“King Gesar” Book Review: Epic Ballad Turned Novel Lacks Poetry

Writes David Yao (姚达兑) in a review of the new best-seller, King Gesar (格萨尔王), by Alai (阿来):

. . . the tale of King Gesar is recited by [the roaming bard] Jin Mei, while the entire novel is recited by Alai; King Gesar recounts his world-weariness and confusion to Jin Mei, while the novelist makes use of Jin Mei to convey to the reader the dilemma of the epic in the modern world. With the advent of modernity, even remote Tibet, this last pure land, cannot escape encroachment by the evils of the modern world. Sgrung no longer roam the four directions singing their ballads, for they have been corralled where they sing instead to microphones and tape recorders . . .

By David Yao (姚达兑)

Ph D Candidate, Chinese Department

Sun Yat-sen University

(Translated from Chinese by Bruce Humes. Here is original Chinese text.)

Modern-day Karma

of a Re-told Epic

Retelling the Epic of King Gesar [格萨尔传说] has proven an overwhelming task for Alai [阿来], because the object of his retelling is not simply a folk legend, but the epic ballad of a people. Although no one asserts that the epic is objective history, with over a millennium of periodicadditions, deletions and amendments, it carries a heavy load of the people’s collective memories. The epic possesses greater poetic truth than past history. Thus it is no exaggeration to say that the people’s widely held sentiments and values are tightly linked to the image of this epic hero.

It’s not difficult for us to understand why writing King Gesar (格萨尔王) has tied Alai’s heart in knots for several years. Alai puts it like this: “For an author, undertaking to re-imagine a fictional legend, and repeatedly glimpsing shadows of historical figures within the grand framework of that story, is a singular experience. Precisely because an ancient story preceded it, the entire writing process becomes an awe-inspiring educational journey.”

格萨尔王Because of this, we know that his “re-telling” faced a two-pronged dilemma. On the one hand, this epic is a memory shared by all Tibetans—Alai included—and therefore cannot be arbitrarily fictionalized. Fiction is instinctual to literature, however, and to limit this instinct signifies nothing less than curtailing the work’s artistry. If he insisted on remaining faithful to this traditional telling, he would inevitably be inhibited by it. But if Alai, a member of this ethnic group, retold the story in less than an ideal manner that fictionalized, distorted or added or cut too much content, then he would be rebuked by readers intimately familiar with the epic.

On the other hand, Alai is like other sgrung [Tibetan for “roaming bard”) who want to recite the story well; where he differs is that he must transmute the epic into a novel. To replace the story, traditionally recited in song, with a novel’s narrative requires transforming oral expression into a written one.Visited by the spirits in his dreams, the sgrung would enter into something akin to a “possessed” state in which his singing, tone of speech, vocabulary, facial expressions, movements and emotions would differ from those of a typical person. In other words, the gap between this performing art and the art of the pure written word is a wide one, so mastering a successful transformation from one to the other is a major challenge.

More important than the tale is the narration. As it is re-told, the relative emphasis, pace and richness of the narrative all influence the new perception of the tale. In King Gesar, Alai found a way to resolve these challenges through his choice of narrator and narrative mode.

He divided the story into two parallel narratives. One is the epic of King Gesar and the other is the sgrung’s storytelling life, each accounting for just about one-half of the book. This is a wise and admirable approach. Because of this, the novel is not just about the Epic of King Gesar, it also focuses on the living conditions of sgrung, as exemplified by one in particular, Jin Mei. The significance of this character is in posing a question that has no answer: Was it the spirits and the epic ballad that beckoned a sgrung to his vocation, or was the epic born of their reveries?

Song of the “Story Hat”

The mysteriousness of a storyteller like Jin Mei does not come with birth. It originates in sudden inspiration from the spirits, and thus many originally illiterate storytellers were henceforth able to give voice to wonderful verse. After King Gesar visited Jin Mei in his dreams, his uncle sensed that a sgrung was about to be born, so he crafted a unique [and magical] sgrung-zhav, or storyteller’s hat, for him.

As Alai tells the tale, he must do so in the same manner as the sgrung, and in effect, the novel is Alai’s sgrung-zhav. When the storyteller dons his sgrung-zhav, and when Alai uses his fictional novel to re-tell the epic, he is certainly sincere and meticulous.

But the epic perused by the reader of the novel has seemingly lost its unique charms. As it undergoes a modern transformation, the surviving artistic format of the epic becomes a purely narrative mode, and suddenly appears flat and flavorless. If we ignore the part about the sgrung and read only the King Gesar epic portion, then it is monotonous in the extreme. In this section, King Gesar is virtually invincible as his enemies take flight, and it lacks the suspense-building devices necessary to a narrative mechanism. Perhaps it is precisely because Alai realized that no matter how he re-told the tale, without the performing storyteller, the charm of the epic would necessarily suffer.

A People’s Epic: Modern-day Dilemma

The re-teller Alai wanders back and forth between the epic and reality, endeavoring both to capture the legend and greatness of the hero, and the reality of the insignificant storyteller and the hardships he encounters sustaining himself in the face of modernity. The tale of King Gesar is recited by Jin Mei, while the entire novel is recited by Alai; King Gesar recounts his world-weariness and confusion to Jin Mei, while the novelist makes use of Jin Mei to convey to the reader the dilemma of the epic in the modern world.

But with the advent of modernity, even remote Tibet, this last pure land, cannot escape encroachment by the evils of the modern world. Sgrung no longer roam the four corners singing their ballads, and they have been corralled where they sing instead to microphones and tape recorders, losing their genius all too quickly. Jin Mei detests this way of performing, and so he leaves the radio station. On the road, he happens upon an old scholar who is researching and collating materials about King Gesar. If we interpret broadcasting and recording of the epic, and its researchers in China and abroad, as the forces of modernization or sweeping globalization, then their appearance is a sign of alienation from the original epic, a phenomenon that has lead directly to its pending demise.

Alai’s center of attention leans toward modernizing the traditional epic. He wonders if, faced with the modern world, celebration of the epic won’t one day end for good. The modernization of the epic must inevitably alter its mode of being, for instance, through editing and rewriting and changes in what is performed and how. The destiny of the contemporary storytelling sgrung is even more worrisome; they no longer roam about freely, since broadcast media ensures the tale can reach everywhere. Changes in the mode of being of the epic are the very factors likely to lead to its extinction. Therein lies the greater attraction of Jin Mei’s tale—the motif of the epic ballad’s modern-day fate.

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