Monday, November 06, 2017

'The Mad Patagonian' Javier Pedro Zabala

It’s probably fair to say that Javier Pedro Zabala is the greatest Latin American writer you’ve never heard of, and his magnum opus The Mad Patagonian is the greatest novel in Spanish of the 21st century that you’ve never read.

Zabala was born in the US in 1950, but lived most of his life in Cuba. Apart from two life-marking meetings with Roberto Bolano in 1975 and 1989 in Mexico City and Caracas respectively, Zabala seems to have passed under the radar as a writer. Largely unpublished during his life, he seems to have spent his time doing odd jobs and writing in his diary, and working on his huge novel. Written between 1983 and 2002, Zabala died two months after its completion. His daughter, ignoring her father’s last wish to have all his writings destroyed, passed on the manuscript to a publisher in Caracas, which soon after went out of business, leaving the novel unpublished. After many vicissitudes, the novel will finally be brought out in English in 2018 by Riverboat Books.

The facts of Zabala’s life and the creation and publication of his only novel read like the typical fantasy of those marginal types who spend years secretly slaving away on a book that they keep in the bottom drawer and which is only published after their death, finally vindicating all their years of unregarded effort and neglect with worldwide fame and recognition of genius, the familiar story arc of a Pessoa, a Kafka, an Emily Dickinson. What’s unusual in this case, though, is that the work in question had to be published in a translation in order for it to reach the light of day. It remains unpublished in Spanish and is presented to us in a miraculous translation by Tomas Garcia Guerrero.

The novel consists of nine interlocking novellas which together tell the story of two interrelated families over several generations, how they left the Old World and came to the New, chiefly to Cuba, and then to Miami. Each family has a clairvoyant sister, and this device allows the narrative to be aware of what is happening to both families. This device is obviously a nod to the multi-generational magical realism of One Hundred Years of Solitude, but the novel is more than a magical realistic romp through the history of Cuba, although magical realism does get a look in as being part of that history.

The nine novellas are related to each other in various ways: they grow out of each other, with a peripheral character in one becoming a central character in another; or the same event is viewed from different perspectives; or there might only be a tenuous relation that becomes clear when you have read another novella. This method allows for tales within tales, digressions within digressions and a great deal of sophisticated structural irony in which insignificant events appear later as much more significant, and vice versa. There is a great deal of anachronistic jumping around. Reality is always under threat of being replaced by just another version of reality, dreams, or yet another narrative, puppet show, slide show, family history, anecdote or memory, a letter, a postcard or a pornographic movie. Each novella is told in a different style, with nods (at least in this English translation) to Hemingway, Carver and other practitioners of the I’m-not-writing school of writing, Joyce, Borges, Bolano, film noir, an actual movie script, Andre Breton and the Surrealists, and a whole host of references to poets and philosophers, both in English and in Spanish.

The novel is fiercely erudite and thick with ideas discussed by the characters, or by the narrative voice, about history versus the fictionalization of history (Zabala seems to have lived his life through his diary, writing events as they should have happened, rather than as they did), the search for happiness, the eternal fight against Fascism, the Church, international crime, conspiracy theories, Communism, UFOs, Latin American politics and Latin American literature, The Struggle. Ultimately, these ideas crystalise into an epic enquiry into the nature of reality, and about the uses and inadequacies of language itself in creating, transcribing and fixing that reality. Zabala is acutely aware of the limitations of language, as aware as no other writer of his generation, except perhaps David Foster Wallace. He knows that language describes what is not as much as it describes what is: gun delineates a specific object as much as it rules out the possibility that the object is not something else, like nun or gum.  Zabala knows that when a writer writes something as apparently innocuous as a description of the night, he is also drawing a line through other possibilities: Outside the moon has set. can also just as well refuse to be: Outside the moon is glowing in the night sky. or even Outside it is twilight and the birds have stopped calling to each other. Zabala gives us all three descriptions, as if asking us to choose, or to understand them as a radically telescoped sequence, or to consider their possibilities as palimpsest. Either way, he is drawing attention to the very process of writing.

The prose itself acts as a vehicle for that enquiry, ranging from rapturously inspired word painting to the most coldly clinical, specs laden passages. At times, Zabala’s experiments threaten to topple over, but he always manages to pull it off by the sheer audacity of the undertaking. In one of the last novellas, it appears as if Zabala has simply taken advantage of his computer’s highlight-copy-and-paste functions to reproduce whole paragraphs and reassemble them in different orders. The repetitions, and juxtapositions of large chunks of text not only summons up a musical analogy, but on further reflection also seems to be making something quite concrete out of language, like bits of coloured glass arranged into a mosaic, or collage. The language has become so foregrounded through repetition that it becomes quite physical, which is something that one usually forgets in reading, as the eye flows across the page devouring meaning. 

At almost 1250 pages, the book is a daunting read. However Zabala’s imagination is a fount of fecundity; a multitudinous world envelopes the reader, crowded with vivid characters and events, a great deal of salt, genuine feeling, irony and humour, and a kind of unstoppable energy. Mahler said of the symphony that it should embrace the world, and the really great novels of the 20th/21st centuries: Gravity’s Rainbow, Infinite Jest, Underworld, 2666, seem to have also embraced this view. Zabala’s novel should rightfully take its place alongside them.

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

'Dream of Red Mansions' Cao Xueqin

I live in town without all that racket
horses and carts stir up, and you wonder

how that could be. Wherever the mind
dwells apart is itself a distant place.

picking chrysanthemums at my east fence,
far off, I see South Mountain: mountain

air lovely at dusk, birds in flight
returning home. All this means something,

something absolute. Whenever I start
explaining it, I’ve forgotten the words.

Tao Qian
trans: David Hinton

This enormous novel occupies the same central place in the literary culture of the Chinese as the works of Shakespeare do in English, as Pushkin’s verse novel Eugene Onegin does in Russian, and as Dante’s Divine Comedy does in Italian literature. Like them, it creates a whole world that is at once very specific to a time and place (China in the middle of the 18th century) and yet also universal. Like them it embodies the paradox of great art, best expressed by Matisse: All art bears the imprint of its historical epoch. Great art is that in which this imprint is most deeply marked.

And yet in the West the novel is hardly known at all. Reasons for this no doubt include unfamiliarity with the world the novel describes and creates, the vast number of characters (with names which are more than usually difficult for Western readers to remember) and its sheer length. It’s even difficult to arrive at a fixed title for the work, compounded by the fact that in Chinese it has many names, all of them given in the text itself. These titles include: The Story of the Stone, The Precious Mirror of Love, The Twelve Beauties of Jingling, and Dream of Red Mansions. The Penguin translation by David Hawkes uses the first of these titles. Dream of Red Mansions is the closest translation (by Yang Hsien Yi and Gladys Yang) of the most common Chinese title, but other translations of this title might also include A Dream of the Red Chamber, or Dreams in a Red Chamber. This plethora of titles and translations of titles neatly reflects the great difficulties of translating a work from a language in which ambiguity is prized and preserved, into language where it is not.

Given these difficulties for a Western reader, perhaps the best way to approach this work is to look closely at the three characters which make up the most common title in Chinese. In so doing, we shall see that each one loosely defines a category that might help us to orient ourselves in the multifarious world of the Hong Lou Meng.


/hong/ red
This character consists of two elements. On the left is the ‘silk’ radical /si/, on the right is the ‘work’ radical, /gong/, here to give a suggestion as to the correct way to pronounce this character.

Silk is of course the quintessentially Chinese product, and silk cultivation and production has been known in China since the Neolithic age. Silk is a signifier of wealth and patronage, and has been used since ancient times as an instrument of foreign policy. Sima Qian, the Grand Historian of the Han dynasty, records how the first Han emperor sent a specified quantity of silk floss and cloth, grain and other food stuffs each year to the Xiongnu, the ancient enemies of the Han, so that the two nations would live in peace and brotherhood. In the Hong Lou Meng, at weddings and festivals, the fabulously wealthy Jia family are presented with rolls of silk, and they lavish gifts of silk on their superiors. The early part of the novel especially is filled with descriptions of clothes and furnishings, all of them costly and beautiful.

The silk radical also appears in characters to do with ‘binding’, ‘braiding’, ‘roping’, and also in characters to do with ‘patterns’, ‘succession’ or ‘continuation’, ‘experience’, in other words, the underlying patterns of everyday life, familial associations and experiences, in which communities are bound together through work, ritual ceremony and festivals. Red is ubiquitous in the Chinese world to an extent that is not so in other cultures: a red light always burns before the family altar; a wedding is not a wedding without the presence of red; red lanterns adorn the temples and gifts of money are made in red envelopes. Likewise in the Hong Lou Meng, red is everywhere. Baoyu, the male protagonist, lives in a pavilion called ‘Happy Red Court’, and in Chapter 1, Cao Xueqin is described as having written the work in his studio called ‘Mourning-the-Red Studio’.  In its widest form, red always symbolizes festival. The novel is full of lavish and evocative descriptions of ceremonies and festivals, weddings, funerals, New Years Eve celebrations, the Lantern Festival celebration; Cao Xueqin writes with a painterly hand, creating images as unforgettable as the cinematic images of Zhang Yimou. In the novel, as in Chinese life, great prominence is given to rites and rituals, both on major state occasions and the minor rituals of dining at home with family. In Chapter 2, an official is impeached, and a list of the crimes against him is given; the second item on this list is ‘tampering with the rites’ which shows the importance given by the Chinese to rites and ceremony.

Red also symbolizes art and beauty. A white, black and grey ink painting is not considered beautiful until it is set off by the artist’s seal in red ink. One of the women in the family is a talented artist and she is painting a huge picture of the garden in which a great deal of the action of the novel takes place. Her picture becomes a symbol of the Hong Lou Meng itself.

The ‘silk’ radical which makes up the character ‘red’ also appears in the characters for ‘literary classic’, and ‘paper’. The Hong Lou Meng itself has given rise to a paper mountain of critical commentary, known as Redology紅學.  The Hong Lou Meng abounds with descriptions of people interacting with the classics, and creating art and literature of their own. Baoyu and his soulmate, the beautiful and doomed Daiyu, read the Romance of the West Chamber 西廂記 together, a Yuan dynasty play. In Chapter 37, the young people in the Jia family start a poetry club, in which they drink, eat and set each other subjects – and rhyme schemes -  for poetry.  At one autumn meeting of the club, the chrysanthemum is chosen as a subject, but someone objects that this is too hackneyed a subject for an autumn poem. Then someone has an idea that instead of writing about chrysanthemums, they will focus on the people looking at it and on their reactions to the flower. They come up with a list of subjects:

Thinking of the Chrysanthemum
Seeking out the Chrysanthemum
Visiting the Chrysanthemum
Planting the Chrysanthemum
Facing the Chrysanthemum
Displaying the Chrysanthemum
Writing about the Chrysanthemum
Painting the Chrysanthemum
Questioning the Chrysanthemum
Wearing the Chrysanthemum
The Chrysanthemum’s Shadow
A Dream of Chrysanthemum
The Withered Chrysanthemum

And then go on to create an album of chrysanthemum poems. This is a picture of the pastime of leisured, rich, educated, secluded women, but it’s also a picture of the age–old activity of the literati/scholar class. The novel is full of such scenes. There is a great deal of sophisticated wordplay, both by the narrator and by the characters and absolutely untranslatable jokes and puns. The characters (people) discuss the meaning of characters (words, symbols), and they seem able to make up poems according to a rhyme scheme proposed by someone else at the flick of a sleeve, quite an accomplishment, given that many of them are only teenagers. But what’s most interesting to note about this little scene is the tension, the dilemma it voices between following the traditional rules laid down by the masters (Confucian idea), and originality (Daoist idea), a tension that can be seen in the Hong Lou Meng as a whole.

Etiquette and manners are also presented with the full importance which they are given in real life; who sits where, who serves whom, who takes precedence over whom, who gives face to whom, an incredibly complex affair in a family as large and multi-generational as the Jia family with its army of 200 - 300 retainers, all with a pecking order of their own.

‘Red’, then, in the Hong Lou Meng represents the world of art and beauty, literature and scholarship, rite and ceremony, manners and etiquette, which bind the family and the wider society together.


/lou/ building
This character (pronounced ‘low’) consists of four elements. On the left is the ‘wood’ radical /mu/. The ‘wood’ radical is found in all characters describing objects made of wood, and in characters to do with constructed objects, such as machines and engines and buildings.

The right element consists of a character that can stand alone, independently, with the same pronunciation as the composite character, when it is the name of a constellation, and a common family name.

This character is composed of three elements. The top element used to be a slightly different character meaning something like ‘don’t’, and this character combined with the character for ‘woman’ meant ‘seclusion’, or the women’s quarters which were taboo to outsiders. The middle element is actually the same character for ‘middle’ /zhong/ and it’s the character which appears in ‘China’: ‘the Middle Kingdom’. The bottom element is the character for ‘woman’ /nu/.

The character has a range of meanings, most literally any building more than two stories high, and the floors in such a building. But the history of the character shows us that it was also associated with that part of a building that was reserved for the women, and to which outsiders were not permitted.

The action of the novel revolves around two huge mansions, the Rong mansion and the Ning mansion, and an enormous park or garden which lies between them. There are almost no glimpses of nature outside the compound walls. Most of the scenes take place in interiors, or in the carefully controlled ‘natural’ environment of the ornamental park, specially constructed for the visit home of an elder daughter of the family who is an Imperial Concubine. The two branches of the Jia family gain much of their social prestige and wealth from this daughter’s position in the Imperial household, and her death is one of several turning points in the fortunes of the family.


Women occupy a central place in the novel, just as they do in Chinese culture, which is and always has been a matriarchy. Power relationships in Chinese culture are predicated on the family, and in the family it is the oldest woman who rules the roost. The Lady Dowager rules her family with a rod of iron and even her eldest son – a minister in the Qing government – defers to her decisions. Her personal favourites achieve positions of prominence and privilege within the world of the family. Much of the action of the novel centres on the intrigues between the women of the family, the mothers, the mothers in law, the sisters, the wives, the concubines, the maids of the sisters and wives and concubines, the maids of the maids of the sisters and wives and concubines, and the lowly serving maids who serve all those maids. The novel is full of domestic detail:  a teacup is overturned; a handkerchief is lost; a precious cloak is spoilt by a burning ember. These incidents are not trivial for those concerned, however, as they result in an adjustment of power positions. Suicides and murders are often the result of these feminine intrigues, and in one sense the novel may be read as an examination of the politics of the harem.

This domestic world is the scene of operations of that archetypal figure in Chinese culture and history: the uberbitch. Jia Xifeng, the wife of one of the grandsons first achieves prominence through her exceptional organizational skills at the funeral of another woman in the family, and soon thereafter is given the overall management of the Ning mansion, a task that she manages with aplomb, maintaining everyone in the lavish lifestyle they are all accustomed to, while secretly putting aside silver and lending it out at interest, which activity eventually contributes to the downfall of the family. Her position is protected because her ready wit makes her a special favourite of the Lady Dowager. When she secretly discovers that her good-for-nothing husband has secretly taken a second wife and established her in a household of her own in a lane behind the family compound, Xifeng insists on having  the second wife brought into the mansion and installed as official concubine, treating her with fastidious kindness and correctness. She then poisons her, after months of physical and mental torture and calculated cruelty. Xifeng comes from a long line of Chinese uberbitches: the Han dynasty Empress Lu cut off her chief rival’s hands and feet, plucked out her eyes, burned her ears, gave her a potion to drink which made her dumb and had her thrown in to the privy, calling her ‘the human pig, Sima Qian tells us. Ironically, that 20th century uberbitch Madame Mao- Jiang Qing- used Hong Lou Meng as a pretext to launch a political attack on an old rival from her sing-song girl days. But it is in the nature of uberbitches that they fall, and many pages and chapters later, Xifeng meets her own miserable end.

Over against this chambered world of the women, is the wider social world of the men. Baoyu is sent to school where he learns to interact with boys his own age after a lifetime spent only in the company of women. This incident is one of the main homosexual episodes in a novel that contains many homosexual characters and scenes. The men in the family have social obligations and political roles outside the family. The Lady Dowager’s two sons are active ministers in the Qing government, and the fortunes of the family are closely tied to their fortunes in the political world. It’s this aspect of the novel where Confucian ideology is most visible. Baoyu is sent to school to study the Four Classics of Confucian thought 四書; throughout the novel, incident after incident shows the workings of the Confucian concept of filial piety , most notably in Baoyu’s relations with his father, and in everyone else’s relations with their parents. This is extended to include filial piety towards ones ancestors. Towards the end of the book, when the mansions are raided by the government, Baoyu’s father’s first worry is how to protect the ancestors from the fall from grace that this will entail for the family. There is a subplot involving a peripheral member of the family who is arrested for murder, which gives us a wealth of information about Qing legal procedures (and how they are corrupted as a matter of course). However, despite these occasional excursions to the world outside the mansion, the men are usually assigned to a peripheral role and serve most often as messengers – both literally and symbolically - from outside the walls of the mansion, or a means by which women can assert their dominance over other women through marriage, concubinage or sexual liaison.

Here, then,  in our reading of the Hong Lou Meng we let ‘building’ stand for the sequestered world of the women’s quarters, the constructed social order both within the mansion and without, and the Confucian ideals of social harmony and correct behaviour.


/meng/ dream
This character (pronounced as the first syllable in ‘mongrel’) consists of four elements from top to bottom. The top element is the ‘grass’ or ‘seedling’ radical /cao/; next comes a radical that can mean both ‘eye’ /mu/ and ‘net’ /wang/. Under this is the ‘roof’ radical, /mien/, with one small stroke missing. The bottom part of the character is the sign for ‘dusk’ /xi/, which is a representation of the moon. So we have a character highly evocative of the way dreams sprout from the imagination at dusk under a roof and are caught in the net of the mind’s eye.

The character for /meng/ contains a picture of the moon. 20th century Lao Tzu commentator Du Erwei draws a connection between the Dao and the moon; the Ying Yang symbol of the Dao is a picture of the waning and waxing moon. And so we let this character stand for the Ying side of the novel, for the many dreams, ghosts and hauntings, and the spirit of Daoism that pervades the book.

The novel contains many magnificent night scenes and moon sightings. Dreams abound. In the first chapter, an old scholar dreams of an encounter between a Buddhist and a Daoist monk, a dream in which the symbolic,  metaphysical meaning of the novel you are about to read is explained. Baoyu has a very significant dream in chapter 5, which he then dreams again in Chapter 116. These dreams are not so much dreams as Shamanistic spirit journeys of the kind described in the Li Sao, a famous poem from the 3rd Century BC anthology Songs of the South 楚辭. Such dream journeys are an intrinsic part of Daoist poetry and meditation practices. In the Hong Lou Meng, when characters die, or are about to die, they appear as ghosts or are seen by other characters in dreams. Indeed, the whole novel is seen as a dream, in the way that Daoist and Buddhist thought see reality as a dream.

Against reality and against the Confucian ideals of familial piety and obedience to your superior are set the more esoteric teachings of Daoism and Buddhism, which teach that all such ideals, -  and indeed, reality itself – are illusions. The novel can be understood as a site of interplay between these three great systems of Chinese thought, in which the author comes down heavily on the side of Daoism. Confucianism, it is carefully suggested, is null and does little to stop the corruption of officials or the debauchery of men. People pay lip service to it, and it creates hypocrisy. Buddhists are presented as charlatans who use planchettes and sand writing to foretell the future. The most significant Buddhist character in the novel – the beautiful maid Miaoyu - meets a highly unpleasant and tragic end. While plenty of Daoist texts are quoted verbatim in the novel – especially the Zhuangzi - (as far as I remember) not one Buddhist sutra is (although the famous Bodhi tree gathas of the contest between Shenxiu and Huineng are).

Dreams, ghosts, divination are all intrinsic to Daoist ideas and practice. The novel’s overriding theme and structure – the vicissitudes of change – is also a primary Daoist concern. Characters muse on their own fates and the fate of the family and wonder how change could come so suddenly. These meditations on change and destiny are limited to the effects of change in this life only (and the afterlife) but there is almost no appearance of a theme connected to repeated lives, no discussion of karma, a prime Buddhist concern.

The novel’s alignment with Daoist over Confucian and Buddhist ideologies is seen most clearly in the character of the protagonist. Although Baoyu in the early part of the novel is called ‘Little Bodhisattva’ by his nurses, this is no more than a standard term of endearment for a young child. As he grows up, Baoyu reads Zhuangzi when he should be studying Confucian classics. In chapter 21, he reads The Housebreaker text from the Zhuangzi, whose basic message is that out of destruction comes liberation and creativity. He is inspired to create his own commentary to it, adapting Zhuangzi to his own circumstances. Do away with affection, he writes, and in the inner chambers fair and foul will then be on an equal footing. Advice kept to oneself does away with the danger of discord; beauty marred obviates affection, intelligence dulled cuts out admiration for talents.  On another occasion, exasperated to his wits end by all the emotional demands  made on him by the women of his chambers, he is reminded of this passage in Zhuangzi:

The ingenious work hard, the wise are full of care, but those without ability have no ambition. They enjoy their food and wander at will like drifting boats freed from their moorings.

At the end, Baoyu rejects the Confucian world that has opened up to him by his brilliant performance in the examination, and goes off, not to shave his head and join a sangha as a Buddhist monk, but to roam the countryside as a Daoist bum.

It makes sense that a writer as sophisticated as Cao Xueqin should ultimately come down on the side of Daoism as a resolution for his protagonist’s fate, because the teachings of Daoism come closer to an understanding of the perennial concerns of the really great novelists, namely the nature of fiction and its relationship to reality. Daoism has a more, creative approach to illusion, allegory, and symbolism; at the same time it also has a thorough awareness of the difficulties of communicating these things through language than either Chan Buddhism or Confucianism.  The name that can be named is not the constant name, says the first line of the Dao Der Jing.  Zhuangzi writes: The Dao is not named/Great division is not spoken….who can understand division that is not spoken, or Dao that is not named? In chapter 102 the characters consult the Yi Jing, and the hexagrams the oracle gives them foretell the fates of the characters consulting them, in an example of sophisticated structural foreshadowing that the Chinese prize as one of the great literary innovations Cao Xueqin made in the novel as a literary genre.

Lin Yu Tang, an early 20th century cultural commentator, wrote on the influence of Daoism in Chinese literature: All good Chinese literature, all Chinese literature that is worth while, that is readable and that pleases the human mind and soothes the human heart is essentially imbued with a Daoistic spirit.  

The Daoist underpinnings of the work result in an almost post-modernist awareness of itself as a work of fiction, an illusion. The very first named character in the novel is Zhen Shiying, which is a homophone for ‘true things disappear’; Jia, the family name of the main characters, is a homophone for ‘unreal’, ‘fake’, ‘false’. Jia Baoyu has a distant relative his own age, also called Baoyu, who is in effect his double, but his name is Zhen Baoyu, which means ‘real’ Baoyu. These two encounter one another in a dream, and when they awake, neither of them knows who the real Baoyu is. Zhuangzi, famously, dreamed he was a butterfly, but upon waking could not decide whether he had been Zhuangzi dreaming he was a butterfly, or if he was a butterfly dreaming he was Zhuangzi. If reality is a dream, then a novel about reality is a dream within a dream, in which dreams about reality appear in a reality about dreams.

In chapter 1, as the reader is embarking on this sojourn into a fictional world,  a Daoist priest begins a journey into the Land of Illusion, passing through an archway on both pillars of which is inscribed the following couplet:

When false is taken for true, true becomes false
If non-being turns into being, being becomes non-being.

This of course is meant in a metaphysical sense, but what if we read it meta-fictionally, as Cao Xueqin seems to be asking us to do? As devoted readers, when we immerse ourselves into a fictional world, isn’t false taken for true? As we yearn to follow the fate of our favourite character, doesn’t being become non-being?  Near the very end, the narrator comments in another couplet:

A book not of this world records events not of this world.
A man with two lives reverts to his original form.

As we finish the novel - any totally absorbing novel - we revert to our original form, to ourselves.

The whole novel is set within a framing device which can, on the one hand, be seen as a Daoist metaphysics, and on the other, as a literary meta-fiction designed to forestall any possible political fall out for the author. The whole novel is revealed as having been engraved on a huge stone. This stone then reappears in the mouth of Baoyu at his birth (‘baoyu’ literally means ‘precious jade’). The whole engraving is copied down by a Daoist monk called Reverend Void and given to CXQ, who spends 10 years working it up…


The Hong Lou Meng, with its cast of hundreds of characters, its great length, and the timespan covered, is an epic novel. But to read it is to get an impression of intimacy rather than heroic size. Cao Xueqin’s emphasis on the inner life of the characters, on scenes of domesticity, on the economic and political sphere as it operates within one (huge) family make the novel a series of miniatures. The closest parallel to Western literature, stylistically and in terms of genre, I suppose, would be the novels of Jane Austen, or Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks, or other novels which focus on women or family life and which use this as an allegory for a wider political view.

The novel is not an easy read: at first, the world of Qing dynasty China appears to have no relevance to the reader, and it does go on and on and on, demanding a large investment of time (and patience, it must be said). The first chapter is particularly taxing, which does Cao Xueqin no favours. But, inexorably, if you stick with it, you are drawn slowly in; the incidents are ones which reach across cultures and centuries to our own lives and remain imprinted in memory: a child’s temper tantrum, first love, a grandmother’s death in the bosom of her family, a birthday celebration, a sleepless night caused by anxiety over the future, the pangs of lust, the love of home.

Daniel Johnson wrote in his review of another long, modern novel, Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy words which might just as fittingly be applied to Hong Lou Meng: You should make time for it. It will keep you company for the rest of your life. 

Thursday, April 30, 2015

'Kazuo Ohno’s World From Without and Within' Kazuo Ohno and Yoshito Ohno

This is a compilation of two pieces: Workshop Words by Kazuo (Ohno pere) (1997) and Food for the Soul by Yoshito (Ohno fils) (1999) both appearing in English for the first time. The book is richly supplemented with stunning black and white photographs of Kazuo in performance and in the studio, and both Ohnos dancing together, many appearing here for the first time in book form: an absolute feast for lovers of dance and butoh.

Food for the Soul is a comprehensive analysis of the various elements of Kazuo Ohno’s art. The first part covers the dancing body: the face, the mouth, the voice, the eye, the ear, the hand, the back. The second part covers various aspects of performance such as: falling, standing, makeup, photographic subjects, twosome and so on.

On watching him perform this feat (falling) one has the distinct impression that an indissoluble bond beckons him to the dimension that unfolds “below the knees”. One senses that a close affinity exists with the lateral space “down there” In falling, he makes the transition from his ordinary, everyday world, where he stands firmly on his feet, to another “limitless” dimension.

Yoshito is writing about his father in particular but one can also read his remarks as a kind of manifesto of what butoh is: for butoh itself may be said to take place in a ‘limitless dimension below the knees.’

Yoshito’s unique position as both the son of one of the founding creators of butoh, and as a founding creator himself, allows him to open up fort the interested reader unique perspectives onto several aspects of butoh practice. Here he is, for example, on the vexed question of the relationship between choreography and improvisation, which is one of the central issues of butoh:

A dance borne of the moment is never static, it doesn’t end at a particular point, for, in being true to its spontaneous nature, it always needs to explore a little further. A ready–made dance, on the other hand, leaves me feeling limited by its built-in constraints.

Against this, however, must be set the knowledge that both Hijikata and the Ohnos rehearsed obsessively, and that in the last decade or so of his own life, Hijikata did not dance himself, but focused more on choreography, creating several of Ohnos most famous pieces.

Yoshito also gives a biography of his father, and a memoir of his own childhood and adolescence as the third major force in the creation of butoh. We are given glimpses of Hijikata, Mishima, Shibusawa, and the photographer Eikoh Hosoe, and other luminaries of the Japanese post-war avant-garde, and we learn more about Kazuo as husband, father, and human being.

It’s somewhat disappointing then, in the second half of the book to read Kazuo’s own workshop words. There is no doubt that in performance, the power of Kazuo Ohno’s art is overwhelming. However, the 154 aphorisms which make up Workshop Words reveal Ohno’s rather strange world view, a world view that has much of the Japanese kawaii  in it, and less of the darker European influences that make Hijikata’s utterances in language more compelling. Yoshito himself comes across as a much more sophisticated thinker about butoh, and a much better articulator in language of what butoh is. Kazuo’s workshop words are disappointingly banal, cutesy, and somewhat silly, one feels. But then, maybe it’s more the case that butoh itself is an art form which expresses the inexpressible beyond the reach of language, and that Ohno pere is able to express himself better through gestures than through words.

Unlike everyday speech, dance has the potential to release us from the chains of language and its specific meanings.
Kazuo Ohno

Sunday, April 05, 2015

'Mr Selden’s Map of China' Timothy Brook

All Isles and Continents (which are indeed but greater Isles) are so seated, that there is none, but that, from some shore of it, another may be discovered.
John Selden
Historie of Tithes

In 2009 an ancient Chinese map came to light in the Bodleian Library in Oxford. Timothy Brook, a well known authority on Ming China, was called in to investigate its provenance and history. Brook noticed that unlike other maps from Ming China, which usually focus on the land mass of China to the exclusion of the sea, this map depicted the South China Sea and the coast lines which surround it: the center of the map was not land, but the void of the empty sea. Brook also noticed the astonishing accuracy of the distribution and shape of the many islands in the area, and noticed also a fine tracery of lines connecting the islands to the mainland. Brook realized that what he was looking at was a map of trade routes connecting Ming China with the markets of Japan, the Dutch East Indies and the Spanish Philippines. The only thing known for sure about the map was that it had been bequeathed to the Bodleian by John Selden, who specifically mentioned the map in his will as having been given to him by an English commander who had obtained it ‘there’. The map was the only object in his vast bequest of documents to be named and described in detail in the will.

From this observation and slenderest of evidences, and undaunted by the lack of any other information about the map, Brook sets out to discover who made it, when, and how it came to be in Mr. Selden’s possession. Along the way he spins a tale that connects East to West and sheds light on the dawn of the modern global age. He unearths many interesting things, and gives to the reader a wealth of fascinating information concerning Mr. Selden, maps, and the interaction between Europe and China in the seventeenth century.


Mr Selden was the most important jurist of the age, at least in England. Bosom friend of Ben Jonson, student of James Ussher, Selden was also one of the most distinguished Orientalists of the age, able to read Hebrew, Arabic, Persian, Turkish, and Syriac. We learn many other things about him. For example, it was Selden, in dialogue with the great Dutch jurist de Groot, who hammered out the first version of the international law of the sea. In 1609 de Groot published a book arguing that the sea was mare liberum, open to all, and that no nation could claim jurisdiction over it. Selden in 1635 published a riposte to de Groot, arguing that the sea was mare clausum and that nations could lay claim to it. The importance of this debate for the legality of trade (and the illegality of piracy) hardly needs emphasizing, and it was as important then as it is now.

Brook shows how both jurists’ positions were the result of specific economic and historical circumstances. De Groot was arguing for the Dutch East India company, who were trying to break into the market for spices and exotic woods in what later became the Dutch East Indies, a market that was exclusively claimed by the Portuguese. To argue that the seas were free was to argue that the Portuguese had no legal claim to their monopoly, and that the Dutch could therefore compete. Selden, on the other hand was arguing for the British government of Charles I, who was contesting lucrative fishing rights over the North Sea, rights which were also claimed by the Dutch. Selden, who had been in and out of prison on various political charges connected with the struggle between the Stuart dynasty and Parliament, was released from prison on condition that he could provide a legal argument for Charles’s claims. His book The Closed Sea was the result. Brook comments:

‘The Free Sea’ and ‘The Closed Sea’… were both lawyers briefs written for their clients… their difference had mostly to do with the interests they served rather than with the law each sought to uphold.

Although he shies away from coming to the conclusion that questions of legality are always determined by those who have the power to enforce it, that legality per se is simply a cloak to cover the exercise of power, he does quote de Groot’s famous maxim: Jurists who use their proficiency in the law to please those in power usually are deceived or themselves deceive. Given Selden’s interest in other cultures and his professional involvement in the law of the sea, it’s not surprising that a map from China which puts the sea at the center became one of the most valued items in his library.


Maps are at the center of this book. Brook gives a potted history of cartography, both European and Chinese. He is very good indeed on the problems of projecting a round surface onto a flat sheet of paper, and the various solutions to this problem that have been found throughout history; his technical descriptions are clear enough for the layperson to grasp without dumbing down the subject. Brook situates Mr. Selden’s map within the context of other maps from the period, including those published by Hondius in 1608, Purchas in 1625 and John Speed in 1627, some of the first writers and cartographers to depict China for Western eyes, and he draws out the associations between Selden and these other men. Brook gives detailed descriptions of these and other maps to highlight their similarities and differences and to arrive at conclusions about their origins; these descriptions are beautifully complemented by the lavish full-color illustrations and the diagrams included in the text. The book is beautifully produced, and for anyone who loves poring over old maps and documents, reading it is highly pleasurable.

We learn about rutters – pilot’s logbooks with compass directions and timings, used in the Medieval period in the absence of charts to help pilots navigate- and their relationships to maps. Rutters were used by the Dutch, the British, the Portuguese, and by the Chinese, and one of the most interesting aspects of the book is the space Brook gives to an important Chinese navigational guide compiled in 1617 by Zhang Xie from oral and other sources now lost. Zhang’s Study of the Eastern and Western Seas is an important addition to our understanding of early navigation techniques and trade routes in the South China Sea, and complements  the information found in an earlier Chinese rutter known as the Laud Rutter after Archbishop Laud – another associate of Selden’s – who donated it to the Bodleian. This Chinese rutter details the routes taken by the great Chinese navigator Zheng He in the fifteenth century. Brook profitably draws out the connections between the Laud Rutter, Zhang Xie’s compendium, and the dim tracery of sea routes on the Selden map. A fortuitous discovery leads him to the conclusion that the cartographer of the map used these sea routes as a starting point for his drawing of the coastlines, not the other way round, and this in part accounts for the amazing accuracy of Mr. Selden’s map.


China during the seventeenth century was, for Western eyes, a site of exotic  mystery. Westerners who went there had the impression that they were ‘opening up’ the country, ‘civilizing’ it, bringing it onto the world stage. Traditionally, Western historiography has confirmed this Eurocentric view. More accurate, however, is the view that puts China at the center of the world economy during this period. Ming Dynasty China drew in silver from Japan and from across the Pacific. This hunger for silver drove subsidiary trade among the Japanese, the Chinese diaspora among the archipelagos of the South China Sea, and early Europeans such as John Saris, who commanded the eighth voyage of the East India Company to the far east, and the man who is the most likely candidate for the ‘commander’ mentioned in Mr. Selden’s will. The increasing presence of Europeans in this theatre of operations had a huge impact on Europe and her culture, but less so on Chinese history and culture. China was the center, and Europe the periphery, in spite of Europeans’ assertions to the contrary. Whatever knowledge the Europeans possessed, the Chinese had it too; whatever technology the Europeans brought with them to China, they found Chinese versions of the same, often at a higher stage of development, including maps, rutters, compasses, atlases and compendia of knowledge.

It is Timothy Brook himself who has arguably done the most to correct our view of the relative importance of China and Europe during the early modern period, with four magisterial studies of the Ming. Brook as an academic historian combines detailed readings of source texts that owe much to the methods of the New Historicists, and the longue duree approach to economic history espoused by the Annales School: think Stephen Greenblatt meets Fernand Braudel and you get a fair idea of Brook’s approach to doing academic history. Here, in Mr Selden’s Map of China, he puts his unparalleled knowledge of Ming China to good use, focusing generally on the way China impacted Europe rather than on how Europe impacted China; and more especially on how new discoveries about China were changing European habits of thought.

As evidence of other ways of being and thinking came more insistently into view, some realized that the old ways were not the only ways and indeed might have to be revised or superseded. To be alive in John Selden’s day was to live through this shift in paradigms.

Two examples will suffice. Brook describes how James Ussher – Mr. Selden’s teacher of Hebrew – dated the creation of the world to 23rd October 4004 BC by delving into ancient Hebrew texts. The discovery by the next generation of scholars of the great age of Chinese culture would invalidate this exercise in pious futility. Brook comments: The Biblical account of the creation of the world was only one casualty of the global enlargement of knowledge that inspired some thinkers to pry up the theological floorboards of European thought.  

The second example is the fascinating story of Michael Shen Fuzong, the first Chinese to ever visit Europe, a convert to Catholicism, and a protégé of the Jesuit missionary Philippe Couplet. Shen was presented at the court of King Louis XIV in 1684, and then later at the court of King James II in 1685, had his portrait painted by Kneller and was for a while the wonder of Europe. While in England he worked with Thomas Hyde, the Keeper of the Bodleian Library, and the man who had entered Mr. Selden’s map into the Library catalogue. Hyde was something of an enthusiast for Oriental languages, and for six weeks in 1685, Shen was his teacher. Shen and Hyde studied Mr. Selden’s map together, annotating it: Shen’s Romanisations of Chinese place names followed by Hyde’s Latin translations are still visible in the margins of the map. Shen and Hyde poring over maps and Chinese books together in the Library at Oxford is an enduring image of a fleeting historical moment when the encounter between East and West was fruitful and non-invasive. As Brook notes:

The nations and peoples of the world differed, but not in essentials. Saris could go to them to trade without conquest, Selden to delve into their documents in search of the common wellsprings of enlightened humanity. It would be another century before this sense of equality gave way to condescension and the East India Company concentrated its efforts on stripping the world of its assets and other peoples of their dignity.

There are countless tales of European travellers to China and the wonders they found there, but the tale of a Chinese traveller to Europe and the work he did there to increase European understanding of China is surely just as fascinating, and Brook does well to give this space.


Mr Selden’s Map of China is Timothy Brook’s second go at writing popular history, after his earlier prize winning Vermeer’s Hat. Vermeer’s Hat had its academic longeurs as a work of popular history written for the layperson; Mr Selden’s Map has no such, and is arguably a better exemplar of the genre. This is partly due to  the emphasis Brook places on why such an old map of the South China Sea and all its islands is important to our present historical moment, when the nations around that sea bitterly contest possession of some of those islands. It is also partly due to Brook’s sensible decision to foreground himself in the text. He includes personal anecdotes about his experiences in China as a historian there, and peoples his texts with pen portraits of his colleagues and his mentor the great Sinologist Joseph Needham. The book is as much a detective story as a work of history; Brook describes his elation when he discovers new evidence,  recounts his confusion when new evidence doesn’t fit his emerging picture of the background to the map, and his consternation when a particular line of enquiry reaches a dead end. This has the effect of drawing the reader in, making us part of the process of doing history; he walks with us along the fine line between speculation, imaginative reconstruction, and what can be established as historical fact. We learn as much here about how historians do history and of the importance of that history for our own times as we learn about the actual history of the map itself. This is surely how popular history should be written.

We never do learn, though, who made the map, or when, or how it came into Mr. Selden’s possession, so at the center of this book, then, just as at the center of Mr. Selden’s map of China, is an empty space, a void. But this doesn’t matter, because, like Brook, we are richer in our knowledge at the end than when we started.

This piece first appeared in Kyoto Journal 80 and is reposted here with kind permission.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

'My Country and My People' Lin Yu Tang

China is the greatest mystifying and stupefying fact in the modern world.

Written in 1935, Lin’s was the first major work by a Chinese to introduce China and her culture to the West. Lin was born in China, but was educated in the West, in the US and Europe. He was a key figure in the New Culture Movement of the 1920s, but after 1935 spent most of his life in the US. He was the compiler of a Chinese - English dictionary which is still one of the most widely used today, and the inventor of the first Chinese language typewriter – a kind of Renaissance Man. He is ideally suited, then, as a kind of insider-outsider to write about his own culture.

The Chinese observer has a distinct advantage over the foreign observer, for he is a Chinese, and as a Chinese he not only sees with his mind but he also feels with his heart… he writes of his mission to observe and explain his birth culture to his adopted culture.

Lin’s book covers subjects as diverse as the role of women, the Chinese mind, the importance of calligraphy as a way to understand Chinese culture; he gives potted histories of Chinese literature and painting; he teases out patterns of circularity and repetition within and across the various Dynasties; he discusses the importance for the Chinese of their houses and gardens, tea culture and The Golden Mean. In fact, the topics he chooses to enlarge upon are an indication of what is important for an understanding of the Chinese, as it might not have occurred to a Western commentator to give such weight to calligraphy, for example.

Lin is very clear sighted about the strengths and weaknesses of Chinese culture, especially the great influence of Confucianism, of which he is rightly highly critical. In this, of course, he follows other writers of the New Culture Movement such as Lu Xun and Lao She.

Of the Confucian ideal of the gentleman ruler  (junzi 君子), ruling by example through correct morality, Lin notes: it is a queer irony of fate that the good old school teacher Confucius should ever be called a political thinker, and that his moral molly-coddle stuff should ever be honored with the name of a political theory. He notes the difference between form and substance, or appearance and reality, one of the key tensions in Chinese life, between a political theory that emphasizes virtue and morality, and yet which gives rise to the most consistently corrupt and incompetent governments the world has ever seen, in any and all periods of history.  

Of the five relationships as defined by Confucius - ruler to ruled, father to son, husband to wife, elder brother to younger brother, friend to friend- Lin notes the omission of the relationship between stranger and stranger, and calls this a great and catastrophic omission, and one that partly accounts for the lack of a civic consciousness in Chinese life, the complete indifference to others outside ones own family circle, the lack of manners, the lack of what he calls a Samaritan spirit, and the all pervasive presence of nepotism and venality in public life. Another reason for the lack of public spirit is the Confucian emphasis on the family, of which he notes: family consciousness degenerates into a form of magnified selfishness at the cost of social integrity.

Lin is very good indeed on the special features of the language, and how these features restrict the ability of the Chinese to express themselves clearly and indeed to think clearly: one sometimes wonders whether the Chinese people as a whole would be so docile and so respectful to their superiors had they spoken an inflectional language and consequently used an alphabetic language. This is absolutely right, in my view. In a language that has no word for ‘no’, how do you refuse, or disagree with someone?

Mind is determined by language, and of the Chinese mind Lin notes the absence of real logic as Westerners understand it, and its replacement by, on the one hand, ‘common sense’, which he lauds, and on the other, a kind of Taoist epistemology which holds truth to be something above words, and impossible to be expressed by them. (Consider the opening lines of the Tao Te Ching: The Way that can be spoken of/ Is not the constant Way/The name that can be named/Is not the constant name.)  Lin writes: Anything like cogent reasoning is unknown in Chinese literature for the Chinese inherently disbelieve in it. Consequently, no dialectic has been evolved and the scientific treatise as literary form is unknown.

Lin is a wonderful guide to Chinese literature, and he presents a wealth of poems, excerpts from the histories, essayists and novelists from all dynasties. Among my favourites is this example of  the Chinese method of classification and naming, Lin is talking about the names given to the different styles of writing in Classical criticism:

the method of watching a fire across the river (detachment of style)
the method of dragon-flies skimming the water surface (lightness of touch)
the method of painting a dragon and dotting its eyes (bringing out the salient points)
the method of releasing a captive before capturing him (playing about a subject)
the method of showing the dragons head without its tail (freedom of movement and waywardness of thought)
the method of a sharp precipice overhanging a ten-thousand-feet ravine (abruptness of ending) (our cliff-hanger, I suppose)
the method of letting blood by one needle prick (direct epigrammatic jibe)
the method of going straight into the fray with one knife (direct opening)
the method of announcing a campaign on the east and marching to the west (surprise attack)
the method of side-stabs and flanking attacks (light raillery)
the method of light mist hanging over a grey lake (mellow and toned down style)
the method of layers of clouds and hilltops (accumulation)
the method of throwing lighted firecrackers at a horse's buttocks (final stab towards conclusion)

Much of what Lin writes is extraordinarily perceptive and confirms my own experience. He is at his best when he is explaining facts and teasing out their ramifications, for example the dialectic between Confucianism and the legalism of Han Feizi; or the importance of Face in the interactions that go to make up a culture and a society, or the special characteristics of the language. He is at his worst, however, when he is lauding those aspects of Chinese culture that he considers virtues, for example the emphasis he places on reasonableness and common sense. ("I have lived here for nigh on 20 years, and I’ve seen precious little evidence of common sense anywhere during that time", mutters the Old China Hand.) Lin seems to be unaware that common sense is as much a relative cultural construct as anything, and that it is completely incompatible with the notion of Face. When he is in this mode, Lin is no more than your usual Chinese chauvinist, although a highly articulate and learned one.

Lin’s book is dated; it contains many references to race, and the purity of Han blood or the necessity for its reinvigoration; and in this Lin shows how he is bounded by the limitations of the time of writing. ‘Race’ and ‘blood’ are common tropes of the sociology of the 1930s, and Lin spent much of the 30s in Germany, where this kind of writing was infected with notions of racial purity. He is also backward in his discussion of the role and nature of women in Chinese life. His solution for China’s ills is to shoot the officials, and he ends the book with an image of the Great Executioner cleansing out the stables of government. Well, Chiang Kai Shek, and the Japanese, and Mao, and Deng Xiao Ping tried that in one form or another; today’s leaders are also showing great enthusiasm for shooting officials, yet the fundamental problems Lin highlights in his book still persist. Perhaps Lin is merely being ironic, and rather too sanguine. Perhaps only when Confucianism has been eradicated and the Chinese language has evolved subject/object pronoun differences and created a word for ‘No’ will her problems – and her unique culture – be eliminated.

However, Lin has an engaging style, an energy and idiosyncrasy of vision (he is adept at the long sarcastic, rant) and can turn out pithy and memorable epigrams that extend beyond their immediate context:

Graft, or ‘squeeze’, may be a public vice, but it is always a family virtue
All Chinese are Confucianists when successful and Taoists when they are failures.
Buddhism is Taoism a little touched in its wits.
The Chinese are by nature greater Taoists than they are by culture Confucianists.
When people persist in talking of moral reforms as a solution for political evils, it is a sign of the puerility of their thinking and their inability to grasp the political problems as political problems.

Until everybody loses his face in this country, China will not become a truly democratic country.