Author: Barry Hughart
Title: Bridge of Birds
Series: The Chronicles of Master Li and Number Ten Ox #1
This story is advertised as “a novel of an Ancient China That Never Was.” It’s a very subtle claim, one that gives an insight into what type of novel Hughart wrote: wistful, whimsical, full of wonder, benevolently sarcastic, witty and self-aware, and most importantly, incredibly optimistic. I really didn’t know how much I needed such a book – until I read it.
“RUN FOR YOUR LIVES!
IT IS THE PLAGUE OF
THE TEN THOUSAND
This book is a gem. There, I said it. Absolutely wonderful, on par with some of the best Pratchetts. Equally righteously angry at inequity, law of might, exploitation, greed, and other human foibles, and equally hopeful with its belief that humans can transcend their nature and become better, and that all the wrongs can be ultimately righted – maybe not in this generation, not in the next, but at some point karma will return. I must have a slight flaw in my character, too, as I suspect the horrid Duke of Ch’in to bear more than a passing resemblance to the Chinese real-life exalted genocidal maniac, Mao Tse Tung – at least, the Duke’s proficiency in burning books, destroying pantheons and traditions, killing peasants and levelling villages has certain historical precedent.
Hughart clearly knew a lot about Asian culture, and it is obvious that he loved it dearly, too. The myths and legends, folktales, traditions and tropes he had woven into his brilliant tapestry are many and varied, and given a fresh spin. The two main characters, Master Li Kao and Number Ten Ox, reach deep into the tradition of drunken masters and their naive peasant students, and out of it make something unique and entirely their own.
“My surname is Li and my personal name is Kao, and there is a slight flaw in my character”,
Master Li introduces himself, and he’s nothing but truthful. Proudly displaying a half-closed eye as his emblem, he’s a Chinese Socrates; painfully aware of his deficiencies and vices, humble to fault, and possessing an incredibly acute and wonderfully devious mind. He steals the book, to be frank, though I guess Hughart simply gave it away to him with a deep kowtow once Master Li made an appearance. But while Li is certainly the most memorable and ingenious character, he’s not alone. I enjoyed reading Number Ten Ox’s report, as his voice was unique and honest and appropriately naive yet developing along the way to something tempered not only by good heart but also by wisdom. Yet Henpecked Ho easily surpassed him; he might actually be a close second on the list of my favourites, right after Li Kao, because he is such an absurdly delightful figure. Oh, Henpecked Ho, your fate is the realisation of dreams of so many spurned academics! You don’t appreciate my humble wisdom, you nasty puffed-up, murderous toad? Well, here’s my battle axe! 😀
Hughart deftly mixes humour and gore, absurd, grotesque, irony and tragedy. The deities, monsters and miracles rub elbows with working examples of Leonardian science, scams worthy of contemporary con artists, children’s games, healing lore and ancient crimes. The tone of Bridge of Birds is light and pleasant, but with a bite. It breaks your heart when you expect it the least, having laughed aloud just a second before. It flows swiftly, from one crazy adventure to another, even crazier, yet it still takes time to wax poetically about the beauty of the land. Bridge of Birds is structured a bit like a fable, and like a fable it possesses hidden meanings, delivers subtle critique of human behaviour, winks an eye at the reader, inviting them to play. And let me tell you, playing Hughart’s game, catching all those references, enjoying his skillful play with the myths, is easily half the pleasure of reading this slim volume!
Saying that something is wholesome usually creates in the mind an image of tasteless wholegrain mush. It’s good for you, we console ourselves, sticking a spoon of gloop into our resisting mouth. This time, though, I mean it with the best intentions. Bridge of Birds is a lovely, delightful story, steeped deep in myth, wonderfully self-aware, beautifully optimistic – but never unrealistic. Optimism is a choice, says Hughart slyly, piling up horrible experiences on his protagonists and always letting them escape by the skin of their teeth. When faced with certain death, they make a promise to meet once again – as a three-toed sloth, a tree, a cloud, a flower. It’s the hardest type of optimism – one in the face of reality. Bridge of Birds made me feel better, and it still makes me feel better even as I write this review; and that’s a rare thing these days with the world as it is now.
Lastly, big thanks to Andreas who recommended Hughart’s tale to me!
Score: ah, what the heck: 10/10