If we think of a historical Chinese novel, something boring comes to mind. Forget it!
By the water is an extraordinary novel.
It is part of the 5 most important books of the humanistic Chinese tradition, like our divine comedy or the decameron, I love to compare it to the story of the 3 musketeers, but in a Chinese version.
The story is that of 108 men with solid moral principles, faithful to the Emperor
– (sometimes a little manesque and accustomed to big drinks) –
forced to go into banditry (retreating to the swamps under the Liang Mountains) due to the rampant corruption of the ruling class of imperial officials: the establishment.
After a thousand vicissitudes, they gather an army, defeat the corrupt villains and return to the service of the Emperor.
A well-woven story that has a bit of everything: a hefty dose of action, a bit of brigands and a bit of honorable service to the emperor, many friendships, a few ghosts that always please, a pinch of Taoism and a sprinkling of Buddhism , all served on the plate of a great design whereby each of these heroes would actually be a divine spirit re-incarnated to carry out a celestial design.
You may have met these characters before, without knowing it. In Japanese paintings, mistakenly mistaking them for samurai or tattooed directly on the body of some people.
Kunyoshi is an important Japanese painter who, you think, became famous (early 1800s) only after tracing the painting of each of these 108 characters. Drawings so detailed that they look like real biographies.
In Kuniyoshi’s drawings, each bandit is drawn with attention to detail, tattoos and elements that make it possible to distinguish his name and history within the book.
I confess that I had a lot of fun trying to name and connect a part of the story to the tables of the Japanese master. The drawing, like the film, is not up to the book, but these plates, without pretending to summarize anything, return an enlarged and even more multifaceted image of the multitude of great men whose legend has survived to us .
The translation by Balduzzi is incredible. It manages to make a Chinese historical novel not only legible for the modern Western reader. But it even manages to make it slim, exciting, engaging, even hilarious. Many concepts that would weigh down the text during reading are eventually merged into a repertoire of notes. Needless to say, I enjoyed reading only the exhibit with all its refined details.
The preface struck me a lot. This book, unlike others, has no claim to complexity. It is not written by a renowned author, it is not written to convey knowledge to readers.
This book is written for the pleasure of writing, and it is all about giving its present and future readers the pleasure of reading. A sort of ode to the present time and the pleasure of living.
The author describes himself as a simple person with a modest house located on the bank of a stream. Here he loves to receive friends and write fantastic stories for the pleasure of it. It is therefore easy to imagine this house on the river and this handful of friends transforming into the characters of the story and it is moving reading the book to find elements of the everyday lives of these characters, after all like us, who lived so long ago.
But the author goes further, wondering about the success of his book, whether it will meet the taste of readers who will come in future times. He wonders if he himself, once reincarnated, will be able to reread his own book and if he will find it pleasant or not.
And at this point, without any pretense of complexity, he offers us a profound reflection on the most unexpected point of the book: the end of the introduction. If we ceased to be ourselves and could meet, how would we find ourselves? Pleasant or unpleasant? friendly or hostile?
What parts of our own character that we tolerate in ourselves would we fail to accept if we met as different people?
This point offers us a profound key to reading the book and ourselves. It offers us an analytical tool to observe our character and improve the quality of our human relationships.
But it also makes us understand a central theme of this book:
How to better understand ourselves and others,
how to overcome our own limits.
In short, the construction rules of the friendship between men.