Sunday, November 4, 2012

4-Star Review on Goodreads (Battle of Chibi)


Review by Anne Carlisle on Goodreads, October 15, 2012

What makes The Battle of Chibi by Hock G. Tjoa such a worthwhile read  is a feeling of global impact. Here is a mythos/history of ancient China worth absorbing.  The world view of the most populous nation on earth and one that retains much of its ancient heritage should interest us, yet Western readers know little of its evolution.  In this fascinating novel, which is part history, part fiction, part drama, and part poetry, Hock G. Tjoa ably takes on the mantle of translator and literary interpreter for  a battle along a river that determined four hundred years of  ancient Chinese history.  

Tjoa does an excellent job at meeting his goal of providing the original in a more  "readable and lively language as well as internal consistency."   It's a worthwhile though not an easy read.  As a boy in the book says, "I cannot remember all the names."

At the outset, the author provides useful background.  The historical events were originally recounted in a classic Ming novel , Romance of the Three Kingdoms, written in 1400 by Luo Guanzhong.  In turn the Romance was a compilation of work by  writers living in the third and fourth centuries AD.   (The Arthurian legend immediately comes to mind.)   Luo's  version is in four volumes of 120 scenes/chapters,  the first 80 of which is about the decline of the Han Dynasty and the rise of three kingdoms,  a period of transition from 184 to 280 AD. Tjoa characterizes the divergence  as one  "between imperial unity and fragmentation." 

The selections chosen from the Romance center on the Battle of Chibi (Red Cliffs), dated 208AD, which Tjoa points out was "the tipping point" between the Han and Three Kingdoms periods.  One of the three realms, the Shu,  was  led by Han loyalist Liu Bei.  A second,  the Wei,  was led by Cao Cao the Usurper.  Cao's plan was to become the new unifier of China, but his ambitions disqualified him in the eyes of the other two leaders.  A third realm, the Wu led by Sun Quan, lay on the fringe of what was called All under Heaven, a name, says Tjoa, that equates to a Greco-Roman term, "the whole known civiilized world." 

An interesting pattern emerges in the novel's three-part structure.   To my eye, a dialectic of  thesis, antithesis, and synthesis  unifies the diversity of the  structural components as well as underlining the clash of cultures.  The dynasty's decline is vividly characterized by its eunuchs,  warlords, and rebels.  I became engaged in the story of the new order through the vivid, careful characterization; the spare, dramatically staged dialogue; and the pleasing literary elements.  The title of  Chapter 8 ("Like Fish Seeking Water") is one  example of how metaphor and poetry are used to illustrate what is going on. Here's another: "Screens, decorated with feathers,/Divide the space inside/Bamboo fences and fragrant flowers/Define the space outside."  

A new eye on the world emerges from the divisiveness,  and though the country is no longer unified ,  neither is it so insularly focused.  At the end of the day, Tjoa's work is historical romance  in the most classic sense of the term.  It would certainly lend itself to screen adaptation.