December 19, 2003

Bridge of Birds, by Barry Hughart

This is quite simply one of my favorite books; in my view it should belong on any list of the 100 best fantasy novels of the 20th century.

It's a peculiar tale set in China circa 600 AD, and it begins in a straightforward way. A plague has been visited upon the children of a small village of silk-growers. Number Ten Ox, the strongest young man in the village, is sent to Peking with his mother's savings, there to hire a wise man to come and save the children.

Ox soon finds the Street of Eyes in Peking, where the wise men live; every door is adorned with the sign of a wide blinking eye. The wise men see all, and they see quickly that Ox's mother's savings isn't worth their time. He is nearly despairing when he sees one last house, a shack adorned with the sign of an eye that's only half open. "Some things I, but some I don't," the sign seems to say.

Ox enters the shack, and finds a wizened old man snoring amid squalor and the smell of sour wine. On the wall is a diploma that declares that 78 years before, one Li Kao won first place in the Imperial chin-shih examinations. He is quite taken aback.

I turned from the picture of the rose and gazed with wide eyes at the ancient gentleman on the mattress. Could this be the great Li Kao, whose brain had caused the Empire to bow at his feet? Who had been elevated to the highest rank of mandarin, and whose mighty head was now being used as a pillow for drunken flies? I stood there, rooted in wonder, while the wrinkles began to heave like the waves of a gray and storm-tossed sea. Two red-rimmed eyes appeared, and a long spotted tongue slide out and painfully licked parched lips.

"Wine!" he wheezed.

I searched for an unbroken jar, but there wasn't one. "Venerable sir, I fear that all the wine is gone," I said politely.

His eys creaked toward a shabby purse that lay in a puddle. "Money!" he wheezed.

I picked up the purse and opened it. "Venerable sir, I fear that all the money is gone too," I said.

His eyeballs rolled up toward the top of his head, and I decided to change the subject.

"Have I the honor of addressing the great Li Kao, foremost among the scholars of China? I have a problem to place before such a man, but all that I can afford to pay is five thousand copper cash," I said sadly.

A hand like a claw slid from the sleeve of his robe. "Give!" he wheezed.

I placed the string of coins in his hand, and his fingers closed around it, taking possession. Then the fingers opened.

"Take this five thousand copper cash," he said, enunciating with a painful effort, "and return as soon as possible with all the wine you can buy."

After this inauspicious beginning things improve for truly this is the great Li Kao, foremost among the scholars of China, and truly he is a brilliant man--and also an incorrigible reprobate and con-man. It will take all of Ox's strength, and all of Li Kao's wits, to save the children of Ox's village, for there is more going on than meets the eye. What follows is a delightful romp through Chinese myth and legend. The story is bawdy (but never obscene), funny, and moving by turns, and though Hughart wrote two further books about Ox and Li Kao he never quite reached the same height.

Posted by Will Duquette at December 19, 2003 08:37 PM