Barry Hughart, Bridge of Birds (1985)

Author: Barry Hughart

Title: Bridge of Birds

Format: paperback

Pages: 278

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

PESTILENTIAL PUTRESCENCES!”

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. 

Highly recommended!

Lastly, big thanks to Andreas who recommended Hughart’s tale to me!

Score: ah, what the heck: 10/10

37 thoughts on “Barry Hughart, Bridge of Birds (1985)

    1. Thanks, Lizzie! I’ll certainly be reading the next two installments, this book was such a delight. And I’m glad my review could serve as a reminder to you, I’m sure rereads will be just as wonderful 😊 I’m really surprised it’s not better known, it’s really a literary gem! 💎

      Liked by 1 person

  1. This book is the best of the 3. The second was the worst (but by no means bad) and the 3rd was pretty close to this one in terms of enjoyment. None of them felt quite as original as this though, so keep your expectations just a bit low and you’ll love them all 😀

    I read this back in ’13 and just remember laughing for the majority of the book. Certainly refreshing 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

        1. Some of my followed blogs became unfollowed again, and unless I get separate notification emails I don’t even know which ones, but on the other side the editor got better and now you can actually see if your paragraphs are justified before you publish 😉

          Did you have something specific in mind? I must confess I spend less time on the blog lately, as life got in the way 😉

          Liked by 1 person

          1. I toy with going with a paid plan just to get rid of the ads on my site but still keep the “wordpress.com” extension. But if you’re still unfollowing people, that’s not worth it to me.
            Thanks for letting me know.

            Hopefully it was good stuff life and not bad stuff life 🙂

            Liked by 1 person

            1. I think it gets better, albeit slowly. We hated the ads, though, so we were willing to sacrifice quite a lot just to get rid of them 😉 If this problem disappears entirely, I’ll let you know.

              Oh, it’s good, absolutely, but at least till the end of March I’ll be pretty busy. I still try to visit all the blogs and comment regularly, but I might be commenting less and be guilty of missing a post here and there 😉

              Liked by 1 person

  2. I would never pick this up on my own, but your review has really caught my attention! It’s hard to find stories that balance so many elements perfectly, and it sounds like this book succeeds 😁

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Wow! Why have I never heard of this novel? It sounds great, Ola! I am going to put this one on my list.

    By the way, this also sounds very very very much like the stories of Kai Lung, by Ernest Bramah. Have you heard of those? They are much older, from the first decades of the 20th century, but very much in that same fantasy Chinese land and written with a lot of comedy.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m very happy to read it, Jeroen! 😀

      No, I haven’t ever heard of Kai Lung, but now you’ve piqued my curiosity and I will search for Bramah’s books in my library – thanks! 😀

      Liked by 1 person

  4. This sounds irresistible, in the best way: thanks! It’s reference-only in the library here (two different branches with a reference-only copy, so they liiiike it!) but I’ll add it to my list for when visits to other libraries are an option once more. Look at me, being hopeful, just reading about a book with some hope in it.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You’re very welcome! I hope you’ll get your copy soon! What does it mean: reference-only? Is it like a copy that you cannot borrow, just for perusing on premises?
      It is such a lovely feel-good book, in a satisfyingly wise way 🙂
      Happy reading, whenever you get it, Marcie!

      Like

      1. Yes, that’s it exactly! There are small sections like that in each of the city’s libraries, like with encyclopedias and a few key sources on helpful topics, but there are also three specialized reference-only collections (one with five floors and all the Dewey Decimals out to play! one with children’s books through the ages! one with SFF stuff!) so I have collected lists for each of them. Of course. #librarynerdery

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Wow! That sounds like a Great Library Adventure! They should make a ticketed Open Night or some such experience, I’d love to go! 😀
          Though this book you can probably find also reasonably cheap online, probably ex-library copy too – all these missing books must be somewhere, after all! 😉

          Like

    1. Yes!!! 😀
      What I can’t understand, though, is why it’s not so well known – I only heard about it from a fellow blogger; apart from this recommendation I never even seen it referenced or mentioned.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I‘m so glad that you liked it and spread the love! I always thought of this novel as a gem but a hidden one. A lot of people don’t know about it and such great reviews as yours give it what it deserves: more readers.
    I didn’t realize the similarities to Pratchett but you’re right of course.
    The second book isn’t on par, as others pointed out already. Still, it is worth your time.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m super happy you recommended this book to me, Andreas! Otherwise I might have not heard of it at all, and that would’ve been a loss! Thanks for the kind words, I’m glad you enjoyed my review and I do hope I can spread the love further – this book sure deserves it! 😁
      Forewarned is forearmed, as they say, so I’ll adjust my expectations regarding the second book 😉 but I doubt Master Li can totally disappoint me 🤣

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Pingback: BLAME IT ON THE COMMUNITY! #3

  7. At some point, while reading your review, I went back to check the page count for the book, because it seemed to me that there was so much packed into a smallish book (for today’s standards, that is). Indeed this novel looks like more than the sum of its parts, and you can picture me very, very intrigued. Thanks for sharing! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh, it’s constant adventure at breakneck speed, and yet it still manages to pack some philosophical musings into the mix! You’re right, Maddalena, it’s definitely more than the sum of its parts, and I hope you’ll have an opportunity to read it one day!

      Thanks for reading! 😊

      Like

    1. Maybe not as good as Night Watch or Small Gods which are ultimate bests for me 😀 but it’s certainly better than Interesting Times, while set in a similar culture/period 😉

      Liked by 1 person

      1. You know, “Interesting Times” was the first Pratchett book I’ve ever read, and while it’s not one of my favorites it still got me interested enough to check out more of his books.

        Liked by 1 person

  8. Wonderful thoughts on this one. I am completely unaware of this author’s work and this series. And for it to have captured your attention, mind, and heart? It sure does warrant my attention now! I’m intrigued by the tone, the mix of comedy and gore? So oddly fascinating. Will you be checking out the sequels soon? To whom would you recommend this? 😀

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Lashaan! 😊 It’s a great book, and I think it resonates with many different types of readers – if you like delicious irony, humor, and heart, especially steeped in a wonderfully depicted Asian culture, I’m quite convinced you’d enjoy this book 😀

      I’ll certainly read the sequels, though I’ll probably space them out every few months 😉

      Liked by 1 person

  9. I’m not sure how I missed this review. The book sounds really good and is going on my tbr. Especially after this line: “on par with some of the best Pratchetts.” I’m reading “Jingo” at the moment and it’s a breath of fresh air. I tend to dip in and out of the Discworld books. I went through a phase of reading them in order some years ago, but stopped at “Small Gods.” I’d love to hear about your favourite Pratchett books, Ola. Do you have a post where you talk about them?

    Liked by 1 person

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