Tuesday, December 25, 2012
Book Review of #5 The Dreamer Wakes by Xueqin Cao
Author: Xueqin Cao
Publisher: Penguin classics
Part of a Series: The story of the stone Vols I-V
Type of book: Marriage, death, suicide, karma, evil spirits, China, 1700s, debt, shame, Manchurian dynasty, wealth, poverty, living beyond means
Year it was published: 1760 (version I have 1986)
Divided into five volumes, of which The Dreamer Wakes is the fifth, it charts the glory and decline of the illustrious Jia family ( a story which closely accords with the fortunes of Cao Xueqin's own family.) The characters are set against a rich tapestry of humour, 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.
The characters are only outlines of themselves and don't distinguish individual characteristics as they used to in the first three parts. They also tend to act out of character, Bao-yu in particular. I wish I could say more about them, but really, there's nothing to say. There's a lot of deaths in the novel, and so forth.
Everything is ordained by fate.
The plot ends are tied up loosely or not at all. Its in third person narrative from everyone's point of view. Besides seeing how the characters have ultimately ended up, there really isn't anything special or memorable about the last part.
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)
I wanted to like the last half of the book, but I couldn't. I couldn't connect with the characters, and the outline, although interesting, tended to be poorly written and uninteresting. Nothing was really fleshed out. The chapters are tied up poorly and I would recommend only reading to find out what happens with the characters. Its obvious that the author himself hasn't written it and it was written and finished by someone else. (Wonder if that's the reason two different translators are used...)
3 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.)