Tun-Huang – Yasushi Inoue

What can set in motion a chain of events that will, in hundreds of years, lead to a remarkable archeological find? More concretely, what can set in motion events that will cause a man to bury hundreds of pages of buddhist scripture in isolated caves?

This is the question that Yasushi Inoue answers with his work of historical imagination, Tun-Huang, so named for the caves where the monk Chao Hsing-te will end up burying the scrolls. The story opens hundreds of miles away. Hsing-te comes from a bureaucratic family and studied for years to take the civil service exam except, after cruising through the first two rounds of testing, he falls asleep in the waiting area and sleeps through the final round of testing. Faced with the prospect of waiting years for the next round of testing and being devastated, Hsing-te wanders through the market and chances into a merchant selling a Hsi-Hsia woman, one body part at a time. Moved by the spectacle, Hsing-te her freedom, and then sets out to see her homeland. Along the way he becomes a warrior, falls in love with a princess, becomes associated with a dangerous and violent merchant and a Hsing-te officer of Chinese origin with a near-suicidal mania for throwing himself into battle. All of these events are formative, but, ultimately, the most important development is that Hsing-te converts to Buddhism and dedicates his living to saving the documents before the flames of war consume them.

Tun-Huang is a book on which I am torn. The text forms the backbone of an epic story, and Inoue mimics the form of historical narrative from a detached vantage point. It is an epic in two hundred pages. Hsing-te’s transition is a worthy subject, and the Chinese soldier Wang Li, the merchant Kuang, and the Uigher princess are viable, if somewhat shallow, supporting characters. The book moves, and I agree with one review I read that compares the story to the form and style to that of the movie Western, but I still found myself dissatisfied. My problem was the sense of predestination in that, while not in form, the story is built to start with the end and then builds back the events that led up to it. As a result, individual scenes were moving–the sacrifice of the princess, the greedy merchant pawing through the ground for riches–but in part because I found the characters hard to connect with, I suspect because of the style, the overall the story lacked sufficient drama for my taste.

Next up I am currently reading Klaus Mann’s Mephisto about actors and theater in Nazi Germany and The Struggle for Sea Power, a global naval history of the American Revolution.

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