Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Monkey: A Journey to the West

Monkey: A Journey to the West
Originally by Wu Cheng'en
Retold by David Kherdian
Published in 2005
Published by Shambhala
ISBN: 1-59030-258-3

Journey to the West
is one of the central books in the East Asian literary canon. If you're an educated East Asian the book has almost certainly left some kind of impact on your brain. Even if you've never read a version of it, you probably know of key episodes in the story. Even in the unlikely event you're not familiar with the plot, you certainly know of other works of fiction that were strongly influenced by it.

You can't be a consumer of media in East Asia and remain untouched by Journey to the West (or other central works of East Asian literature, such as Romance of the Three Kingdoms or Dream of the Red Chamber), any more than you can be a media consumer in the Anglosphere and be wholly untouched by Shakespeare or the more important Greek myths.

Journey to the West is an episodic adventure story heavily influenced by Buddhist and Daoist philosophy and sensibilities. The Tang Dynasty monk Xuanzang has the task of venturing to India (a fantastical, made-up India) to retrieve Buddhist scriptures. Although Xuanzang is the nominal protagonist, the story is really about his sidekick, the powerful supersimian Monkey. Monkey is the focus of the narrative, Monkey is the truly memorable character, and Monkey is the name by which the book is better known outside of China.

In David Kherdian's abridged retelling, the focus is squarely on Monkey. The first half of Kherdian's retelling is devoted to Monkey's origin story. The narrative describes Monkey's establishment as Monkey King, his spiritual training, and how he acquires great powers and powerful weapons. Finally, at roughly the book's halfway point, Xuanzang (called Tripitaka here) shows up and the Journey properly begins.

(Don't turn up your nose at the thought of reading an abridged version. A completely faithful Journey to the West would be immensely long, and what's been cut is apparently more episodic adventures, not intellectual or spiritual complexity. If you want to read the whole thing, there are two very well-regarded complete English translations; one is three volumes long, the other four volumes.)

As always when I read premodern fantastical literature, my mind tries to apply the logical rigor found in modern genre fantasy. I ask myself questions like, if two combatants are locked in a deadly duel and one of them magically grows himself to a height of 10,000 feet, is that really such an overwhelming advantage? I can think of lots of tactical reasons why being that tall would be a major disadvantage in battle. And seeing how battles between strong supernatural beings in this universe generally play themselves out as duels between shapeshifters, I wonder what would happen if one of the combatants got creative and transformed himself into a horror not found in nature or legend but something uniquely shaped to trap and kill whatever form his opponent happened to be in at that moment.

This is the same kind of thinking that also makes you wonder why it was so damn impossible for Achilles' mother to make her kid's heel invulnerable, too.

At one point we meet Laozi, the legendary old Daoist said to have written the Dao De Jing. He's running an alchemist's lab up in Heaven, full of bubbling cauldrons and various potions and concoctions. Suddenly it dawned on me: according to Journey to the West, the famed old philosopher and central figure of Daoism is actually a celestial mad scientist.

There's a lot of other memorable imagery in Kherdian's book, and I feel not only has my Asian cultural literacy been bolstered, but I also might one day seek out one of the unabridged versions.

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