Bridge of Birds: A Novel of an Ancient China That Never Was - Barry Hughart

This is a unique book. A blend of myth and fable, it’s unlike any fantasy novel I’ve read so far.

On the other hand, according to the protagonist

 

… fable has strong shoulders that carry far more truth than fact can.

 

Full of flowery passages and exotic quasi-Chinese descriptions, this novel resembles a slide show, a series of beautiful but static pictures, with the slow-moving narrative that might bore you to tears, especially at first. But if you stick with the book, you’ll soon find out that underneath all those ornate, overblown accounts hides a real story – a noble quest, undertaken by two mismatched heroes: a young man Ox and an old sage (and scoundrel) Li Kao.

Ox is an incarnation of the third son from Western fairy tales. At first glance, he doesn’t seem very bright, but he is trustworthy and tenacious and very kind. He cares about people and disregards his own comforts to help others. He is goodness personified, a simple village guy with a heart of gold. It would’ve been a dull tale, if his virtuosity wasn’t counterbalanced by the wily actions of Li Kao.

Li Kao is a wise man “with a slight flaw in his character.” A much more multifaceted personage than Ox, Li Kao is a scholar and a trickster, a conman and a fount of knowledge, with a decided propensity for wine. His crafty escapades and cunning solutions to the problems this unlikely duo encounters never failed to make me laugh. The comedic aspect of this novel – which is very pronounced – is entirely Li Kao’s doing.

Together they embark on a junket across China, or rather the metaphorical China of the writer’s imagination, to save their village children. Later their journey morphs into something bigger – a quest for divine justice, and to achieve their goals, they don’t shy from practical jokes or chicanery. Their victims are invariably rich, greedy, and cruel, and the heroes exploit their marks’ every folly for their altruistic needs. In a way, their every hoax and ruse is a punishment for the villains.

I think the Chinese flavor of this lighthearted tale is only surface deep, although esthetic and elaborate like a lacquer Chinese vase. The roots reside deep in the Western traditions. Fairy tales of many European cultures mesh in this book, but it probably owes its most profound influence to the medieval picaresque fiction of Spain and France, with their roguish but charming protagonists.

And like the medieval capers it approximates, this novel doesn’t boast deep emotional bond with the characters. They are unchanging throughout the story, symbols more than real men. They fall down the cliffs but never break a bone. Wounds are just words to them, with no underlying pain, and death isn’t really frightening. The readers are not required to emphasize with the characters, just admire their inventiveness, laugh at their pranks, and follow the plot to its sweet and triumphant conclusion.

The writing is clean but convoluted, decorated with Oriental-style verbal arabesques and infused with sparkling humor, which sometimes conceals it penetrating sagacity. Here, Li Kao tells a story about someone – a man named Procopius – he tricked in the past.

 

‘O great and mighty Master Li, pray impart to me the Secret of Wisdom!’ he bawled…

To my great credit I never batted an eyelash. ‘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.’  

  

On the whole, I enjoyed this book, but I doubt I’ll ever read it again.