Sunday, 6 March 2011

Exotic books: The Outlaws of the Marsh

One of the most unusual books I’ve ever read was The Outlaws of the Marsh. Written hundreds of years ago in China, it’s available in a cheaper four volume box set (which I’ve got) or a five volume set of larger books that must be bought separately (I have the second volume, The Tiger Killers). The translations are both good, the latter is perhaps better (it uses the term ‘cangue’ rather than ‘rack’ and translates one character as Short Arse Wang instead of Stumpy Tiger Wang, but it would be substantially more expensive).

Well over 2,000 pages long and bursting with violence, The Outlaws of the Marsh is a strange book, a bit like Robin Hood in ancient China. The narrative style is very interesting, and features an enormous cast (there are 108 named ‘heroes’ alone). A given hero (say, Lu Da, my favourite) will be the story’s focus for a short time, and then it will switch to another character and the first character may not come back for several hundred pages. Many characters are picked up and dropped off like this as the outlaw gang slowly accumulates new members during the course of the book.

The vast majority of the cast are male, with a few rare exceptions (the well-named Ten Feet of Steel being one), and battle against injustice and overly officious bureaucrats (something we can all relate to). Some heroes, such as Song Jiang, are almost completely virtuous and good, whereas others (Li Kui, the Black Whirlwind, being a prime example) are, er, ‘wayward’. And by ‘wayward’ I mean ‘he kills large numbers of innocent people on purpose’.

One of the nice little quirks in the book is the setting and the sayings. Written ages ago and thousands of miles away, they’re totally original to eyes that have only before read Western books.

The Outlaws of the Marsh could almost be described as the fairy tale or legend that Quentin Tarantino might write. There’s a colossal amount of violence (mostly the righteous killing bandits and officials who abuse their power), and sometimes the book can seem a bit repetitive (although that may just be a side-effect of its vast size). It can occasionally be difficult to follow the names given the large number of characters and some common names.

Because of its huge size, this is the kind of book that could easily take weeks to read. I enjoyed it quite a lot. It’s not flawless but it is interesting, different and lively.

Other similar books include The Three Kingdoms (relating the downfall of the Han Dynasty around 200AD) and Journey to the West (relating the story of a monk and his companions travelling to find the Buddha). I did start a fourth Chinese classic, Dream of the Red Chamber (also known as The Story of the Stone) but found it so tedious I stopped.


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