Monday, August 04, 2008

Cry me a River

Erudite Mondays at HalfSoled Boots
Volume 5 Number 1

Su Tong

I don't know much about ancient China - just the little bits you'd glean from being raised by a history-buff librarian mother who has a casual habit of coming out with little-known facts. When I saw the précis of this book I was intrigued enough to pick it up - the fact that it's another of the Canongate Myth Series, oft-mentioned at HSBoots, made it extra appealing.

I was surprised at how old this tale is: it has been passed down verbally for two thousand years in China. It's the archetypal quest book - a virtuous hero wandering, improvising, and persevering, until he is successful...or dead. We in the Western world are familiar with Gilgamesh, Beowulf, Odysseus, Aeneas, and the knights of the round table. What's refreshing about the tale of Binu is that the hero is a woman. Her gender affects all her adventures, and their outcome.

Binu's quest is a humble one. Her husband disappears one autumn day - conscripted with every other able-bodied man to Great Swallow Mountain to build the Great Wall. Binu, broken-hearted, ties a bundle of warm clothes for him and sets off, on foot, to bring them to her husband before the onset of winter.

In one way, her adventures are typical of epic characters. There are tricks played, disguises donned and discarded, theft of valuables. She falls into the hands of charlatans, hostile mobs, wealthy noblemen, feral children. The difference between this female character and her male counterparts is that she can never resort to force or even craftiness. Her greatest strength is her determination to reach the mountain, and at times the only thing that keeps her alive is her will to see her husband again.

I didn't love Binu. I often wished she would be more heroic - her special power of continuously shedding unending floods of bitter tears didn't seem very proactive to me. I couldn't help but pull for her, though. And by the end of the book, after all those miles of prefecture and villages, cruel, embittered amputees and reincarnated frogs, piles of excrement and hooded executioners, human ponies and gourd ladles, I cared about her. I wanted her to win.

The end of the book is a remarkable thing. It is the climax of all her adventures and misadventures, the last piece of the puzzle, the final question answered. At the building site of the Great Wall, where the labourers are driven mercilessly and the winter is coming down, Binu arrives to seek out her husband's fate. The tears she has shed on every page culminate in a torrent of water that devastates the landscape, washing every character in sorrow and bringing down the Wall. There is a sliding, anguished feeling of dropping sadness. For all its pain, the last metaphor is a beautiful one.

HalfSoled Boots Highly Specialised Book Rating System

Binu and the Great Wall

Reread? Probably
Given to Others? Yes
Bookplate? Yes



Tabatha said...

Every time you write a review I want to read the book & this one is no different.

lizbon said...

I love the ending, but I think she'd frustrate the bejeezus out of me. CRYING is her mutant power? Oh gimme a break.

I was reading a book yesterday in which one of the (male) characters says to another male character (in reference to the 2nd character's wife). "I don't know how to talk to an intelligent woman." And the woman's husband says, "You just talk to her as if she were a man." Amen, brother.