4 February 2010

Mr Biswas is depressed. Well, I saw that coming, didn't I. Still, there is hope because he has a friend who writes stories that he finds to be true to life. Biswas has tried writing some himself but he doesn't feel the results are literary enough: His sense of humour keeps getting in the way. His sign painting has become a hobby whereby he paints the walls of his shop. I'm imagining that these are either good or else at least charming.

While he's depressed I'm re-reading Barry Hughart's Bridge of Birds. I first read it years ago because who could resist a tag like "A tale of ancient China as it never was"? The edition I have now is paperback and doesn't have that tagline. It doesn't give the sources for things like the prayer to Ah Chen, either, which I'm sure I saw in the hardback. But I could be wrong. I often am. Bridge of Birds is full of humorous bits, except for the sad bits.

The reason for describing it as "A tale of ancient China as it never was," is that it takes elements from Chinese history and mixes them up. It's anachronistic. Chinese friends just loved it. I, of course, didn't 'get' the references at all and had to enjoy it just for the story and the characters as they appear. Now I've forgotten most of the explanations I was told, but I still enjoy it.

For those who don't know, Bridge of Birds is the story of Number Ten Ox, a Chinese peasant who is sent to find a wise man who can save the village children from a strange plague. Down a street in Peking he finds, "an elegant avenue that was lined on both sides with very expensive houses, and above each door was the sign of a wide unblinking eye. 'The truth revealed,' those eyes seemed to be saying. 'We see everything.'"

However, copper coins don't buy the services of the sages in those expensive houses, and so he comes at last to an alley in which there is a sign showing a half-closed eye. "'Part of the truth revealed,' the eye seemed to be saying. 'Some things I see, but some I don't.' Behind that door he meets an extremely old, extremely hungover old man who is possibly, according to an ancient diploma, the wisest sage in China. He is Li Kao, and he has a slight flaw in his character.

Fortunately for all concerned, Li Kao at that moment will do anything for more wine, and so he is hired. As soon as he hears Number Ten Ox's story, he knows what is wrong with the children, but saving them is another matter, and as the pair go through various adventures in their quest for the antidote they become aware of a bigger mystery at work around them, the mystery that gives the book its title.

I really like this one.

Morva Shepley

Morva Shepley

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