Review of Bridge of Birds by Barry Hughart
Bridge of Birds
by Barry Hughart
Second review: November 2017
Gosh, has it really been 7 years—nearly 8?—since I read this? Feels like no time at all.
Anyway, after not enjoying Who Fears Death, I was struck with a sudden … craving (?) for this book. Just an urge to re-read it. I can’t explain why. I just knew it would help.
And it definitely did. I have little to add about the book itself in this second review—my first review stands. I’ll say that I picked up on a lot more of the … uh … sexual stuff this time around. 20-year-old Kara was a precious innocent.
Original review: January 2010
I'm starting to get to the age where I'm reading books now and saying, "Why wasn't this published when I was younger?! This is what I've been missing all these years; this fills the gap that, until it was filled, I never knew existed!" Although Bridge of Birds was published before I was born, it still provokes a similar feeling (one of, "Why didn't I know about this when I was younger?").
There's something seductive about fables and fairy tales—the real, often grim fairy tales that lurk in the subconscious of every culture. In showing us "an ancient China that never was," Barry Hughart embraces the atmosphere of a fable and the kernel of darkness it should contain. Reading Bridge of Birds was fulfilling—not only cathartic, but reassuring.
The repetitive structure of the plot (quest, then return to the village, quest, etc.) combines with the rhythmic style of the prose to manipulate one's emotions. Although Bridge of Birds has a happy ending, with the heroes vanquishing the villain and freeing the damsel in distress, there's a sinister sense that they got off easy and that more was at stake than was ever apparent. There are books that have happy endings because they are "feel good" books that put little at stake. Then there are books that have happy endings because they have something to say about happiness. Bridge of Birds is the latter.
But here I am, talking in vague generalities. One reason I'm doing this is that Bridge of Birds, to me, feels like a complete narrative only when considered as a whole … analyzing the individual parts of the story removes them from the context they need to remain vital. As the ending of the story reveals, it's impossible to understand the quest for the Great Root of Power without understanding the Duke of Ch'in and why he must be deposed. But why believe me? Li Kao, although he has a slight flaw in his character, says it best:
This is a fellow who arranged things so that anyone who went after him would have to wander through the landscape of a homicidal fairy tale, which makes no sense if you think of him as a great and powerful ruler, but which makes perfect sense if you think of him as he once was: a cowardly little boy lying in bed at night, staring in terror at every noise and seeing monsters in every shadow. He grew older, but it can scarcely be said that he grew up, because he was so frightened at the thought of death that he was willing to commit any crime, and even to lose his heart if it would keep him from the Great Wheel of Transmigrations.
This is a diagnosis of the Duke of Ch'in that strikes me as accurate, not just of the character but of the evils he represents. Hughart is also a master of foreshadowing in this book, and as the Duke of Ch'in's identity falls into place and we learn how he came to be so powerful, we see just how well Hughart laid out the steps leading up to the climax: the myth of the Princess of Birds and Star Shepherd, the scrutinizing powers of the Old Man of the Mountain, the tales of ginseng.
It's true that there's an inordinate amount of coincidence in the book, so much so that it becomes almost trite. Yet I'm inclined to forgive Hughart; he takes a gamble, and it pays off.
Aside from his above remarks, and his oft-repeated introductory phrase, I most enjoyed Li Kao for his interpretation of why Number Ten Ox and Miser Shen were devoted to Lotus Cloud but he was not. Master Li's "slight flaw" in his character prevented him from attaining the innocence of these other two, and thus prevented him from seeing Lotus Cloud's hidden godly nature. In that sense, I suspect the Duke of Ch'in is guilty of having supernumerary flaws of character. Master Li has lived long and has grown too cynical to stay completely uncorrupted. He has lived well, however, and preserved his sense of adventure and justice. The Duke of Ch'in, on the other hand, has lived too long, and has not lived well. His longevity has made him a more perverted, corrupted, and more cowardly man than he was in his youth. I found the contrast between the Duke and Master Li the most striking; there were many others, such as the brain/brawn pairing of Li and Number Ten Ox, and the transformations of Henpecked Ho and Miser Shen.
For such a short book, there's an awful lot to Bridge of Birds. The book's description doesn't do it justice and in fact doesn't let on to what actually takes place in the story. As such, Bridge of Birds is something of a hidden gem: it is far more fantastical, much more magical, than what one would initially expect. Suspend your scepticism along with your disbelief, and Bridge of Birds will win over your heart (just don't put it in a box in the middle of a city at the bottom of a lake).