fredag den 13. november 2015

Three Kingdoms - Luo Guanzhong (c. 1400)

Three Kingdoms
The journey through far eastern literature continues with ”Three Kingdoms”, a work so classic for the Chinese that no introduction is necessary, but largely unknown in the west. At least I had never heard of it before I found it on the List.

“Three Kingdoms” is an epic tale of a period considered particularly heroic in Chinese history, namely the transition period between the Han and the Jin dynasty, roughly the period from 170 to 280, where China was divided in three kingdoms constantly fighting each other for supremacy. We follow a fellow called Liu Xuande who starts out as a militia leader with his two brothers-in-oath Lord Guan and Zhang Fei. They are some mighty fellows and quickly they make a name for themselves in the various battles caused by the decline and fall of the Han emperor. Through the first third of the story all sorts of disasters befalls the throne as various fractions fight over the waning imperial power. Xuande is sometimes belonging to this sometimes to that fraction and when Cao Cao emerges as the de facto leader of at least the northern heartland Xuande finds himself opposed to Cao Cao since the last of the Han emperors has asked Xuande for help against Cao Cao.

Xuande and his band of merry men are wandering around China and finally settles in a province nestled between Cao Cao’s northern provinces and Sun Quan’s southern provinces. Here Xuande finds a supreme advisor, Kongming, who is administrator, tactician, scientist and wizard in one person. A truly valuable fellow. Together they ally with the south and successfully repel an attack from Cao Cao, which takes up about another third of the story, and finally settles in the western Riverlands area (modern Sichuan) where Xuande replaces the local leader.

When Cao Cao’s sons finally dethrone the last Han emperor and claim the title for themselves, Xuande does the same, claiming to be a scion of the Han. Thus we end up with the three kingdoms of Wei (north), Shu (west) and Wu (south).

Ultimately all those wars wear out these three dynasties and so the story fizzles out and a fourth party, the Sima family takes over the whole thing.

The above summary is a bit unfair because this is actually a both complex and engrossing affair and resembles nothing so much as “Games of Thrones”. In fact I am convinced George R R Martin read and was inspired extensively by “Three Kingdoms”. There is everything here: Feuding families, heroic battles, cunning wizards, epic scales and struggles that just never seem to end. Frankly I found it the most entertaining read so far on the List.

“Three Kingdoms” is actually a story that has developed over the ages. Much of what is told in the story actually happened back then, but as the history has been handed down through the ages it has taken a life on its own so that the final version is an odd mix of history and fiction. A fellow called Luo Guanzhong is credited for writing it sometime in the fourteens or fifteenth century, but I guess it was more a matter of compiling it. As much as one can complain about historic distortion, he or whoever is responsible made this a very readable text and one that inspires the reader to read on. Read as a novel I do not really care about historic precision anyway.

Given the backstory of this novel it is no wonder that there are countless versions floating around. My copy was an abridged version (yes, I have not read the complete version, shame on me) translated and commented by Moss Roberts and though it is obvious that entire passages are left out of such a version I also get the feeling that the editing is well done and I am especially grateful for the modern flow of the language. What could have been a drag was in fact an easy read.

I liked a lot of the drama involved and the sheer scale of the story. Fans of “Game of Thrones” will find a lot to love here. What I liked less was the resolution to the story. When Xuande dies a lot of the air goes out of the balloon and when Kongming is gone as well it is barely keeping afloat. I guess there is some Chinese logic to this, but I cannot help feeling that the story is somewhat unfulfilled.

Part of the book I read on a visit to Beijing and that made it quite special. I was unable during my short stay to find any exhibitions relating to the period, but it does make the story more vibrant and real and lends depth to such a visit. Highly recommended.

torsdag den 3. september 2015

The Tale of Genji - Murasaki Shikibu (c. 1000)

The Tale of Genji
”The Tale of Genji” is a thousand year old Japanese story, which apparently is still today used as leisure reading in Japan. Having read it I understand why. This is juicy stuff and thematically relevant even today.

At 180 pages my copy turned out to be an extract of the much larger novel, but I think it covered enough ground to give me the bigger picture and as it was starting to get repetitive I am okay to make the cut where my edition ended. This version covered the period from Genji’s birth to his wedding with Murasaki.

“The Tale of Genji” is essentially a Cassanova story. Genji is a prince at the imperial Japanese court who seems to spend most of his time courting women. With dashing good looks, youth and the status and wealth of being a prince he has plenty of women pinning for him. Yet Genji insists on seeking out the most impossible courtships. The stranger and more difficult the better and he really gets around.

I lost count on the number of women he is courting at any one time. It is indeed the most challenging element to the story because like Genji the narrative also juggles multiple women at any one time and I am far from certain that I have been able to separate each of them out from the others. Genji has a thing going with the emperor’s (his father) fiancé Fujitsubo, which results in a child. He has another thing going with Princess Rokujo, widow to the emperor’s brother all the while he is married to Princess Aoi, the daughter of a minister. But that is only background to his external chase of women, which is the bulk of the story and these women cover the entire range. From an elderly maid to a secluded and stunted princess. Mysterious women in the dark and chance encounters.

Genji is very eloquent and with his wit and charm he gets far, but curiously most interaction with all these women, at least what we are witness to, is through exchange of poetry. I am sure this is a cultural artifact and likely also something added to the story to give it a romantic spin, but for a modern, western reader it is almost comical how dialogue is performed through exchange of poetry. It also gives a very romantic hue to Genji’s character making him seem gentle and desirable.

Yet it is difficult not to see Genji as a tragic and probably even pathological womanizer. Most of his affairs end in disaster, particularly for the women. As far as I can tell every single one of them suffers from his attention. One dies, attacked by a vengeful spirit for her “transgression”, Fujitsubo is petrified for fear the emperor should find out Genji is the father of her child. The weird Suyetsumuhana is driven almost insane by his attention and Aoi his wife finally dies, apparently from frustration with Genji.

There is definitely a warning in this that this sort of promiscuity leads to disaster but I do not feel that this sentiment is carried through. The story seems to be quite impressed with Genji, that he is an awesome dude for all his adventures and it insists on showing him in a good light.

I am not as impressed with Genji as a person. One thing is that he is courting a lot of women, but he has a real problem letting go. Instead of cutting clean to finish his relationships he insists on continuing them long after he has moved on to someone else. Thus he ends up having up to six or seven relationships going at the same time. We are supposed to think that he acts out of kindness to the women, but in actuality it is cruel beyond measure as the women are left with the hope that he might come back to them. We are also supposed to think that he seeks other women because his wife is cool to him, but we are not only talking one other affair. If Aoi has even an inkling of what he has going on she should be royally pissed off.

I can follow the story’s sympathy or at least its awe of Genji some of the way. His activities are impressive by any standards, but I finally lose it for him when Murasaki becomes involved. He meets Murasaki (the apparent author of the novel) while she is a child and takes her under his wings. There is definitely a Lolita thing going on from his point of view, but she sees him as a step-father and gives him the trust of a such. This trust is in the last chapter violated when he marries her and as is hinted at is having sex with her. Murasaki is at this point hardly more than a child, certainly mentally, and there is no other way to look at it than as a pedophilic violation. The act leaves Murasaki as destroyed as all the other women and no wonder. The only thing at Genji’s defense is that as a privileged child he was spoilt and could get away with anything. No boundaries means no limits and maybe he did not know better. Still, it is a lame defense.

The best thing about “The Tale of Genji” is the portrait of medieval Japan, especially the focus on something else than samurai and war. There is a treasure throve of cultural information here and the remarkable thing is that it is actually not that far removed from our world. I like Japan and Japanese culture and this was a gold mine.

The worst thing is that this feels like a whitewash of a pedophilic womanizer. Tiresome at length and horrible at the end.

fredag den 1. maj 2015

The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter (c. 900)

The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter
The second book on the list is a traditional Japanese story called “Taketori Monogatari” or “The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter”. It was written by an unknown author in the ninth or tenth century and as far as I understand it exists in a number of different versions.

The version I found was only ten pages long and a part of an anthology of early science fiction (!) stories edited by David Lear. From the mammoth and encyclopedic “1001 nights” that can only be read in abbreviated form to a tiny story that I wish had been blown up into something more. What a difference.

Yet I found this tiny story absolutely delightful and it is easily the best of the eight stories included in the anthology.

In this story a poor bamboo cutter finds a tiny girl in his field. He takes her in and raises her as his daughter and she is growing fast, like really fast. Soon she is a beautiful woman and of such radiance that her fame spreads widely. She gets many suitors, but she gives in to none of them. Instead she gives the most persistent of them impossible tasks they cannot complete. Finally even the emperor of Japan becomes interest in her. When she refuses his invitation he seeks her out and is captivated by her. Kaguya, as the girl is called, claims that she will die if she leaves her home, which means that the emperor cannot have her either. In the end however she is visited by her family from the moon who takes her away in their spaceship.

I would call this a classic fairy tale with a twist.

Frankly I did not see that part with the spaceship coming, but that explains why it is included in a science fiction anthology. At first this sounds like something Monty Python could have made, but when you read the story it makes perfect sense and it is written in beautiful prose that makes it the sweetest story ever and not like my brutal synopsis above.

The style is quite different from the formulaic fairy tales from the west, but whether it represents a typical style of Japanese stories I really cannot tell. This is my first Japanese fairy tale ever. There are none of the repetitions typical of this kind of story and the story arc also lacks the classic climax. She is not marrying the emperor or becoming crazy rich, but, ta-da, she just goes home to the moon. Exactly what that is supposed to mean I am not sure, except that she represents something otherworldly which can be admired, but never owned or ruled by mortal men.

By some crazy coincidence it turns out that there is a Japanese cartoon called “Princess Kaguya” from 2013 and released in Denmark just yesterday. I was listening to a movie show on the radio when they suddenly started talking about it and I realized it was the very same story that I had just been reading. Except that the 10 pages had become a 2½ hour movie. I think that beats even “The Hobbit” for inflation. So far I have not seen the movie, but the trailer is awesome. It looks like a beautiful movie made in traditional Japanese drawing style and somehow that fits this story just perfectly.

I am dying to know how they have made the spaceship exit…

For a ten page read “The tale of the Bamboo Cutter” is surprisingly rewarding and it is so easy a read that it is almost criminal not to read it. I recommend it.

torsdag den 9. april 2015

The Thousand And One Nights (c.850)

The Thousand and One Night
The very first book on the ”1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die” list is “The Thousand and One Nights”. It is quite fitting to begin a canon of the most important literature with a collection of stories that has stood the test of time since antiquity. Frankly I am surprised that no literature from Greco-Roman antiquity made the list, but I am okay starting here. “The Thousand and One Night” is a good opening. Hey, this is a thousand and one list, after all!

Everybody know of “The Thousand and one Night” and most people will probably even know that it is a collection of stories of Middle Eastern origin. Fewer people may realize that it is a framework of stories that has evolved over time, that there is no single origin of the collection and that even the content of stories vary from edition to edition. If you read it you will be getting a sample, a particular selection of stories from one of the many renditions that exist. Another reader my therefore end up reading something rather different than what I went though.

My edition is the Penguin Classics “Tales from the Thousand and One Night” translated by N.J. Dawood and contain fourteen selected stories from a seventeenth century version from Cairo.

“The Thousand and One Night” is an interesting read for several reasons. First of all these are vivid and very graphic stories, almost irreverent. They are meant to be told so they do not dally on details, but move on at a rapid pace that makes the stories almost page-turners. I found myself entertained and almost never bored reading it.

Secondly many of the stories are very well known, but in versions that are quite different from the original (as far as you can talk about an original). Everybody knows “Aladdin and the Enchanted Lamp”, but the actual story is quite different from the Disney version and reading the story behind all those modern renditions is very interesting indeed.

Thirdly a book like “The Thousand and One Night” is a window into another culture and another age. The stories reflect the ideals, the dreams and the moral codes of these people. As a representative of modern western culture I am sometimes perplexed, even confused at the sentiment behind the stories, but even at their most confusing I still get the idea (mostly).

Surprisingly the stories are almost void of moral lessons. These stories seem to be told with the intent to entertain, not to provide a lesson. At least I was mostly unable to find the lesson. In most western traditional stories there is a lesson behind: Hybris – Nemesis, the humble shall succeed, bad guys get their comeuppance etc. But I could not find that in these stories. Mostly there is a hero of the story who will get in an awful lot of trouble, but miraculously he will succeed and win riches, power and women. That frankly sound more like Hollywood than The Brothers Grimm and this may also be why the stories hold up to day.

What holds up less good is the callousness of practically all the characters. Small slights are almost always punished with violence. People are killed in an offhand manner with hardly a consequence and not just by the bad guys. Physical abuse seems to be the most natural reaction to almost anything. Women are usually promiscuous and are killed outright. Slaves are disposed of casually. Ships will founder losing all men but the hero with hardly a mention (Sindbad the Sailor seems to have lost close to a thousand people in that manner without any regrets). I find it a bit difficult to swallow and even in a cartoonish presentation it leaves me with a bad taste.

You can see how wealth is foremost in peoples dream. The heroes find extreme wealth and it always comes out of nowhere. You just wake up one day and you have all you ever dreamed of. The agent of wealth is usually a jinn, a magical creature often captured in a ring or a lamp, but just as often a free agent who decides to bestow favors on our hero. There is nothing about earning your wealth through labor or craftsmanship. It is more like winning in lotto. Back then as today that is a common dream. The hero may lose his wealth again, but not through an easy-come-easy-go morality. That happens through their adversaries or simply through random events. Usually however they earn it back, just as lucky as they got it in the first place, or in a few places through cunning.

Most of all the stories are incredible. They are meant to amaze the audience. Everything is bigger, richer and more outlandish than imaginable. So much so that at times this much-with-more-on-top gets almost tiresome, like a modern superhero tale. With jinns/superpowers like these there is no challenge and the story loses interest. Yet most of the stories manage to strike the balance and remain entertaining.

All in all a good beginning to this quest. This is a recommended read, maybe even essential and certainly a lot of fun.

Welcome to the 1001 book blog

Welcome to my 1001 book blog
The intention with this blog is to go through chronologically the books listed in “1001 Books You Must Read Before You die”. It is an audacious task and there is just nowhere I am going to complete it, but it is a fun project so let us see how far I get. I hope for a long life.

I am an avid reader albeit a slow one, but tend to stay safely within my comfort zone. Since 2010 I have been watching movies chronologically from “1001 Movies You Must See Before You die” (and written about it since 2012) and that has opened my eyes to a wonderful world outside my comfort zone. I figure that something similar is probably true about litterature and that the 1001 list will give me plenty of quality titles that I have never heard of. Who knows what I will find out there and that is the fun of it.

This is also going to be a journey through history. Where the movie blog covers only the last 110 years the book list will cover more than a thousand years and doing it chronologically will enable me to see how literature evolve over time. This very much appeals to my interest in history.

There are several editions of the list. As far as I can tell the latest version is more strictly literature compared to earlier versions that included other types of prose. That suits me well as I have no intention of delving into religious, juridical or technical writings although it saddens me that I will likely miss historical or mythological accounts like Jordanes, Bede and Saxo. You cannot have it all. In any case whereas the movie list is an evolving one, I have decided to make the book list a static agenda and not include books from later or earlier editions.

My pace will be slow, 3 to 4 books per year is a likely estimate, but I am okay with that. The important thing is that it remains a fun project. If you decide to follow this project, please, be my guest. I welcome all comments.