Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Book Review: "The Song Of King Gesar" By Alai

Translated by Howard Goldblatt and
Sylvia Li-chun Li, Edinburgh:
Canongate, 2013
The train is crowded but most of the time I’m early enough to secure a seat. Then I pull out a book because the confined time among strangers turned out to be a perfect slot for undisrupted, non-work related study. That’s also how I read “The Song of King Gesar” by Alai. It made the daily commute to work an exciting journey from the heavenly abodes where Buddhas and Bodhisattvas dwell to the troubled land of Gling where people can’t tell right from wrong.

Constantly deluded by inner and outer “demons”, the people of Gling are caught up in power struggles over land and possessions. It is to this raw place that Buddhist saints send an emissary to help establish law and order. The divine child, later to become King Gesar of Gling, shows extraordinary abilities from the beginning. Already at birth he can walk and talk like a three-year old, and at age thirteen, he is a grown man winning the throne in a horserace and the hand in marriage of Gling’s most beautiful woman.

Even though the people accept Gesar’s divine origin they are still misled time and again by the evil Khrotung, Gesar’s paternal uncle who, vying for the throne, conspires against his nephew using black magic. Khrotung is the enemy from within while Gesar fights wars against demonic powers that threaten Gling from without. In the end, Gesar defeats them all. When he finally confronts Khrotung over his deeds of darkness, the latter pretends to be very sick and fakes his death by leaving his body using his supernatural powers.

Khrotung’s trick doesn’t work out as planned though and the people burn his corpse. With no body to return to, his “soul” becomes homeless but due to his remorse at the time of death he is able to take a favourable rebirth in a “Pure White Land in the West”. Gesar meanwhile ascends to heaven at the human age of eighty-one, leaving behind a pacified Gling. That’s the plot in a nutshell.

The translators note they left out a couple of chapters in the English edition to make the story more compact. To a reader like me who is neither very familiar with the Tibetan original nor with Alai’s Chinese version, it doesn’t make a difference: From a coherency point of view the abbreviated story reads fine and feels complete.

A new element I particularly liked is the sheepherder who has dreams of Gesar and eventually becomes a famous Gesar bard before loosing it all again. By interspersing chapters with a contemporary bard the author adds a modern twist connecting an ancient story to our times. There are still bards today who sing Gesar’s praise and it is a common claim that the king personally appeared to them in a dream and inspired them. It certainly sounds more impressive than saying they memorised the lyrics based on intellectual effort.

For my taste the author could have gone a step further and also given the traditional characters in the story more individuality. They lack in the breadth of human emotion and come across rather flat including Gesar and especially so the women: They are all stereotypical beauties with stereotypical personality flaws. I don’t know how “personality” was dealt with in the Tibetan original. I would guess the main focus was more on the action. Since Alai’s Gesar is contemporary and contrary to its claim it is not the first English version either, one way to make the story more compelling could have been to represent the characters with more emotional depth.

While the author deserves praise for bringing an old story to modern readers in an entertaining way, it should be remembered that Gesar is not just a fantasy tale. For Tibetans Gesar portrays their national character and psyche in its archetype before the advent of Buddhism. It is probably also the only piece of secular literature from the past. Gesar symbolises a golden era of martial prowess and great freedom. The idea therefore suggests itself: Does Alai’s Gesar account for it? Do Tibetans recognise their epic and can general readers relate to it?

Some may argue that writing the Tibetan national epic in Chinese and then translate that into English can’t produce any sensible result to begin with because it is as crazy as writing the Iliad in Turkish and translating that into English as the Greek national epic. While this comparison helps to hint at the seminal imprecision in an approach that goes through three languages, taking the original flavour farther and farther away, it has been done with Alai’s Gesar and now the question is: Has the author succeeded in making the story sound Tibetan enough?

I believe it’s possible but for that a writer would also need a deep understanding of Tibet and a feel for sensitivities. After reading “The Song of King Gesar” I am not totally convinced Alai has this kind of understanding. He is keen to portray his culture realistically and also favourably to the outside world and he is thoughtful when he writes lines such as these on page three:

“Then the demons began to wonder why they had changed only into wicked figures. Why not assume human form? So they did, and then there was no telling them from the real thing. For centuries humans and deities pursued them relentlessly, until they found the perfect hiding-place: the human heart.”

Unfortunately there are verbal bumps popping up everywhere destroying the overall smoothness of the read that the author carefully built up. So even when the story is vividly told and the plot gripping, some of the author’s expression betray him and spoil his effort. Overall the suspicion arises that Alai is not completely at home in the Tibetan culture and perhaps also lacks a certain delicacy of feeling. Several factors account for this impression.

Firstly, there are frequent occurrences of distorted and inconsistent Romanisation of Tibetan proper names and expressions and also wrong grammar. “Let us go to the place where the story begins”, the author continues on page three, “It was called Gling, which is present-day Khampapa. To be more precise, the Gling of the past is now part of the immense land named Khampapa.”

Now there is the noun Kham for Eastern Tibet and there is the appertaining adjective Kham-pa as we would have in New York and New York-er, Paris and Paris-ian, Rome and Rom-an. However there is no such term as “Khampapa”. That’s like writing “the Gling of the past is now part of an immense land named New Yorkerer, Parisianian, Romanan.” – How absurd does that sound? Chinese texts regularly confuse Tibetan nouns and adjectives because that language makes no formal distinction. It is inexplicable however how a Tibetan author didn’t catch such a gross error in an important opening passage of the book where not only the word class is wrong but the wrong word, on top of everything, also has a wrong ending.

Secondly, it is mildly irritating when terms are explained rather superficially. That’s when overall doubt begins to creep in: If the author didn’t bother to pay attention to these details perhaps then he didn’t pay attention to other aspects either? The meaning of the common name Drolma on page 186 for instance, is succinctly given as “celestial fairy” when sgrol ma means “liberating mother”. It is the name of a popular female Buddha who is also the patroness of Tibet and the meaning goes much deeper. Drolma liberates faithful sentient beings from the Samsaric ocean of suffering. A lot of girls are named in her honour. If people wanted “fairies”, they would go to Walt Disney.

Thirdly, sometimes a Tibetan designation is entirely replaced by Chinese. The Buddha of Compassion, Chenrezig Avalokitesvara, is referred to as “Guanyin Bodhisattva” and the Drichu River becomes the Jinsha River. For Western readers it may all sound the same but for Tibetans the occurrence of Chinese terms makes the Tibetan national epic in part sound like another episode from a Chinese historical novel à la Xi You Ji or "Journey To The West".

So while the English translation of Alai’s Gesar brings the story to a wider audience it also reveals the author’s biggest handicap: Perfectly assimilated into the Chinese culture and probably writing with more self-confidence and creativity than many a mono-lingual native speaker, Alai seems to lack the same level of depth and familiarity when it comes to the Tibetan culture in which the Gesar epic is rooted.

Of course a writer should write in the language he is most comfortable in. And a reader should read with an open mind. But in my case an aftertaste remains. Perhaps this story should not have been translated as it’s really meant for Chinese consumption. That audience is educated to believe that Tibetans are Chinese. They won’t notice faulty language, shallow explanations or lack of sensitivities let alone complain about it. For Alai to become a great writer beyond the Chinese sphere therefore, he would have to transcend his Sino-centrically coloured view.

I read the author comes from a Tibetan town along the multi-ethnic frontier with China. Apparently he speaks a local dialect but doesn’t read Tibetan. That would explain the problems with Romanisation and Tibetan expressions in general. The growth of a person’s word pool is severely restricted when there is no access to the written word. How would we expand our vocabulary if we couldn’t read? To compensate for this deficit Alai relies on Chinese. He employs an outside language to paint an inside frame of mind. And to make things more complicated that outside language is then used as the basis for translation into a third language.

It’s not clear to me whether the author is aware of the problematic nature in his approach. In an interview with CCTV in 2008 Alai stated that he writing in Chinese about Tibet is like Pablo Neruda writing in Spanish about Latin America. The nonchalant comparison made me feel very uneasy. Neruda’s poetic fame aside, has Alai the awareness of whether the indigenous groups in Latin America also feel represented by Neruda’s writing?

The message the author is sending to young Tibetans is: “It’s okay not to study your own language. There are other languages better suited to understand and express your culture.” – Here we have a leading Tibetan creative artist willingly or unwillingly undermining the efforts of all those who are sincerely working to develop and secure the relevance of the Tibetan language. To some that’s unforgiveable.

But then I guess Tibetans like Alai who grew up in a multi-ethnic environment at the edge of Tibetan culture along old trade routes, where there were always various languages spoken and all kinds of people went in and out, may have a somewhat different mentality. They carry the notion of the frontier as the civilising dynamic in them. Their advantage is that they are more adaptive and flexible than other Tibetans. They have an easier time to part with old things, accept new things and start over because their focus has always been directed towards the future: Whatever it brings is good.

Tibetans from the central areas on the other hand tend to carry the vision of a happy country of their forefathers in their hearts. They are content among themselves, far away from the world’s rulers and cities, free and independent. They seek refuge in a golden past and may find the future threatening because whatever it brings is bad.

The disadvantage of frontier Tibetans like Alai is that they inevitably retain an isolated, peripheral view of their heritage as long as they don’t expose themselves to the larger culture. It is only through this exposure and by appropriating the written language that they develop an awareness of the extent and depth of their Tibetandom.

My dad’s hometown happens to be located on the frontier as well. There is a noticeable difference in people who have been exposed to the larger Tibetan culture alongside acculturation to the Chinese realm, and those who have never moved beyond their little phayul exclusively focussing on assimilating into the Chinese culture. The former emit an air of self-confidence and cosmopolitanism. They fit in wherever they go because they are firmly grounded. The latter are always a bit anxious even when they are decorated with doctorates from universities in China because their roots don’t run as deep.

Enough psychologising. My subjective feeling is that as long as Alai writes about topics where he has some personal experience his voice can sound convincing. In “Red Poppies” he told the story of a local chieftain along the Sino-Tibetan border in the dying days of the Old Tibet. That story was also translated from Chinese but somehow it sounded more Tibetan than the “Song of King Gesar”, probably also because a Tibetan proof-reader was employed for the English version.

Unlike Red Poppies, Gesar is not an isolated story happening somewhere on the plateau. This is the national epic of the Tibetan people as a whole. It holds an important place in people’s memory. By venturing on this quintessential subject I’m afraid the author may have bitten off more than he can chew. My conviction is that, in whatever language, only a writer who is also intimately, deeply and extensively familiar with the Tibetan culture and has an awareness of the sensitivities can tell this kind of story with an authoritative and authentic voice.

For fans of the mythical genre the good news is that this won’t have been the last attempt to introduce the king of Gling to a wider audience. And perhaps someone will come up with English lyrics in the near future? I imagine the story gets its real drama and flamboyance from being acted out in song anyway – and not from being sandwiched between two book covers.

Mountain Phoenix Over Tibet

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Unknown said...

thanks for i learned a lot and will read again too.

Anonymous said...

I enjoyed your book review and the way in which you began with an overview of the storyline, identifying aspects of it you enjoyed, before pointing out—-in some detail—-what didn’t ring true for you.

You could have started right off with what is, ultimately, a statement of your thesis: “that Alai is not completely home in the Tibetan culture and perhaps also lacks a certain delicacy of feeling.” As a result, many readers—like me—probably read all the way to the end of your piece because you seem to have a multifaceted understanding of the work and the author. And that’s why many people read a book review: to learn something important and intriguing about a book . . . without bothering to read it!

It’s interesting that you should opine that “Perhaps this story should not have been translated as it’s really meant for Chinese consumption.” Strictly speaking, that’s not correct. The book was commissioned for the English-language Canongate Myth Series, “a series of short novels in which ancient myths from myriad cultures are reimagined and rewritten by contemporary authors.” Su Tong had earlier also penned one for the series, entitled “Binu and the Great Wall.”

I started but never finished “Red Poppies” in Chinese, and ditto for “The Song of King Gesar.” Simply put, I find Alai’s writing—-his characters and choice of words in particular—-rather flat, if not downright boring. But I also feel that he is a serious writer with important things to say, and so I find some of your criticisms misplaced.

In particular, your comments about the mistranslation of certain Tibetan terms (Khampapa, sgrol ma), and the inappropriate use of Chinese designations in place of the Tibetan. Based solely on the English text, we have no way of knowing exactly which terms Alai employed in Chinese, or whether he had the opportunity to proofread the English text. Some of these faux pas may have been introduced by the translators, for all we know, so to use them to support your suggestion that “Alai is not completely at home in the Tibetan culture” doesn’t ring true to me.

I very much appreciate your reference to Alai’s “nonchalant comparison” of his writing in Chinese about Tibet being similar to Pablo Neruda writing in Spanish about Latin America—once largely colonized by the Spanish—and I too wonder if he knew what he was saying!

But when you claim that Alai is sending a message to young Tibetans that “It’s okay not to study your own language. There are other languages better suited to understand and express your culture,” then you are putting—-no, stuffing—-words in the author’s mouth. He was educated in Chinese and creates his stories in Chinese, which is only normal in a land that has been colonized at gunpoint by the modern-day Chinese empire.

Has Alai’s mind been “colonized” too? It could well be. And perhaps not. I don’t know the man, and have read too little of his writing to have a firm opinion. But I wouldn’t conclude either way based on the language he uses to weave his tales.

Bruce Humes
Ethnic ChinaLit

Erna said...

Great blog, Im very happy to read you.Hugs from Iceland

Anonymous said...

Quit your job and write a better version of Gesar

(Seriously, you're a really good writer)