First, I should point out that I am writing this post six months after finishing the novel; and while I took some notes when reading it, details are starting to get a bit hazy and I apologise if what follows is even more vague than usual. As with the previous Great Chinese Classics, both date of composition and author of The Three Kingdoms (also known as Romance of the Three Kingdoms) are not known with certainty. It is generally assumed that it was written by Luo Ghuanzong (who also may have edited and maybe even written parts of Outlaws of the Marsh) and assumed to have been written in the latter half of the 14th century, but neither of those appears to be quite uncontested.
Classical Chinese literature obviously does not consist solely of the Six Great Novels, and I wanted my reading project to also include some shorter (but not necessarily minor) books. Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio was my first attempt at a canonized work which is not a several thousand pages long, and overall I enjoyed it, if not quite as much as the novels, which I strongly suspect is due to more getting lost in translation.
To start off, a disclaimer: I do love genre fiction. As even a brief look around this blog will show you, my reading spreads out very far afield indeed, and I enjoy pretty much every type of fiction as well as quite a lot of non-fiction. Still, the kind of fiction that I love the most, that is closest to my heart, is literary fiction; and there are reasons for that which go beyond personal preference. (And, another disclaimer, I’m of course well aware that there are exceptions, that there is genre fiction which is just as deep and ambitious and formally daring as the best of literary fiction. But those are just that: exceptions. (And, disclaimer inside a disclaimer, there is of course literary fiction that plain sucks, and this is not the exception at all. I’m not concerning myself with bad books here, however.)) What distinguishes good literary from most genre fiction is that the former has a layering of meaning, a surplus of significance which the majority of the latter lacks. You can trace this even in fairly conventional realistic fiction, if it is well made like, let’s say, Russell Banks’ comparatively slim novel The Sweet Hereafter.
So let’s take a look at it. After the disclaimers, a warning: It is impossible to make the point I want to make without mentioning details of the plot, so there will be spoilers.
The Outlaws of the Marsh (Shui Hu Zhuan) is the third of the Six Classic Chinese novels I have read so far, and the earliest one: it was written in the 14th century, but like The Scholars and The Plum in the Golden Vase, it is set several centuries before that time, specifically in the 12th century during the Song dynasty – there does seem to be a distinct pattern here, with each of the three novels referring to their particular present only by way of writing about the ostensible past; which is all the more remarkable as the novels are otherwise quite different from each other. (Not in all respects, however, as one thing I have learned from this reading project is that the ancient Chinese liked their novels not only very long but also with lots and lots of characters – The Outlaws of the Marsh may not be quite as sprawling in that regard as The Scholars, but again we get a veritable host of protagonists which make War and Peace look like an intimate drama in comparison.)
Narratives told from the perspective of a child have the tendency to go terribly wrong, either by a faux-naif tone hitting false notes or by an adult narrator’s condescension drowning out the child voice. In those rare cases where it works, however, the result can be pure magic, and Bhisham Sahni’s short novel Boyhood is one of those.
The more things change, the more things remain the same: This is particularly true for Dutch author J.J.Voskuil’s monumental novel of office life, Het Bureau (“The Office”) of which this is the fifth. It brings us and our protagonist Maarten into the 80s, where things supposedly change: money is becoming scarce and financial cuts loom over all public institutions. There are even persistent rumours of the newly renamed A.P. Beerta Institute being shut down and you’d expect the Institute’s employees to roll up their sleeves and start working on preventing that.
The Plum in the Golden Vase or, Chin P’ing Mei is another of the Six Classic Chinese novels. It was written in the 16th century, that is about two hundred years before The Scholars and is considerably longer – the English translation spans five volumes of about 800-1,000 pages each, and while there is a lot of editorial material in each volume, I’d estimate it comes to at least 3,000 pages total. “Lanling Xiaoxiao Sheng” apparently means “The Scoffing Scholar of Lanling” and is an obvious pseudonym; the author remains unknown to this day, although the editor of my edition (on which later more) has a theory about who may have written the novel. I even have a theory of my own, as it happens (on which more later).