Friday, May 18, 2012
Book Review of #4 The Debt of Tears by Xueqin Cao
Author: Xueqin Cao, Gao E
Publisher: Penguin Classics
Part of a Series: The story of the stone
Type of book: China, Manchurian Dynasty, soul mates, 1700s, wealth, death, true love
Year it was published: 1760 ( Version I have 1982)
Divided into five volumes, of which The Debt of Tears is the fourth, it charts the glory and decline of the illustrious Jia family (a story which closely accords with the fortunes of the author's own family). The two main characters, Bao-yu, and Dai-yu, are set against a rich tapestry of humor, realistic detail and delicate poetry which accurately reflects the ritualized hurly-burly of Chinese family life. BUt over and above the novel hangs the constant reminder that there is another plane of existence- a theme which affirms the Buddhist belief in a supernatural scheme of things.
Although the author tries to keep semblance of the characters from the first three volumes, I feel that he doesn't succeed well and the characters are mere shadows of themselves. The volume is more of plot driven rather than character or detail driven. I do feel that many things are missing. In an odd way too I can describe the world as fragmenting and breaking apart, mere threads holding on to the story.
This novel was about true love between Bao-yu and Dai-yu, but I think both the authors were trying to imply the wrongness of having the parents make marital decisions rather than the characters themselves.
This will not have the first three volume's verbosity and detail, and I feel that there's a lot lacking when it comes to characters or Xueqin's enormous attention for details. It is written in third person narrative from multiple characters' point of views. It pushes the story forward to an ultimate lesson and conclusion, whatever it may be.
Almost no records of Cao's early childhood and adulthood survive. Redology scholars are still debating Cao's exact date of birth, though he is known to be around forty to fifty at his death. Cao was the son of either Cao Fu or Cao Yong. It is known for certain that Cao Yong's only son was born posthumously in 1715; some Redologists believe this son might be Cao Xueqin.
Most of what we know about Cao was passed down from his contemporaries and friends. Cao eventually settled in the western suburbs of Beijing where he lived the larger part of his later years in poverty selling off his paintings. Cao was recorded as an inveterate drinker. Friends and acquaintances recalled an intelligent, highly talented man who spent a decade working diligently on a work that must have been Dream of the Red Chamber. They praised both his stylish paintings, particularly of cliffs and rocks, and originality in poetry, which they likened to Li He's. Cao died some time in 1763 or 1764, leaving his novel in a very advanced stage of completion. (The first draft had been completed, some pages of the manuscript were lost after being borrowed by friends or relatives, but Cao apparently had not finished a final version.) He was survived by a wife after the death of a son.
Cao achieved posthumous fame through his life's work. The novel, written in "blood and tears", as a commentator friend said, is a vivid recreation of an illustrious family at its height and its subsequent downfall. A small group of close family and friends appears to have been transcribing his manuscript when Cao died quite suddenly in 1763-4, apparently out of grief owing to the death of a son. Extant handwritten copies of this work – some 80 chapters – had been in circulation in Beijing shortly after Cao's death and scribal copies soon became prized collectors' items.
In 1791, Cheng Weiyuan (程偉元) and Gao E (高鶚), who claimed to have access to Cao's working papers, published a "complete", edited a 120-chapter version. This is its first moveable type print edition. Reprinted a year later with more revisions, this 120-chapter edition is the novel's most printed version. Modern scholars generally think the authorship of the 1791 ending – the last 40 chapters – to be in doubt. (From Wikipedia)
If you have read the previous three novels and noticed the verbosity as well as the meticulous attention to details and if you liked that, then this part will be disappointing. On the other hand, if you found the first three volumes boring and are more of a plot person than detail, you will enjoy this novel. Its obvious from the size as well as the language that there was a different translator and it indeed were fragments rather than a whole and complete picture. There are a number of things that I didn't understand, and some were inaccurate. For example, when Dai-yu was starving herself, the effects of anorexia aren't described accurately, and there is also something to do with hell that I didn't understand but won't go into because its a spoiler.
4 out of 5
(0: Stay away unless a masochist 1: Good for insomnia 2: Horrible but readable; 3: Readable and quickly forgettable, 4: Good, enjoyable 5: Buy it, keep it and never let it go.)