Thursday, March 06, 2008

Binu and the Great Wall [Review]

Title: Binu and the Great Wall (publisher's page)

Author: Su Tong

Copyright: 2007, Canongate, Edinburgh (Hardcover, ISBN 978-1-84195-904-7)

Length: 291 pages

Genre: Fiction/Part of the Canongate Myth Series

Summary: Binu discovers that her husband, Wan Qiliang , has been drafted into the service of the Emperor in building the Great Wall of China. But he has been taken so abruptly -- working bare-chested in the forest -- that he has no warm clothing for the winter. Binu sees her duty as a wife as traveling to the farthest reaches of the kingdom to bring Wan Qiliang his winter coat. The other village wives whose spouses have also been taken are unwilling to travel with her so Binu sets off alone. Her chief characteristic throughout the course of this journey is tenacity, her stoicism in facing the harsh judgments of others as she makes her way towards the Great Swallow Mountain. Those others, who offer her no sympathy, include a carter with no hands who drives his team with his feet, a herd of Deer-boys, even the great General Jianyang who can hear the sound of Binu's weeping from a great distance. She does have one mystic guide with her, a blind frog who retreats and then returns to support her. But it is critical to the point of the book to stress that Binu is isolated and alone, a person of no status, an orphan without family to intercede, a woman entirely vulnerable to every indignity that is part of the human experience.

The writing style of this tale contains both poetic imagery and bleak events. The presence of Death in this story is as much a constant as the blind frog. Binu and the Great Wall is not told as a happy fairy tale the way that the story of Meng Jiang is frequently told. (See this version sanitized for Western audiences.) Su Tong's novel, translated by Howard Goldblatt, has points that are utterly bleak but still pays homage to the capacity of the ordinary person to change the direction of the powerful.

Extract: The frog stayed put, a single tear on its face bringing a white light into the darkness. Binu turned away to avoid looking at that tear. Sorrow had lost its power on this night; a woman who did not cry had already shed all the tears she had, and the tears of the frog were now someone else's burden. Neither could get a reaction from the other. So a long confrontation between a pair of one-time traveling companions developed at the river bend, and an air of antagonism turned the atmosphere icy. Even the water flowing in the moonlight gasped tensely.

Also Relevant: The story on which Binu and The Great Wall is based is well-known in China. The softened version (linked above) is re-told in a fashion suitable for children; other versions (like this one) are told in the context of a historical period in Chinese history. I read Binu without any foreknowledge of the story of Meng Jiang's tears; while I recognized occasional flashes of dry humor in the writing, the novel still struck me as a fairly serious story making a point about the ways a repressed, saddened citizenry may erupt under the rule of bureaucracy. Binu consistently adheres to her own beliefs of appropriate behavior even though the society around criticizes harshly her behavior. As she moves in a symbolic journey from a simple village in the South to the more complex and unfamiliar urban society in the North, Binu is incapable of adopting survival mechanisms that could ease her living. Her single-minded intent to provide the necessities needed by her husband in winter weather is laughable to those with some level of power or control. She obviously cannot succeed and yet, inexplicably, her individual devotion to a perceived duty is what triggers great change. Thus, Binu and the Great Wall is peculiarly hopeful even as it closes without romanticism or traditional "happy ending".

I found this installment to the Canongate Myth series to be worthwhile reading and certainly thought- provoking. I reviewed Karen Armstrong's introductory volume to the full series here and subsequently reviewed Lion's Honey, another volume in the series, here. So far, I think this is my favorite.