Sunday, June 29, 2008

War Nerd

Have you ever heard of General Butt Naked of Liberia? It sounds rather like the punchline of a joke, but if so, it's a pretty grim one. Apparently, to quote from Gary Brecher's new book of collected columns from the online journal eXile ("Mankind's Only Alternative"), War Nerd: "at the age of 11 he had a telephone call from the devil who demanded nudity on the battlefield, acts of indecency and regular human sacrifices to ensure his protection."

So, before leading my troops into battle, we would get drunk and drugged up, sacrifice a local teenager, drink their blood, then strip down to our shoes and go into battle wearing colourful wigs and carrying dainty purses we'd looted from civilians. We'd slaughter anyone we saw, chop their heads off and use them as soccer balls. [104]
"We were nude, fearless, drunk and homicidal," the general summed up, in a recent press conference in front of the world's assembled media.

Is this stuff for real? Apparently it is. A quick Google search reveals a Wikipedia article about one Joshua Blahyi (aka "General Butt Naked"). He's repented now, though, after killing approximately 20,000 people during his rampages.
In June last year God telephoned me and told me that I was not the hero I considered myself to be, so I stopped and became a preacher.
Well, that is reassuring. A bit like George Bush Jr. giving up being an alcoholic loser and family ne'er-do-well and deciding to enter politics instead.

War Nerd, sent to me from Canada by my friend John Dolan, is full of such fascinating anecdotes from ancient and modern history. Its author makes no secret of the fact that he gets off on the whole subject of war, and considers virtually any form of violent and excessive human behaviour preferable to sitting in rush-hour traffic in downtown Fresno, where he works as a downtrodden data-entry clerk.

His reflections on the details of human conflict over the ages are, admittedly, disreputably fascinating, but I guess what interested me most about the book as a whole was how difficult it was to dispute the basic tenets of this war-ophile.

Earlier this year I had a go at reading Robert Fisk's monumental tome The Great War for Civilisation: The Conquest of the Middle East. It was a library book, unfortunately, which meant that I had to read ever faster and faster, hundreds and hundreds of pages of massacres, betrayals, genocides, bombings, burnings etc. until the whole gallimaufry began to spin around my head. Finally it had to go back, all possibilities of renewal exhausted, with a good 400 or so pages to go.

I still haven't given up on it. Bronwyn's bought me my very own copy now, so I will adventure down that intrepid path again one of these days when I'm feeling mentally strong, but I guess my point is that Fisk's tome would appear to confirm the view that Brecher is the one who's on the straight and narrow - it's the rest of us with our idealistic notions of the universal power of peace and fair play who are out of step.

And I don't mean to imply, either, that Brecher's book is somehow "justified" by this comparison with Fisk's more sober-sided, serious trawl through contemporary events. I guess my problem with Fisk (and John Pilger, and various other noble-minded crusaders for truth and justice) is that their position gets increasingly paradoxical as they go along, and yet they never actually go back to square one and examine their own basic postulates about politics and human nature.

The trouble with reading a book by Pilger or Fisk is that they first describe, in grim detail, a whole series of appalling injustices, and then vaguely imply that it should be somehow "set right." Set right by whom? What is the norm in human affairs: Assyrian Kings decapitating their foes, Aztecs tearing out human hearts, Spanish Conquistadors working their Indian slaves to death - or tea parties in Mayfair and Manhattan?

Personally (of course) I'd rather be at the tea party, but I soon as I start to dig a little (what we old-fashioned humanists used to call "thinking"), the motives of the waiting staff begin to present themselves as emblematic of an essentially exploitative top-heavy rewards system. Who cleans up the tables after the tea is drunk? Who carries off the trash? Where does that trash end up? Who lives next to (or on top of) the rubbish-dump? And so on.

Mind you, I certainly respect Fisk and Pilger's moral indignation, but I'd rather they did a more grass-roots, Thoreau-style analysis of their own being-in-the-world. Who folds their sheets? Pays their expense accounts? Why do their books get published and distributed? Because they have the end result of supporting the status quo by implying that wars and genocides are occasional, aberrant - though still distressingly frequent - exceptions to the normal run of affairs in late Capitalist society, rather than "politics continued by other means" (von Clausewitz)?

Brecher's a kind of a humourist, I suppose. At least he certainly writes amusingly. And yet he dares to ask these difficult questions and follows through on the answers. He admits that he'd love to be a warlord, that he sees nothing "irrational" in low-profile, grass-roots guerilla wars. It's funny, yeah, but it's also food for thought in a way that Messrs Chomsky, Fisk and Pilger aren't. They fall back on invoking old-fashioned codes of decency, when the world they describe clearly no longer has the remotest use for such bourgeois scruples.

I'd prefer to live in their world than Brecher's, but the picture he paints makes disconcertingly better sense. And, you know, his analysis of the likes of General Butt Naked (whom it 's hard to imagine even accommodating in most conceptual universes) rings bitterly, horribly true:

The sad part is, I can imagine my folks going to see the bastard preach and getting all sentimental when he starts talking about how the Devil captured him at age eleven ... General Naked may be preaching the Gospel now, but that's the kind of job-change psychos like him can do without breaking a sweat. and they can go back to the old psycho-killer job just as quick when the time's right. [105]
In a world where you can still meet people who feel indignant at the "persecution" of that poor old man General Pinochet, when he was finally arrested in Spain and asked politely to attend a non-binding tribunal to inquire into certain crimes against humanity which had been alleged against him; where immaculately-suited, well-fed media commentators seem genuinely unable to explain why Robert Mugabe doesn't simply renounce the Presidency of Zimbabwe, crying out: "Lord, I done wrong!" under the withering hail of "international opinion," I think it might finally be time to get just a little real.

I'm appalled by the brutal world that Brecher paints, but I'm increasingly unable to pretend that he's making it up as he goes along. Give him a listen. And after you've stopped laughing at all those witty asides, you might do worse than start to think about what he's actually saying.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Classical Chinese Novels

[Hung Lou Meng]

[Bao-yu & Dai-yu]


[Journey to the West & The Scholars]

[The Canonisation of Deities]

An Illustrated Bibliography of My Collection:

NB: For more of my thoughts on these novels, see my essay "In Love with the Chinese Novel" on the Titus Books website.

1) The Three Kingdoms [San-kuo-chih-yen-i]
– c.1400

"The empire, long divided, must unite; long united, must divide." Set in the second century AD, at the end of the Han era, this celebrated historical novel contains far more fact than fiction. The precise proportions of each are difficult to estimate. What remains beyond question is the depth and complexity of this 14th-century masterwork:

a) Lo Kuan-Chung. San Kuo, or Romance of the Three Kingdoms. Trans. C. H. Brewitt-Taylor. 2 vols. Shanghai: Kelly & Walsh, 1925.

b) Luo Guanzhong. Three Kingdoms. Trans. Moss Roberts. 1995. 4 vols. Beijing: Foreign Languages Press, 2001.

2) The Water Margin [Shui Hu Chuan]
– late 14th century

This story of a group of Chinese Robin Hoods has inspired films, TV series, vernacular novels and comics. Pearl Buck translated it in the 1930s, but the Beijing Foreign Languages Press edition is probably still the most entertaining to read. I have to admit that I haven't yet had a chance to examine John & Alex Dent-Young's complete new 5-volume translation (1994-2003), though:

a) Buck, Pearl, trans. All Men are Brothers [Shui Hu Chuan]. New York: The John Day Company, 1933.

b) Shih Nai-an. Water Margin. Trans. J. H. Jackson. 2 vols. Hong Kong: The Commercial Press, 1963.

c) Shi Nai’an & Luo Guanzhong. Outlaws of the Marsh. Trans. Sidney Shapiro. 3 vols. Beijing: Foreign Languages Press, 1980.

d) Weir, David. The Water Margin. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1978. [based on the BBC TV series]

3) The Golden Lotus [Chin P’ing Mei]
– 1618

Reputed to be the most extensive and notorious work of pornography in world literature, the Chin P'ing Mei is actually far more than that: with its grasp of human psychology and mastery of complex narrative forms, its author probably created the world's first realist novel:

a) Egerton, Clement, trans. The Golden Lotus: A Translation, from the Chinese Original, of the Novel Chin P’ing Mei. 1939. 4 vols. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1972.

b) Kuhn, Franz, ed. Chin P’ing Mei: The Adventurous History of Hsi Men and his Six Wives. Trans. Bernard Miall. 1939. London: John Lane The Bodley Head, 1952.

c) Kuhn, Franz, ed. The Love Pagoda: The Amorous Adventures of Hsi Men and his Six Wives. Trans. Bernard Miall. Abridged and introduced by Albert Ellis, Ph.D. Chatsworth, CA: Brandon Books, 1965.

d) Kuhn, Franz, ed. Ko Lien Hua Ying: Flower Shadows behind the Curtain: A Sequel to Chin P’ing Mei. Trans. Vladimir Kean. London: The Bodley Head, 1959.

e) Magnus. Les 110 pillules, d’après Jin Ping Mei. Trans. Luca Staletti. 1986. Paris: l’Echo des Savanes / Albin Michel, 1991.

f) Roy, David Tod, trans. The Plum in the Golden Vase or, Chin P’ing Mei. 5 vols. Princeton & Oxford: Princeton University Press, 1993-2013.

Vol. 1: The Gathering (1993)

Vol. 2: The Rivals (2001)

Vol. 3: The Aphrodisiac (2006)

Vol. 4: The Climax (2011)

Vol. 5: The Dissolution (2013)

4) Journey to the West [Hsi-yu Chi]
– 1592

"The nature of Monkey was irrepressible!" Whether or not you remember that cult Japanese TV series of the late 70s, you're in for a treat if you decide to follow these four pilgrims, Tripitaka, Monkey, Pigsy and Sandy, on their Journey to the West:

a) Wu Ch’êng-Ên. Monkey. Trans. Arthur Waley. 1942. Penguin Classics. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1973.

b) Low, C. C. & Associates, trans. Pictorial Stories of Chinese Classics: The Adventures of the Monkey God. 1975. 4 vols. Singapore: Canfonian Pte Ltd., 1989.

c) The Journey to the West. Trans. Anthony C. Yu. 4 vols. 1977-1983. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980, 1982, 1980, 1984.

d) Tung Yueh, Hsi-yu pu. Tower of Myriad Mirrors: A Supplement to Journey to the West. Trans. Shuen-fu Lin & Larry J. Schultz. Berkeley, CA: Asian Humanities Press, 1978.

Wu Cheng’en. e) Journey to the West. Trans. W. J. F. Jenner. 1982. 3 vols. Beijing: Foreign Languages Press, 1990.

f) Pisu, Silverio. The Ape. Illustrated by Milo Manara. New York: Catalan Communications, 1986.

5) Creation of the Gods [Fêng-shên yen-i]
– 16th century

Combining the historical overview of the Three Kingdoms with the magic realism of Monkey, this bizarre novel deserves to be far better known. In its crazy eclecticism, it resembles Salman Rushdie more than the Socialist Realist fiction advocated by Mao:

a) Low, C. C. & Associates, trans. Pictorial Stories of Chinese Classics: Canonization of Deities. 3 vols. Singapore: Canfonian Pte Ltd., 1989.

b) Gu Zhizhong, trans. Creation of the Gods. 2 vols. 1992. Beijing: New World Press, 1996.

6) The Carnal Prayer Mat [Jou Pu Tuan]
– 1657

I guess this novel owes its popularity to European fascination with the "Floating World" genre. It's really more comic than pornographic, but its author was certainly a complex character in his own right (as Patrick Hanan reveals in his 1988 biography The Invention of Li Yu):

a) Li Yu. Jou Pu Tuan: The Before Midnight Scholar, or The Prayer-mat of Flesh. Ed. Franz Kuhn. 1959. Trans. Richard Martin. 1963. London: Corgi Books, 1974.

b) Li Yu. The Carnal Prayer Mat. Trans. Patrick Hanan. 1990. Honolulu: University of Hawaí’i Press, 1996.

c) Li Yu. A Tower for the Summer Heat. Trans. Patrick Hanan. 1992. New York: Columbia University Press, 1998.

d) Li Yu. The Carnal Prayer Mat. Wordsworth Erotic Classics: Ware, Hertfordshire: Wordsworth Editions, 1995.

7) The Scholars [Ju-lin wai-shih]
– mid 18th century

Episodic rather than tightly-plotted, The Scholars is more a compendium of telling anecdotes and character studies than a conventional novel in the European sense. Invaluable as a guide to the baroque excesses of Confucian examination system, though:

a) Wu Ching-Tzu. The Scholars. Trans. Yang Hsien-Yi & Gladys Yang. 1957. Peking: Foreign Languages Press, 1973.

8) The Red Chamber Dream [Hung Lou Meng]
– late 18th century

The unquestioned masterpiece of the Chineses novel, and one of the great novels of world literature, the Hung Lou Meng had to wait till the 1970s for an adequate English translation to appear. It's ahrd to know what to compare it to: as perverse (in its way) as Lolita, it combines this with the nostalgic charm of Proust and the satirical realism of Gogol's Dead Souls:

a) Tsao Hsueh-Chin. Dream of the Red Chamber. Trans. Chi-chen Wang. 1929. Preface by Mark van Doren. London: Vision Press, 1959.

b) Kuhn, Franz, ed. Hung Lou Meng: The Dream of the Red Chamber – A Chinese Novel of the Early Ching Period. Trans. Isabel and Florence McHugh. 1958. The Universal Library. New York: Grosset & Dunlop, 1968.

c) Cao Xueqin. The Story of the Stone: A Chinese Novel by Cao Xueqin in Five Volumes. Trans. David Hawkes. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1973-80.
Vol. 1: The Golden Days (1973)
Vol. 2: The Crab-Flower Club (1977)
Vol. 3: The Warning Voice (1980)

Cao Xueqin. The Story of the Stone (Also Known as The Dream of the Red Chamber): A Chinese Novel by Cao Xueqin in Five Volumes, edited by Gao E. Trans. John Minford. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1982-86.
Vol. 4: The Debt of Tears (1982)
Vol. 5: The Dreamer Wakes (1986)

d) Tsao Hsueh-Chin & Kao Ngo. A Dream of Red Mansions. Trans. Yang Hsien-Yi & Gladys Yang. 3 vols. Peking: Foreign Languages Press, 1978.

e) Wu Shih-Ch’Ang. On The Red Chamber Dream: A Critical Study of Two Annotated Manuscripts of the XVIIIth Century. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1961.

9) Flowers in the Mirror [Ching hua yuan]
– 1828

A slight but amusing fantasy. In its analysis of dreams, it anticipates Lewis Carroll. In its somewhat ponderous allegorical machinery, it resembles Sylvie and Bruno rather more than Alice, however:

a) Li Ju-Chen. Flowers in the Mirror. Trans. Lin Tai-Yi. London: Peter Owen, 1965.

b) Yang Xianyi & Gladys Yang, trans. Excerpts from Three Classical Chinese Novels: The Three Kingdoms, Pilgrimage to the West & Flowers in the Mirror. Beijing: Panda Books, 1981.

10) Short Stories

Pu Song-Ling's collection of sttrange tales is the real treasure trove here. Surely someone could afford to commission a complete English translation? There's already one available in French. Feng Meng-lung's compilation is also well worth a look:

a) Acton, Harold & Lee Yi-Hsieh, trans. Four Cautionary Tales. London: John Lehmann, 1947.

b) Bauer, Wolfgang & Herbert Fiske, eds. The Golden Casket: Chinese Novellas of Two Millennia. 1959. Trans. Christopher Levenson. 1964. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1967.

c) Ma, Y. W. & Joseph M. Lau, eds. Traditional Chinese Stories: Themes and Variations. New York: Columbia University Press, 1978.

d) P’u Sung-Ling. Strange Stories from a Chinese Studio. Trans. Herbert A. Giles. 1916. Honolulu: University Press of the Pacific, 2003.

e) Pu Songling. Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio. Trans. John Minford. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 2006.

f) Van Gulik, Robert, trans. Celebrated Cases of Judge Dee (Dee Goong An): An Authentic Eighteenth-Century Detective Novel. 1949. New York: Dover, 1976.

g) Van Over, Raymond, ed. Smearing the Ghost’s Face with Ink: A Chinese Anthology. 1973. London: Picador, 1982.

h) Yang, Shuhui & Yunqin, trans. Stories Old and New: A Ming Dynasty Collection, compiled by Feng Menglong. Seattle & London: University of Washington Press, 2000.

i) Yang Xianyi & Gladys Yang, trans. The Courtesan’s Jewel Box: Chinese Stories of the XIth-XVIIth Centuries. Beijing: Foreign Languages Press, 1981.

j) Yang Xianyi & Gladys Yang, trans. The Dragon King’s Daughter: Ten Tang Dynasty Stories. 1954. Beijing: Foreign Languages Press, 1980.

11) History & Memoirs

Shen Fu's book is delightful, rivalling some of the great Heian Japanese memoirs and diaries. Ssu Ma Chien's historiography is indispensable for anyone interested in the evolution of the Chinese prose tradition:

a) Shen Fu. Six Records of a Floating Life. Trans. Leonard Pratt & Chiang Su-Hui. Penguin Classics. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1983.

b) Szuma Chien. Selections from Records of the Historian. Trans. Yang Hsien-Yi & Gladys Yang. Peking: Foreign Languages Press, 1979.

12) General

C. T. Hsia's remains the classic, groundbreaking work in this field. Lu Hsun is also worth reading, however. No doubt it's a field which will grow and grow over time:

a) Birch, Cyril & Donald Keene, eds. Anthology of Chinese Literature. 1965. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1967.

b) Chai, Ch’u & Winberg Chai, eds. A Treasury of Chinese Literature: A New Prose Anthology including Fiction and Drama. 1965. New York: Thomas J. Cowell Company, 1974.

c) Hsia, C. T. The Classic Chinese Novel: A Critical Introduction. 1968. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1980.

d) Lu Hsun. A Brief History of Chinese Fiction. 1923-24. Trans. Yang Hsien-Yi & Gladys Yang. 1959. Peking: Foreign Languages Press, 1982.