A Fine Passage, shared

On the basis of a strong recommendation from Will Duquette, I tracked down a copy of a novel called Bridge of Birds, which is a fantasy set in medieval China. I’m only about forty pages in, but so far the book is a delight, and I read a passage last night that hit me in just the right spot. The speaker is Li Kao, who in the novel is a sage with “a slight flaw in his character”.

“He was an oaf name Procopius, and the wine had not improved his appearance. ‘O great and mighty Master Li, pray impart to me the Secret of Wisdom!’ he bawled. A silly smile was sliding down the side of his face like a dripping watercolor, and his eyeballs resembled a pair of pink pigeon eggs that were gently bouncing in saucers of yellow wonton soup. ‘Take a large bowl,’ I said. ‘Fill it with equal measures of fact, fantasy, history, mythology, science, superstition, logic, and lunacy. Darken the micture with bitter tears, brighten it with howls of laughter, toss in three thousand years of civilization, bellow kan pei — which means dry cup — and drink to the dregs.’ Procopius stared at me. ‘And will I be wise?’ he asked. ‘Better,’ I said. ‘You will be Chinese.'”

Bridge of Birds seems to be one of those books that has fallen through the cracks in spectacular fashion; despite the fact that it won the World Fantasy Award, I had never heard of it until Will mentioned it. Barry Hughart seems to be a recluse; here’s a website devoted to him which includes the original draft of Bridge of Birds and a fairly depressing interview in which Hughart describes the reaction a film executive had at the idea of making a movie of this book.

Maybe the current rise of interest in Asian cultural matters will bring Hughart’s books (of which there seem to be only three) to greater light.

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