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The Deer and the Cauldron
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B+ : rollicking good fun, if ultimately too much all over the place
See our review for fuller assessment.
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The complete review's Review:
The Deer and the Cauldron begins in the China of late 1660s, the Ming Empire having collapsed and the Manchu Court's control over the country becoming more absolute; "The whole world belonged to the Tartars now, it seemed".
There is still considerable antipathy and resistance to the foreigners, with Ming officials going into retirement rather than serving these new masters and a secretive Triad Society, comprised of ten Lodges, among those fighting for the restoration of the Ming dynasty.
The Deer and the Cauldron presents Chinese culture in an overripe phase. There is something distinctly decadent about many of the characters and the phenomena portrayed in the novel.A Prologue -- "written in a very different style from the rest of the book" translator John Minford notes in his Introduction -- gives a good sense of lingering Ming hostility and the ruthless Manchu suppression, but the story proper begins in Yangzhou, and with twelve-year-old (or so -- he's unsure of his exact age) Trinket Wei, the barely educated scamp who is the central figure in the novel. The youngster, an ardent fan of the stories recounting the: "heroic exploits of the great Ages of Chinese Chivalry and Romance -- episodes from the great sagas like The Three Kingdoms, Outlaws of the Marsh, or Heroes of the Ming", sees and seizes an opportunity for his own heroic adventure when he joins up with wanted man 'Notorious Brigand', Whiskers Mao, "an ordinary peasant turned outlaw and swordsman". The eager and ambitious if untrained and unschooled Trinket quickly shows some mettle -- though he has to resort to underhanded tricks when he gets drawn into any conflicts -- and convinces a reluctant Whiskers to take him to Peking.
They've barely arrived in Peking before having a run-in with a palace eunuch, "a being of truly extraordinary powers, a practitioner of perhaps some black art", Hai Goong-goong. Hai is attended to by a young eunuch named Laurel; sickly -- though it barely impedes his fighting skill -- Hai regularly receives doses of medicine from Laurel. In a struggle, Trinket manages to overdose Hai, blinding him, and he kills Laurel; in the confusion, while Whiskers makes a slow getaway, he manages to convince the blind man that he is Laurel and steps into that role, playing the part of the young eunuch attendant after that. Keeping his uncouth manner sufficiently in check (just), no one really questions Laurel's odd transformation and (somewhat unbelievably) everyone simply accepts Trinket in the role: the country bumpkin suddenly finds himself living in the imperial palace -- albeit in the guise of a eunuch.
Old man Hai is, despite his age and physical condition, a remarkable fighter -- and seems willing to teach his attendant some fighting skills -- skills Trinket needs when he befriends a youngster about his age named Misty who wants a sparring partner -- and who proves to be slightly more adept at fighting than Trinket (and, Trinket realizes, must have a teacher who is at least Hai's equal, as any improvement in his own skills is easily matched by his opponent as they continue to spar).
Among the few demands Hai has of his attendant is that he find a way to sneak into His Majesty's Upper Library and bring him whatever copies of the Sutra in Forty-Two Sections are on hand -- a tall order for the basically illiterate Trinket: "The 'stealing' part was no problem; it was the 'book' part that presented what seemed at first like an insurmountable problem". Eventually, Trinket learns to at least recognize the title -- itself only small help, given how many volumes are found in the library -- and he comes to find that quite a few people are looking to get their hands on copies: the Empress Dowager specifically requests copies of it when an enemy at court who apparently owns a copy or two is defeated, while at another gathering Trinket witnesses someone steal yet another copy (which, however, Trinket manages to get his hands on).
The book -- or rather the eight copies of it that exist, one for each of the 'Eight Banners' of the Manchus ("the system of military and social organization used by the Manchus") -- are central to The Deer and the Cauldron, as Hai and the Empress Dowager are not the only ones desperately looking to get their hands on them -- while Trinket conveniently manages to collect copies along his adventurous way (and long before he has any idea what their secret might be). One story is that they're apparently a key to defeating the Manchus -- "somehow or other the secret lies hidden in those Eight Sutras", someone explains to Trinket -- but along the way, before he can get to the bottom of it, he gets himself (often unwillingly) involved in all sorts of other adventures; the sutras are far from the only points of contention in these times and among these many interests and factions.
It's not much of a surprise that sparring partner Misty turns out to be none other than the young emperor, Kang Xi, who ascended to the throne at age eight and is still only in his teens (but, though still boyish in many ways, certainly underestimated by those who consider him: "still a child who knows nothing about anything"), and while he's disappointed when Trinket finally learns his secret -- knowing Trinket will hardly dare to fight all-out against him any longer when they spar -- the two remain close friends, with Trinket winning high favor for his role in taking down one of the threats to the Emperor, Lord Oboi. And Trinket certainly can get used to the way pretty much everyone treats him when word gets around that he's so close to the Emperor. Only the oldest guard -- Hai, and the Empress Dowager -- are unimpressed, though Hai continues to have things up his sleeve, and certainly finds Trinket's closeness to the Emperor might come in handy.
Eventually, however, Hai lets on that he's known all along that Trinket had been impersonating Laurel, and it comes to a him-or-me confrontation; Trinket wouldn't seem to stand a chance against the master fighter, but he doesn't get himself killed right away and conveniently finds Hai drawn into conflict with the Empress Dowager, a still very powerful figure at court (though she is not the Emperor's mother, and definitely has her own agenda); Hai is a danger to her because he knows some of her secrets, which she very much doesn't want to get out. As Trinket can tell from watching them in combat, the Empress Dowager was the master behind the Emperor's fighting skills -- but despite being incredibly skillful, even she struggles against blind Hai. Trinket gets himself involved, giving her the necessary opening which leads to Trinket's evil old master finally being finished off.
As Trinket comes to learn, however, Hai's death only made for a reprieve: his involvement -- and what he overheard -- make him an inconvenient and dangerous witness, with the Empress Dowager simply too badly injured to immediately see to it that Trinket is permanently sidelined. Then and later, she proves herself to be quite the survivor -- and out to get Trinket, at all costs. Trinket, meanwhile, through extraordinary luck and guile, manages to evade the worst -- but she certainly proves to be among the most consistently dangerous adversaries he faces. (There's considerably more to her than anyone has realized, too; as is only eventually revealed, she's been hiding quite a secret in her chambers for many years now -- and even when that is uncovered, in one of the novel's biggest surprises, she remains a formidable adversary.)
Already responsible for removing the threat from former regent Oboi, Trinket finds himself in the thick of things when there's an attempt to get to the prisoner -- an apparent attempt to rescue him. Yet again Trinket's actions -- desperate and reflexive -- see him eventually hailed as hero, by yet another group of resistance fighters, the Triads -- the Green Wood Lodge, one of ten, specifically. Helmsman Chen, the supreme leader of the Triads is intrigued by Trinket, and takes him on as an apprentice -- and sees to it that he is installed as new Master of the Green Wood Lodge. There are obvious benefits to having an inside man in the detested Tartar court, so close to the Emperor, but otherwise Trinket is, of course, in way over his head with any sort of responsibility (never mind his increasingly conflicted loyalties, which will continue to tie him up in knots for years to come). Even Helmsman Chen recognized that Trinket is just a kid -- but, like many who underestimate the youngster, is pleasantly surprised by what Trinket (somehow) manages to get done:
He had only nominated the boy as a ploy to avoid further dissension between rival factions within the Lodge. Now Chen was beginning to think that the boy was turning out to be surprisingly promising. A few more years, and he might be more than a match for the other Lodge Masters.Trinket does know how to slip into the roles demanded of him, whether as eunuch -- everyone long remains convinced he is one -- or Lodge Master, quickly catching on how to 'lead':
He hadn't been with the triads very long, but long enough by now to know the drill. It as all 'Master this' and 'Master that' and respectfully waiting to be told by the Master what they should do; but invariably they had already decided what they wanted to do and only wanted the Master's approval for doing it, so that if there was any question about it later, the Master would have sole responsibility for what they had done. And so his invariable response to the invariable question was to turn it back on them: 'What do you think we ought to do ?'The supposed eunuch long remains fairly innocent (and ignorant) -- despite having been raised in a whorehouse -- but a succession of young women come into his life, and he finds himself attracted to them. A Lodge-dispute the Mu family has him take charge of the kidnapped 'Little Countess', Mu Jianping, and hide her in his rooms -- joined later by her older and very attractive sister-in-arms, Fang Yi. Fang Yi is engaged, but Trinket jokingly makes her swear to be his devoted wife if he can save her fiancé -- which she agrees to (convinced, still, also that he is in any case a eunuch). Of course, Trinket pulls off this difficult escape as well, and eventually gets the girls out of the palace too, and while they soon go separate ways, their paths and adventures come to cross again -- with Trinket still toying with the two of them.
Meanwhile, on further adventures away from the palace, he encounters the next group which is grateful for his having dispatched Oboi -- and receives, as a token of thanks, the maidservant Doublet, a devoted attendant all his own now. Though also still just a teen, she is well-versed in kungfu and a very useful guard to have on hand -- though they quickly realize it's better to disguise her as a boy, and she travels with him as his page. Theirs remains a close but playful relationship (as indeed all his relationships with women continue to have a playful side to them), but even though she serves as his attendant, Doublet is among the characters who, for quite some stretches, is placed very much on a back burner of sorts, sidelined from the action or the places Trinket is installed (as he is increasingly sent out, to variety of locales) for extended periods of time.
If Trinket's frisky flirtations with Fang Yi are still more fun and games, he eventually encounters someone he becomes besotted with, the beautiful teen Green Girl, later identified as Chen Ah Kor, another talented martial artist who he also eventually learns is a disciple of the so-called White Nun, who he also comes to associate with. He's immediately taken by her, his determination far more serious than usual:
'I'd like to marry that girl,' he thought. 'I will marry her. Even if it means going through fire or flood or boiling oil, I'll have that girl for my wife !'The Green Girl, however, is not in the least won over -- indeed, she has a different fate in mind for Trinket, typical for the story:
He didn't want to avoid her, he wanted to be near her. In fact, he wanted to marry her. The trouble was that the Green Girl had made it abundantly clear that she wanted him dead, and if he got near enough for her to do so, she would undoubtedly kill him.(Even if she never can do him fatal harm, the Green Girl certainly gives it a go and gets in some good licks along the way, but then Trinket gets a good hiding from many of the girls he deals with. Princess Ning, the Emperor's half-sister, also comes into the picture (rather well into the story), prodding her half-brother to spar with her and then, when he won't, taking on Trinket; in her case, fighting is less about besting another than an opportunity for masochistic indulgence; adding an unsettling element to all the martial arts display, her attitude -- begging for humiliation -- is a convincing manifestation of imperial decadence. Interestingly, when Trinket does finally first come into his own sexually it is with Princess Ning, on yet another long expedition, when he accompanies her as she is on her way to get married; her intended, meanwhile, gets considerably worse than ... the short end of the sword from her.)
Trinket's acquaintance with and devotion to the White Nun at least prevent the worst when he manages to get in the Green Girl's proximity again, but is hardly enough to actually win her over. In any case, Trinket long has too many missions and adventures to focus on any sort of love-interest for any appreciable length of time (and, for the longest time, they're all still convinced he's a eunuch anyway).
Trinket does come clean to Kang Xi, the first to learn that he's not a eunuch -- a logistical inconvenience, given palace protocol and rules, but otherwise not something that upsets the Emperor too much -- and, along with his own secret, reveals what the Empress Dowager wanted to keep from the Emperor: that his father, Shun Zhi, is, in fact is still alive -- having retreated to a monastery -- and that the Empress Dowager was responsible for the death of Kang Xi's mother (among others). Kang Xi sends Trinket to the Wutai Mountains to determine whether his father really is there and assess the situation, and Trinket does indeed find Brother Wayward (as Emperor Shun Zhi now styles himself). Trinket finds him surprisingly young -- but then: "Having come to the throne at age seven, he had been no more than twenty-four years old when he sought refuge in the hermitage on Wutai. He was still now only a year or two over thirty". Brother Wayward has managed to withdraw quite well, but the world won't quite let him cut all ties; he is well but not quite sufficiently protected, and Trinket has to help keep him safe from significant outside threats, which he does on two occasions.
For a while, his father becomes Kang Xi's priority, and Trinket the man to help protect him -- which first involves Trinket being shipped off to the famed Shaolin Monastery, where he's inducted as a monk -- and gets yet another name: Father Treasure -- and is supposed to undergo some training. (Here as elsewhere his innate laziness prevent him from picking up more than odds and ends; the rigors of any sort of training and practice are just not for him -- though he does enjoy some sparring, when occasion arises.) From there, he heads back to Wutai, where he is made an abbot at the Pure Coolness Monastery -- allowing him to get Brother Wayward's fat out of the fire, in a manner of speaking, again. Yet even all that wasn't a simple journey from A to B; along the way, Trinket found himself kidnapped and held on Snake Island. Here, too, he is thrown into a plotting (and fighting) group's fray, the fanatical Mystic Dragon Sect, founded and led by Leader Hong; here too there's internal dissent and when things get out of hand it is, unsurprisingly (although, as usual, also mostly through luck and trickery) that: "The only person left standing in the hall was Trinket".
Trinket's conniving -- mainly concerned with saving his own skin -- sees him accepting a high-ranking position in this organization too, as one of the Five Dragon Marshals who are under Leader Hong -- "an unprecedented honour for you to be made a Marshal as soon as you join the sect". He is warned that: "Even if they do make you White Dragon Marshal, they will dispose of you whenever they feel like it", but Trinket is willing to take his chances (or rather, he sees no alternative). He also agrees to go in search for the sutras -- like everyone else, the Mystic Dragon Sect want to get their hands on the eight copies of the Sutra in Forty-Two Sections -- which at least allows him to escape the island. But the sect have a sort of insurance policy, dosing him with the empowering but also dangerous Leopard Pill:
'This Leopard Pill is a miraculous medicine,' said the Dhuta. 'It can make you very healthy and strong, but if after a year you don't take some antidote, the poisonous ingredients in the pill gradually come into effectThe effects are pretty devastating, and so the clock is (slowly) ticking for Trinket to get the antidote. (He also learns that he is not the only one dependent on the Snake Island-dwellers for help countering the pills' time-delayed side-effects -- they have others in the same hold, a useful way of controlling them and making them do their bidding.)
Far-flung adventures continue. Trinket accompanies Princess Ning when she is to be married off -- with the messiest imaginable outcome, Princess Ning taking action that ensures that her fiancé will not be able to fulfill at least some of his marital duties (though she still has to marry the guy) -- and there learns of the rebellion that is being planned against Kang Xi, Satrap Wu Sangui uniting fronts, planning:
an unholy alliance with the Tibetans and Mongols in the west and north-west, the Russians in the north, and the Mystic Dragon Sect off the eastern coast.For all of Trinket's looking out for himself and easily shifting whichever way the wind seems to blow, he is devoted to his friend the Emperor, and though he is increasingly tempted to bail out and retire to some comfortable spot away from all this conflict, he is still repeatedly willing to risk life and limb to warn and assist his friend.
Sent off to Snake Island yet again, one of Trinket's (many) weaknesses -- the ladies, and specifically Fang Yi -- leads to his capture by the Mystic Dragon Sect and his being whisked far away, yet again. Devoted Doublet manages to follow her master, and help engineer an escape -- leading to them finding themselves in snowbound Siberia; a lengthy Russian detour finds them playing a role in the (historical) ascension of Princess Sophia to the position of regent, as instigators of the Streltsy uprising (1682). It takes quite a while before Trinket can be back on his way to China -- the voyage to Moscow alone took many months, and when all is said and done he's away from the capital for nearly two years (and it's been long believed he must have perished along the way) -- but his actions at least ensure that the Russians are removed from any rebellion-equation, one less thing for the Emperor to worry about.
Signs of rebellion continue to be strong, notably when the strongest local leaders tell the Emperor they would like to retire their positions -- clearly positioning themselves to take him on. Kang Xi sends Trinket on a mission to his hometown of Yangzhou -- where Trinket finally sees him mother again, still working at the same old whorehouse, Vernal Delights, (and unconvinced that Trinket has made good -- doubts that are more or less confirmed, in her mind, by his actions, as the brothel becomes site of yet another mess he gets into). Trinket returns to Peking reasonably successfully -- but, of course, also just brings more trouble back with him.
Trinket's various would-be loyalties (and if there's one thing he is, it is loyal), inevitably conflicting, become harder and harder to juggle, and there's a decided shift when Kang Xi confronts him and shockingly reveals that he has been aware of Trinket's various positions among the Ming resistance groups for a while now. The Emperor demands Trinket turn on them:
Actions speak louder than words. I want those Triads destroyed, root and branch. I want them dead, every one of them. And I want you to do it.Trinket can't turn on any of his friends -- Kang Xi and the Triads alike -- and so his situation looks dire:
The previous evening he had been worrying how to save his Manchu friend from the Triads and their allies; now he was desperately thinking of a way to save his Triad friends from the Manchus. Was there no end to it ?The Emperor, truly in the know, not only has a hit-list of forty-two enemies he wants to have taken out, but also has a plan -- one that will take out all his enemies at one impressive go. Desperate Trinket ingeniously has to try to save the day -- and as many people as he can -- and then, of course, has to flee the capital after meddling with the Emperor's carefully laid plans. And, of course, he is soon in yet another mess -- 'Out of the Wok, and into the Fire', as the sub-chapter heading has it -- back on Snake Island, and with Leader Hong none too happy with him.
Things work out, as they have a way of doing around Trinket, but he does find himself away from the fray for several years, safe but also isolated on yet another island. Life is in some ways idyllic -- he's collected the women he adores around him, and lives with seven wives in surprising harmony; he finds himself a father (of three children, in quick succession) -- and while the Emperor doesn't seem happy with him, at least he's not being hunted down. He does get involved in settling things down in Taiwan -- even taking charge of the island for a month (and earning himself a nice fortune while he's there) -- but is really itching to be back on the mainland and in the thick of things, helping his old friend Kang Xi.
Eventually, Trinket and his large entourage are welcomed back in the capital -- with Trinket then entrusted with another sensitive political and military mission, to deal with threats from Russia. Venturing north again, he shows his imagination in taking down a Russia fort in iciest conditions -- and negotiating, long-distance, with the Princess Regent Sophia, who still longs and lusts for her old companion .....
It's a bit of an odd fit of an adventure, but an amusing enough episode. It's also pretty much Trinket's last hurrah. Back in Peking, Kang Xi again demands a show of loyalty -- that Trinket execute his old friend, Whiskers Mao, putting Trinket in a very uncomfortable position (but if there's anyone who can deal with those ...) -- and though the Emperor is also always ultimately forgiving of Trinket's tricks and foibles, Trinket does decide it's time to withdraw, and enjoy life with his extended family in peace.
Trinket is an amusing central character. He's base -- "Trinket's conversation was normally a mishmash of uncouth urchin-like street language, liberally spiced with references to basic bodily functions" -- but even as he quickly accumulates high positions and grand titles, inside and outside the court, he never gets too full of himself, or forgets his origins and limits. He generally acknowledges -- and often even plays up -- his ignorance, understanding that there are some things he can not bluff his way out of (usually), like the fact that he can't read, or that his fighting skills are limited; his candor and this kind of humility usually stand him in good stead, including their disarming quality:
'Actually I'm afraid I can't read or write,' he confessed. 'You'd really better not make the mistake of calling me a Great Man of Letters. Doctor Dog Fart would be a far better title for me.'Practically everyone has a deep sense of honor and pride, and both at court and in the different resistance groups these are fundamental; rarely does anyone break their word, because to do so is disgraceful. Trinket understands protocol and hierarchies -- kowtowing and sweet-talking whenever the situation demands or warrants it -- but he also benefits from not being as puffed up as most of those around him, and willing to acknowledge weakness or make a fool of himself. By doing the unthinkable, he can get away with more -- convincing others by behaving in surprising ways:
The boy was probably telling the truth if he admitted to being a coward.(So also there's always that fallback: "the famous Thirty-Sixth Strategy: when all else fails, beat a hasty retreat".)
He does have his talents, including an excellent memory and being: "a brilliant (and merciless) mimic". Trinket remains a cunning liar and trickster -- his nature: "moulded by years spent first in a whore-house, then in the palace -- both places where deceit and duplicity flourished" -- but, while his first priority is invariably to save his own skin (from the endless series of terrible situations he gets himself into), he remains generous and is willing to take on great risks to help others out. Woe to those who get in his way, such as Zheng Keshuang -- a longtime nemesis, whom Trinket goes out of his way to annoy whenever he can --, the Green Girl's would-be fiancé, but otherwise he: "genuinely enjoyed making new friends, and giving them a good time". He knows how helpful bribery can be, and generously doles money out, never too worried about holding on to any riches -- though certainly willing to accumulate some, as the occasions arise.
Quick on his feet, juggling his various roles nevertheless gets increasingly complicated, as his more prominent role and activity away from the palace lead to encounters of two or more groups that he is actively part of; the excuse to one party -- generally a variation on the idea that that he has infiltrated the other, and is only playing a role -- becomes increasingly difficult to pull off convincingly as more and more people are familiar with him (and his stunts) -- and he doesn't help himself by sometimes forgetting to keep his stories straight:
Confusion such as this was becoming only too common on Trinket's part, as he sought unsuccessfully to manage his complex identities.Trinket is loyal, and his loyalties are repeatedly tested -- making for amusing (and sometimes ridiculously complicated) contortions. Repeatedly, he is also put in the position of helping, in one way or another, actual enemies, which further complicates matters. His friendship with Kang Xi is a near-constant, but the novel does take on a darker, different feel when Kang Xi reveals that he is aware of the games Trinket has been playing, making it difficult to sustain their friendship at the same level as it long had been. Though forgiving of -- and always amused by -- Trinket, Kang Xi's closeness to Trinket does suffer from the repeated testing of allegiances.
In his Introduction, John Minford notes that: "Louis Cha's novels are about kungfu and kungfu Masters" -- Martial Arts or wuxia fiction -- but also that The Deer and the Cauldron is: "in many ways his least typical work". Martial arts does feature prominently, and hand-to-hand combat, in various forms, including sword-fighting, constantly comes up. People are constantly being beaten (up), or taking on multiple attackers; expertise ranges from Trinket's very limited and ham-fisted efforts (relying, certainly at first, more on dirty tricks than authentic fighting moves) to incredible powers. Occasionally, the combat veers towards the ridiculous but much of it is certainly spectacular -- and sometimes both:
The fight between Thin Dhuta and the Beggar became quite a spectacle, with the little fat man ricocheting off the ceiling and bringing down an avalanche of broken tiles and dust. Finally Thin Dhuta came hurtling forwards, head down and with all his might, and when the Beggar stepped nimbly aside, he looked set to collide with the wall and spill his brains. At the very last moment, Fat Dhuta grabbed hold of one of the gambling den attendants who crouched huddled up in a corner of the room, and hurled him between the wall and the oncoming human missile. The impact was such that Thin Dhuta's head went clean through the poor man's chest and embedded itself in the wall, creating a large dent in the masonry.The Deer and the Cauldron is unusual in that its 'hero' is anything but -- at least in the traditional sense of kungfu master (or student). He's eager to learn some moves, but has little patience and only picks up odds and ends here, and never becomes an accomplished fighter. (Cha throws him a few crumbs, late in the story, Trinket finally at least picking up one particular school: "He turned out to be a brilliant student of the Art of the Hundred Flights. Here was a branch of kungfu that really appealed to him.")
Trinket is also something of a troublemaker, goading others and inflaming situations; typically:
Trinket was almost disappointed to see things calming down like this. He had secretly been hoping to watch the encounter escalate into a free-for-all fightWhile he is taken on by more than one shifu -- masters/teachers, including some of the most adept -- that itself is bad form (a disciple should have only one master) and, on top of it, it's pretty much wasted effort, as he is an exceptionally poor student (though at least he feels guilty about that, always worried about disappointing them with his lack of rigor and how little he practices). In his various high positions, he does, however, almost always have people willing to defend or fight for him -- notably also Doublet (as there are an impressive number of girls and women who are highly skilled at kungfu in the story). Nevertheless, Cha also outfits him with two vital accessories: a "weapon-proof waistcoat" that saves him from what would otherwise be deadly blows and sword-attacks several times, and a sharp little dagger that he keeps in his boot and that can pierce and cut through anything (including, very usefully, other swords). He also isn't afraid of getting into the fray himself -- and benefits from his reputation, his role in dispatching Oboi convincing many that he must be an impressive kungfu master in his own right.
While martial arts-focused, with different schools and techniques being set against each other, the concept of 'kungfu' is also a broader one here, applied to many other endeavors. So, for example, Doublet pieces together a treasure map out of jigsaw-like pieces, and Trinket praises her:
I call it brilliant ! Most excellently brilliant kungfu, that's what I call it !And one of the characters laughingly suggests about Trinket:
Shameless little monkey ! You're the world's greatest Master of the Sucking-Up School of kungfu !The actual fighting scenes are quite well done, with many of them genuinely exciting, and the kungfu skills on display impressive (if rather fantastical-sounding ...). The pressing of 'Vital Points', immobilizing fighters, in part or whole, seems rather unrealistic but is often relied on; it's certainly convenient. But, despite being a 'martial arts novel', The Deer and the Cauldron doesn't bog down in all the combat; Cha doses it quite well (though there certainly is a lot of it), and doesn't go on too long in the scenes themselves.
Firearms are also an issue: the characters recognize the danger they pose:
'If those Russians with their firearms come here, we are all of us done for.''Trinket does get two pistols, which play a small role in the story; Kang Xi gets some foreigners to help with the building of canons -- and these are used to spectacular effect in one case, but surprisingly don't figure much in the ongoing wider conflicts in the country(side).
One difficulty of such a sprawling crowded novel is that some of the characters and storylines get crowded out. Characters are lost from sight for extended periods of time -- often feeling entirely forgotten. Cha even jokes about this at one point, when he brings two back into the story after an extended absence:
They had kept a very low profile for fear of complicating life unnecessarily for him and for themselves (and, no doubt, for the indulgent reader as well).More problematic is that the novel itself has been considerably trimmed down to size (yes, even at three volumes, over 1500 pages, and over 600,000 words ...): translator Minford notes that he and his co-translators edited the story, the ten chapters of the second volume, for example, trimmed from the twenty in the Chinese original. The novel as a whole has fifty chapters in the original but only twenty-eight in the English translation.
Minford acknowledges that: "There has been quite a bit of condensation, but I (we) have tried to lose nothing significant from the plot". It's unclear how successful he/they were; certainly, there are story-lines that feel thinned out -- such as the urgency of the antidote for the pills dispensed on Snake Island. The secret of the sutra-volumes also peters out a bit, while Kang Xi's father Shun Zhi-as-Brother Wayward completely disappears from the story. Several of the adventures also feel pared back and rushed, and would benefit from more exposition; it's a shame that the whole novel isn't allowed to unfold at its original pace -- though, granted, even in this form it is a very long work.
The novel reads well and quickly -- though, again, there are parts where there is distinctly too little -- and while some of the Anglicized names, of people, kungfu schools, and the like, might be a bit awkward, on the whole it doesn't sound too strangely off (certainly not in comparison to how most old kungfu movies were dubbed in English ...). Obviously, something is lost in the presentation of the high and low (or, in Trinket's case, very rough) language, but overall one gets a decent sense of these. The curse words and expressions that are frequently repeated -- specifically: "tamardy !" (the vaguely phonetic version of the Chinese 他妈的) and "Hot popping momma !" -- take some getting used, but ultimately seem appropriate enough.
Cha nicely closes off the book suggesting that Kang Xi has proven himself a worthy ruler -- and that, after all, the late Ming rulers were a decidedly uneven lot themselves, so that it shouldn't matter so much what group the country's leader(s) should be from, with Trinket then wondering about his own heritage, trying to get his mother to tell him which group his father belonged to. Unfortunately, given her work, the possibilities are near endless: ("let me see now, I had Chinese, I had Manchus, Mongols --" is the beginning of her list ...).
The Deer and the Cauldron is uneven, but, at least as far as the action goes, manages to sustain excitement very consistently: there are very few lulls of any sort, and only a few of the adventures (such as the late one in Siberia) feel a bit out of, or at least awkwardly, place(d). Trinket is an engaging protagonist, though some of the shifts in the character -- especially from everyone-thinks-he's-a-eunuch to when he's suddenly bedding seven wives -- can feel somewhat abrupt and underdeveloped. There's also a marked, darker shift in the latter stages of the novel, as Trinket takes actions that seem out character (though Cha tries to have it both ways with, for example, the fate of Dolong, too easily letting Trinket off the hook there), but on the whole he remains a sympathetic character. Impressively, Cha manages to avoid making him annoying, as could all too easily be the case with such a figure.
The strong women characters -- in both kungfu and other respects -- are an appealing aspect of the novel too, as is Trinket's interaction with them. Ranging from the entirely devoted Doublet, who truly wants just to serve (and protect) him, to the much more independent-minded (and often outright antagonistic) characters, they make for an interesting group -- with only the later dynamics, when all are apparently one big, happy family, left somewhat underdeveloped: it would be fascinating to get more insight into the women at that point in their lives.
The Deer and the Cauldron is good -- and, for considerable stretches, very good -- fun, full of enjoyable adventure and considerable suspense, with some neat little surprises and turns along the way. There is considerable carnage, and rather a lot of serious injury and broken bones that is treated rather unbelievably casually, but it's probably for the best that most of this isn't treated too seriously.
On the back of the very strong character of Trinket, The Deer and the Cauldron is a solid, enjoyable, and amusing extended ride.
- M.A.Orthofer, 17 May 2019
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Chinese author Jin Yong (金庸; actually 查良鏞)), also known as Louis Cha, lived 1924 to 2018.
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