Now, “Journey to the West” is claimed to be the most well-liked book in East Asia, as properly as a seed-textual content for children’s tales, movies, anime and comics. Appropriately, then, Lovell’s translation carries a foreword by Gene Luen Yang, MacArthur-Award-winning writer of the graphic novel “American Born Chinese,” which draws on this rumbustious fantasy.
The marvel-stuffed narrative — 100 chapters in the first — derives from common tales and dramas about a form-shifting trickster and proto-superhero who happens to be a speaking monkey. Its other figures, as Lovell — professor of Chinese at the College of London — notes in her exceptional introduction, consist of “gods, demons, emperors, bureaucrats, monks, animals, woodcutters, bandits and farmers” — in quick a cross-section of Ming-era imperial China.
The opening chapters depict the mysterious beginning of Monkey, his early religious training under a Taoist Immortal, his acquisition of a supernatural preventing workers, and the trouble this simian upstart brings about when, in his quest for the secret to eternal life, he disrupts the celestial court-in-the-clouds of the Jade Emperor. There he offends nearly all people, devouring the Jade Empress’s everyday living-extending peaches and consuming the immortality elixirs of Laozi, the Taoist patriarch. Exiled back to Earth, Monkey and his armies struggle the forces of Heaven productively until finally the Buddha eventually imprisons him less than a mountain. His adventures, nevertheless, are just commencing.
All these first chapters of “Monkey King” exhibit a rollicking exuberance, rather like Rabelais’s hyperbolic accounts of the giants Gargantua and Pantagruel. Monkey consistently functions with crude outrageousness — at one particular point he really urinates on the Buddha’s hand. Since the novel’s Chinese vernacular is both equally vulgar and linguistically playful, Lovell’s translation adopts a snappy modern day vibe. Heaven, we understand, “runs a cashless overall economy.” The welcome indicator outdoors the Underworld reads, “The Money of Darkness: A Fine Metropolis.” A hermit, questioned how he’s doing, answers, “Oh, exact old, similar aged.” Some of Lovell’s descriptive epithets even remember the comedian sententiousness of Ernest Bramah’s tall tales about the resourceful Kai Lung. The Pillar of Ultimate Peace, for instance, refers to the execution block.
Soon after 500 a long time go, Monkey is provided launch from his imprisonment if he will become the disciple and bodyguard of a Buddhist monk undertaking an arduous mission to India. Tripitaka, as the monk is nicknamed, has been tasked by China’s emperor to convey back again exclusive sutras of salvation from Thunderclap Monastery on Soul Mountain. A whiny, to some degree dimwitted holy gentleman, Tripitaka wants all the aid he can get. His entourage in the long run contains a dragon that can think the form of a horse, a former Immortal named Pigsy who “took a wrong turn on the route to Karma and finished up staying reborn as a hog,” an ex-cannibal known as Sandy and, most significant of all, the clever and invincible Monkey.
Admittedly, all this sounds rather entertaining, instead like a kung fu or superhero film. Monkey and Pigsy even exchange the de rigueur banter and mutual putdowns of this sort of action motion pictures. Unfortunately, there’s just no serious suspense to the various difficulties dealing with our heroes. Normally, some monster or demon spies the travelers and decides to eat them. To do this, it transforms by itself into an aged peasant, a fellow Buddhist or a wonderful youthful lady. Invariably, all the pilgrims are taken in by this subterfuge, other than Monkey, who saves the day with his individual shape-modifying magic, then finishes off the fiend by smashing its skull with his trusty iron employees.
More than time, Monkey does obtain some empathy and a moral feeling, most notably when he rescues 1,111 minimal boys from getting sacrificed to a deluded king. Our heroes even study a tiny about what lifetime is like for the opposite sexual intercourse: When passing by the Land of Ladies, Tripitaka and Pigsy accidentally consume a distinctive drinking water that induces being pregnant. In the finish, this ragtag band at last acquires the sutra scrolls from a amazingly worldly-wise Buddha and achieves a form of sainthood for by themselves.
Even now, I required to like the guide extra. Even abridged to a quarter of the authentic, its prolonged central segment struck me as repetitive, cumbersome and cartoonishly crude. Total, “Monkey King” lacked the attraction of Western fairy tales, medieval chivalric romances or “The Arabian Evenings,” each individual of which it sometimes resembles. Neither was there any of the wondrous eeriness or erotic poignancy of Pu Songling’s a little bit later traditional, “Peculiar Stories From a Chinese Studio.”
Being unhappy with these lukewarm emotions, I made the decision that some extra investigation may possibly give me a further appreciation of this widely acknowledged masterpiece.
As common, I bought caught up in that investigate, consulting reference textbooks, studying the introductions and afterwords to before translations (by Arthur Waley, W.J.F. Jenner and Anthony Yu), and mastering about the historicity of Tripitaka and the varying interpretations of this folk epic. Some critics, I discovered, perspective this basic as just slapstick leisure about a mischievous monkey, other people see it as a satirical critique of 16th-century China and nevertheless other individuals regard it as a spiritual allegory, potentially a plea for the essential unity at the rear of Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism. In Maoist occasions, Monkey has even been proclaimed a Marxist innovative, intent on overturning the oppressive imperial get.
Plainly, “Monkey King: Journey to the West” has prolonged been — and will carry on to be — a satisfying and satisfying examining practical experience for a lot of men and women. It is my decline that I’m not amid them. Even now, I continue to be all the additional keen to attempt quite a few other monuments of Chinese fiction, starting off with Cao Xueqin’s five-quantity novel of manners, “The Tale of the Stone.”
Michael Dirda reviews guides for Design and style every Thursday.
Monkey King: Journey to the West
By Wu Cheng’en. Translated and edited by Julia Lovell.
Penguin Classics. 384 pp. $30