt them before they help them. Sometimes they steal, sometimes they kill, sometimes they run away. It's hard to talk about specifics, because everything is so interwoven and integral that no single part stands out of context, and giving context is giving the story. Oh, you find out what caused the illness very soon into it, but that doesn't matter.

If there's a companion piece here, it's the Lord of the Rings trilogy, where you know the mystery within the first quarter of the story, and the journey is what counts. I just love taking a story like that, a North By Northwest-style "one damn thing after another" quest, and transposing it to a culture so foreign and so fascinating - you end up with the sense that all the world's culture originated in China.

Which brings me to the author, and a small sense of either guilt or bewilderment - do I really have the right to enjoy this as much as I did, considering that the guy who wrote it is about as Chinese as I am? Well, I'm trying to do a similar thing with Moorish Spain, so I'd better learn to cope. For me, it's not just that he invents legends and intermigles them with the legends and myths of China, but that he conveys a state of mind. That's what I can't be sure about. Does he get it? Is it still at its core a rather Western way of composing a story? Do I even have any right to draw any conclusions about the Chinese based on this?

I've been worried a lot about how to portray a period in history where I've made a lot of stuff up. My Moorish Spain is a bit romanticized, a bit fantastical, partially to suit my needs but mostly because the majority of source material I could find has either been in Spanish or in Arabic. I've worried that scholars would freak out at the decisions I've made and the inaccuracies, etc. Then I came to two conclusions: a) that's a great problem to have, and b) considering (a), I shouldn't let that get in the way of finishing the work. Then I happened across this interview with Hughart, and the following interchange (reprinted with permission):

JK: What was the reaction to the novels by academic sinologists? Were they impressed by your research, or were they horrified that you mixed elements from different eras and places?

BH: I believe I wrote you that sinologists avoid all printed material in which the text takes up more space than the footnotes, and that my sole academic response was from an asshole at Stanford who accused me of plagiarizing the sword dance in Birds, which was interesting because the sword dance was one of the very few things I had invented from whole cloth. My reply met with silence. Fortunately.

So, the good news is that he didn't have to worry about accusations of inaccuracies, but the bad news is that Hughart has no evidence that scholars have even read his work. Oh well. I still have a long way to go before I can have either problem.

One thing is for sure: this book was every bit as enjoyable as Raiders of the Lost Ark or Lord of the Rings. You know what sucked about Tomb Raider and what I don't really like about the James Bond films (the books don't suffer the same problem)? They never had a sense of their mortality - the shark came at Lara Croft and she smirked as she punched it in the nose. Bond makes wisecracks as knives are being thrown at him. Sure, they get hurt a little, but it's just not the same. What makes Indiana Jones so great is this look he gets... like, "shit, I'm gonna die here". Master Li and Number Ten Ox frequently look at each other and say, "what do you want to be reincarnated as?" Then they have a pleasant little conversation while they wait for the Death By Inches Torture. It makes them endearing and a little more human than those cardboard cutouts.

Hughart put a lot of research and passion into this, and my understanding is that the other two in the series are just as good. For some reason I'm not rushing out to by them right now... maybe I just want to keep up the momentum and not get trapped in a series. Maybe it's because I want to savor them and not read them all at once. That's why I haven't read past the 4th Harry Potter yet.

Book #10 will be Pride and Prejudice, by Jane Austen



Blogger incandragon said...

Wow, you're finally getting into my neck of the woods. Never thought it would happen!


Actually, Bridge of Birds is being read to me by a friend -- a talented voice actor -- at a rate of about one chapter a month. We're all having a ton of fun, and The Hubby was delighted and surprised at how fun the book was from the very beginning.

And next P&P? Lunch is going to be fun after that one!

Fri Mar 17, 09:20:00 AM  

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