The second of five reviews of Chinese novels published in the Chicago Tribune 6.7.08, a new installment in Canongate’s myth series, which includes Margaret Atwood’s The Penelopiad: The Myth of Penelope and Odysseus and Ali Smith’s Girl Meets Boy: The Myth of Iphis.
Binu and The Great Wall: The Myth of Meng
By Su Tong
Translated by Howard Goldblatt
Canongate; 291 pages; $24
A new installment in Canongate’s innovative myths series, Su Tong’s “Binu and The Great Wall: The Myth of Meng” breathes fresh life into a 2000-year-old Chinese tale with a lyrical retelling evoking ancient times and effortlessly conveying universal allegories of poverty and class, power and powerlessness.
Binu’s epic journey to bring her husband winter clothes at the Great Wall construction site is rife with familiar archetypes—including hidden identities, larger-than-life traveling companions, new lands and laws (such as “Say only what you should say, and not what you shouldn’t,”) and protracted vignettes that often exist in oral stories. But most captivating is the story’s vivid, magical realist landscape, where “Even the water flowing in the moonlight gasped tensely,” men become deer and, in villages where crying has been forbidden, tears are the most powerful force around.
Binu’s tears escape through her hair, evoking memories, causing floods, and affecting everyone and everything around her, and in turn engender the book’s central question: “What was the point of crying?”
Like Salman Rushdie’s query “What’s the use of stories that aren’t even true?” in his allegorical “Haroun and the Sea of Stories,” this message, embodied in a sorrowful, headstrong protagonist unafraid to die or act outside the crowd, rises above the story’s fantastical elements and reaches across geographical walls to inspire people to fight government control and censorship as long as “’all kings want to build walls.’”