Bridge of Birds by Barry Hughart

Delight, verve, brio, glee, panache, all of these are in Barry Hughart’s Bridge of Birds, the first of three books in the chronicles of Master Li and Number Ten Ox, set in what he calls “an ancient China that never was.”

Here is how it starts:

I shall clasp my hands together and bow to the corners of the world

My surname is Lu and my personal name is Yu, but I am not to be confused with the eminent author of The Classic of Tea. My family is quite undistinguished, and since I am the tenth of my father’s sons and rather strong I am usually referred to as Number Ten Ox.

Master Li is a venerable sage with a slight flaw in his character. He agrees to help Number Ten Ox in an improbable attempt to save the children of Ox’ village from a near-mystical poison that has left them all in a deep slumber that will proceed to death in a matter of months unless a legendary antidote can be found.

Here is how Mast Li relates an incident from his past:

“… Before sailing away with the sad news, their leader came to see me. He was an oaf named Procopius, and the wine had not improved his appearance. ‘O great and mighty Master Li, pray impart to me the Secret of Wisdom!’ he bawled. A silly smile was sliding down the side of his face like a dripping watercolor, and his eyeballs resembled a pair of pink pigeon eggs that were gently bouncing in saucers of yellow won-ton soup. To my great credit I never batted an eyelash. ‘Take a large bowl,’ I said. ‘Fill it with equal measures of fact, fantasy, history, mythology, science, superstition, logic, and lunacy. Darken the mixture with bitter tears, brighten it with howls of laughter, toss in three thousand years of civilization, bellow kan pei— which means “dry cup”—and drink to the dregs.’ Procopius stared at me. ‘And I will be wise?’ he asked. ‘Better,’ I said. ‘You will be Chinese.’”

Together Master Li and Number Ten Ox brave great danger, enlist unlikely allies, begin to unravel the mysteries behind the ku poison that afflicts the children, and seek the Great Root of Power that alone can save them.

Henpecked Ho is one of the allies, and here is how Master Li puts a proposition to Ho when they meet again later in the story:

Li Kao chewed though thoughtfully on his beard, and then he said, “Ho, Ox and I are wrapped in so many chains that we can’t move, you are attached to the wall by a leg chain, this dungeon is solid rock, the torture chamber is crammed with soldiers, we are eleven stories beneath the earth, and each landing is guarded by more soldiers. The palace is swarming with the army of the Ancestress, the army of the Duke of Ch’in is camped outside the walls, and Ox and I must escape from here immediately. Unless you look forward to being drawn and quartered, I suggest that you accompany us.”
“I think that’s a splendid idea,” said Henpecked Ho.

Some of the allies do not survive, and the fates of the children hang in the balance until the last possible moment, as is only right in this kind of a tale.

I first read this book when it was new, in the late 1980s, and I was happy to find that it had lost none of its charm. In the meantime, I have learned a tiny bit about Chinese history, and I was pleased to see several of those odds and ends appear in context in the story. I had quite forgotten the beautiful scene that gives the novel its title; this was like reading it for the first time all over again.

The book is full of heart; the author’s tongue is firmly in cheek, but he never looks down at his characters; it has the wonder of a good fairy tale, the wit of a sidesplitting comedy, and the action of a classic swashbuckler. More than that, it has delight at the world, particularly the ancient Chinese world, on each and every page.

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  1. […] the book that made me wonder whether I just wasn’t enjoying reading books on the smartphone. Bridge of Birds would be terrific in any format, but I had had lukewarm or only just better than lukewarm reactions […]

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