Time to pop in at home on the way to my next exotic destination!
If you asked many Australians who is their country’s best writer, or especially their favourite one, I doubt if many of them would say Patrick White. In fact not so many of them have read him; he has a reputation for being difficult, and there are so many other great Australian writers, who are easier to read to boot! (It seems like Tim Winton’s Cloudstreet is the default choice for Australia). But I felt the compulsion to give him a go, and now was my chance.
This classic by Australia’s only Nobel Literature Prize winner is a fictionalised account of the last journey of Ludwig Leichhardt, who mysteriously died on his last audacious expedition trying to cross the continent from east to west. It seems to be a close portrait from what we know; White’s Voss (despite his Norwegian-sounding name) is, like Leichhardt, also a German, a loner, more comfortable in the bush than in society, a good bushman but an equivocal leader (as shown by a mutiny), who tried to maintain good relations with the Aborigines (two of whom travelled with him, and from whose skills he undoubtedly profited).
He himself, he realized, had always been most abominably frightened, even at the height of his divine power, a frail god upon a rickety throne, afraid of opening letters, of making decisions, afraid of the instinctive knowledge of mules, of the innocent eyes of good men, of the elastic nature of the passions, even of the devotion he had received from some men, and one woman, and dogs.
The back story of Voss is his unrequited romance-by-letter with a young Sydney girl, despite his cruelty to her (not least in deserting her for his doomed expedition):
With rough persistence he accused her of the superficiality which she herself suspected. At times she could hear her own voice. She was also afraid of the country which, for lack of any other, she supposed was hers. But this fear, like certain dreams, was something to which she would never have admitted.
I did enjoy Voss, which was a great psychological study of a loner who flees society and a loner who stays at home, and the surprising, tenuous but strong bond between them.
Time to finally get around to reading Cloudstreet!
WHITE, Patrick (1912-1990), Voss, Sydney, Vintage, 2012, ISBN 978 1 74275 688 2
(first published 1957)
China (English) – Journey to the West /Monkey = Xi You Ji 《西游记》
by (WU Cheng’en) (吴承恩)
The old man was at the same time delighted by Sanzang’s fine appearance and alarmed by Pig’s and Friar Sand’s remarkable ugliness. Inviting them in, he told the younger members of the family to bring tea and cook a meal. Hearing all this Sanzang rose to his feet to thank the old man and ask, “Could you tell me, sir, why it has turned so hot again although it is autumn now?” “These are the Fiery Mountains, the old man replied. “We don’t have springs or autumns here. It’s hot all the year round.” “Where are the mountains?” Sanzang asked. “Do they block the way to the west?” “It’s impossible to get to the west,” the old man replied. “The mountains are about twenty miles from here. You have to cross them to get to the west, but they’re over 250 miles of flame. Not a blade of grass can grow anywhere around. Even if you had a skull of bronze and a body of iron you would melt trying to cross them.” This answer made Sanzang turn pale with horror; he dared not to ask any more questions.
Probably the greatest of the ancient Chinese classics is the Hong Lou Meng (Dream of the Red Chamber, amongst other alternative titles). Since I had already read it, I chose another classic to kick off this project, the Xi You Ji.
This is a mythologised Ming version of the (Tang Dynasty) pilgrimage to India by one of my heroes, the monk Xuanzang, to bring back the true versions of the Buddhist scriptures (which had become corrupted in China, due to distance from the source and difficulties in translation into a very different language). It is one of the great classics of my beloved Silk Road. When I was in Xi’an I was excited to see the Big Wild Goose Pagoda (Dayanta) where Xuanzang spent years translating them to Chinese, and also the Flaming Mountains (Huozhou Shan) near Turpan in far western Xinjiang where he had one of his adventures. The Xi You Ji is a send-up, and its Xuanzang (called Sanzang in this edition) bears no resemblance to the historical figure! He is accompanied by some mythological animals, Monkey, Pig, and Friar Sand and the poor pilgrim is just a figure of fun who wouldn’t have made it if it wasn’t for Monkey (who is like Sancho Panza to Cervantes’ Don Quijote). It’s such a shame that while the Xi You Ji is well known to Chinese people, the account by the real Xuanzang, who deserves to be as well-known as Marco Polo, both by them and the outside world, is almost forgotten nowadays. Even so, the fairy tale is a good romp!
Wu Cheng’en (c. 1500 – c. 1580): Journey to the West, translated by W.J.F. Jenner, Beijing: Foreign Languages Press, 2008 (originally published 16th Century), 3 vols., ISBN 7-119-01663-6
Monkey, translated by Arthur Waley, London: Penguin Classics, 1994, 1942, ISBN 9780140441116