October 12th, 2008

Dear Monkey!

Monkey is China's Don Quixote. Or maybe it's China's Gargantua and Pantagruel. Or maybe- and this is a longer shot- it's China's Pilgrim's Progress.  What is has in common with all of them is that it comes out of that transitional period between the middle-ages and the modern era- which in Europe we call the renaissance- and it's an ur-novel.

And like these three very roughly contemporary European books it takes traditional material- from romance, fairy-tale, legend- and passes it through a sensibility that is critical, appraising, modern. It's intentions are complex. There's political and religious satire in the mix, also a measure of (What I think is) zen spirituality.  The narrative is swift, engaging and funny. Our hero, Monkey, is an anarchic spirit who wants to be a buddha- and who gains merit by undertaking a classic quest- as chief disciple of a soppy priest who burst into tears at every set-back-  and performing good deeds on the way. The good deeds  involve outwitting and beating up on a fearsome collection of sorcerers, monsters and ogres.  He's a divine trickster, a mischievous superhero, a mystically cool Bugs Bunny. He's aided by his fellow disciples, the Falstaffian Pigsy- who likes his grub- and the enigmatic river-spirit Sandy.

The translation I've been reading is Arthur Waley's. It's not perhaps the most accurate. It's certainly not complete. The original is very, very long and- one episode of monster-thwarting being much like another- I'm not sure I'd have the patience to stick with it all the way. Back in the 16th century they had long winter nights to get though unaided and the longer a story could be strung out  the better;  we, however, have television.  Waley was a literary amateur who hung with Ezra Pound and partied with the Bloomsberries and all but invented Chinese poetry for the West- in brief, a complete and utter dude. It seems not unlikely that much of the smoothness and dry humour of his version originates with him.

Monkey, Sandy and Pigsy
Here are Monkey and his friends as envisaged by Jamie Hewlett for the little promotional film the BBC commissioned for the Beijing Olympics.  It's fab-  the music is by Damon Albarn, of Blur and Gorillaz- and it's what got me itching to read the book. Watching it again, now I know the characters better, it brings tears of pure sentiment to my eyes. Dear, Monkey!