Posted by: Lizzie Ross | November 18, 2011

Chinoiserie

Bridge of Birds: A Novel of Ancient China That Never Was (1984), Barry Hughart, 278 pp.

So. Imagine that every person you know between the ages of 4 and 14 has fallen mysteriously ill, and no doctor can cure them. What do you do?

If you’re Number Ten Ox, living in ancient China, you run non-stop to the nearest town and find a wise man willing to accept the pittance your village can offer for his help. Ox is lucky. He finds master Li Kao, the unlikeliest of heroes.

Li Kao is so old, he wishes he were 90 again. Ox has to carry him whenever speed is vital, the old man bumping on his back as he races through maze and tunnel, countryside and town. Yet Li Kao’s mind is prodigious, his memory unfailing, so the combination of this mind and Ox’s strength make them an unbeatable team.

Ghosts, disguises, despicable villains, beautiful young women, misers, bandits — all play a part in this complex comic novel as Ox and Li Kao try again and again to find the cure. They have to solve puzzles (what is the meaning of the pendant a young girl gives Ox? why do certain people keep cropping up? how can they lay all those ghosts to rest?), fight armies, and escape certain death so many times that I wondered if they were, perhaps, already dead.

Favorite quote:

“Well, it’s an idea, and even a bad idea is better than none,” said Master Li. “Error can point the way to truth, while empty-headedness can only lead to more empty-headedness or to a career in politics.”

The mark of a great novel: its ideas are never outdated.

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