Sunday, June 21, 2020

Fortnightly Book, June 21

Reader, may these plain but honest words I write
brighten the long hours of your own dark night.

Nguyễn Du (1765-1820) was the ambassador from the Vietnamese court of the Emperor Gia Long to the much mightier empire of China. On a diplomatic mission, he seems to have picked up a somewhat trashy Chinese historical novel, Jīn Yún Qiào. That work seems almost universally to be regarded as mediocre at best, although popular in its day, but something about it seems to have struck Nguyễn Du at a deeper level, and he began writing a poem in Vietnamese based on the plot, which takes a standard girl-meets-boy romance story and completely upends it. His final result, like Shakespeare building on Italian novels, was an extraordinary achievement. The Đoạn Trường Tân Thanh, A New Cry from a Broken Heart, is the Vietnamese national epic; it is usually not known by its title, though, but simply descriptively, Truyện Kiều, The Story of Kiều.

I will be reading the Penguin Classics edition, translated by Timothy Allen. It's fairly colloquial in its approach, but seems at first glance to provide a good balance between capturing some of the original poetry and retaining the flow of the narrative. We'll see how it goes.

It is the reign of the Jiajing Emperor in the midst of the Ming Dynasty. The realm in some ways runs smoothly, but is bedeviled by the corruption of officials and, in the southeastern provinces in which much of the story takes place, the predations of pirates and criminals. The family of the beautiful Vương Thúy Kiều faces complete economic disaster and may be jailed, so Kiều gives up her potential marriage with Kim Trọng, whom she loves, and instead marries Mã in exchange for his help for her family. Unfortunately Mã is a criminal, and Kiều will have to survive terrible things. The good do not always fare well in this world. But there is a power in the human heart to endure.