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Taiga?s True Views: The Language of Landscape Painting in Eighteenth-Century Japan by Melinda Takeuchi (1994-06-01)
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The Red Pavilion , by Robert van Gulik

The Red Pavilion - Robert van Gulik

After the Dutch diplomat, orientalist and author Robert van Gulik (1910-1967) translated the Ming dynasty mystery novel Dee Goong An (Celebrated Cases of Judge Dee)




into English and had it published in Tokyo in 1949, it seems he was then on a mission - he wanted to convince the Chinese that their mystery tradition was strong enough to stand against that of the Occident and to convince the West that it was overlooking a good thing. It appears that he made at least some publicity for his view, since his Judge Dee series was quite successful both in the West and the East. (He translated some of the books into Chinese himself and arranged for them to be translated into Japanese, as well.)


In carrying out his mission, van Gulik did more than write his detective series with Judge Dee (who is the investigating magistrate in many of the Chinese novels, irrespective of author) as primary protagonist and with T'ang dynasty China as the setting; he also mined the Chinese literature for stories to tell and even adopted the structure of Dee Goong An by having three separate incidents of murder to solve, at least in this The Red Pavilion (1961). He was counting on his Chinese audience to recognize the stories and to see in the stories' success in the West that they could be proud of their literature.(*)


I don't ordinarily review popular fiction when I read it, but the circumstances surrounding this series are sufficiently unusual to write a few paragraphs. It would appear that others share this opinion, for The Red Pavilion and further volumes of the series are published by no less than the University of Chicago Press. Not to fear - these are not dusty academic tomes.


Circumstances, not careful planning, saw to it that I read this book first. It may or may not be representative of the series. Frankly, Dee Goong An had a great deal more flavor than this book does. The characters in the former were much more boldly drawn, and the marked distance in time, culture and attitude of  Dee Goong An was foreshortened in this book. In the original, Judge Dee was more adventuresome, cantankerous and arrogant (and worried about his neck) than in van Gulik's book. And the quotidian torture and executions of the Chinese tradition are suppressed here. The drama of contention, of struggle, is largely absent, whereas it was central in  Dee Goong An. What saves this book from itself are three of the secondary characters, Ma Joong, the Shrimp and the Crab, who wryly and amusingly comment on their "betters" and their doings from the peanut gallery. As a mystery story, this one is not bad, but I think that a pure genre reader would be disappointed. 


I acquired a few more books from this series, but I'll only report on them if they have more to offer than does The Red Pavilion.


(*) Recall that China was at another of its historical low points, having emerged from under the Japanese boot heel to be torn again by civil war. And the ultimate winners of that civil war did not have a picnic in mind when they finally got the reins of power in their hands.