Review #17: Monkey King

Look who’s back!

Occasionally I reflect just what an elegant and complementary group the Big Four Classic Novels are. I generally don’t like anything so reductive and it always feels a bit rough on those great works that don’t make the cut, but aren’t they just a perfect little group, covering the breadth of (proto-)genres? You could categorise almost any work of modern popular fiction as a descendant of one of the Big Four. One historical fiction, one epic romance, one martial arts action and one comedy. (The only big oversight is probably erotica – so a good case for including the Golden Lotus in the canon)

When I told my mother I might apply to study Chinese at university, she was first baffled, and then tried to understand where this interest had come from. She asked if I had any books she could borrow. I lent her my copy of Monkey, thinking it would be the most immediate, most approachable and most amusing way into Chinese literature. I found it a few weeks later on her bedside table, clearly attempted but unread.

Arthur Waley | Journey to the West Research
My 90s Penguin Classics edition

That, of course, may be a problem with the translation. My copy was the Arthur Waley translation. Waley’s abridged translation has been the pre-eminent translation for decades, at least in the UK where it is the Penguin Classics edition. Anthony Yu has translated it in its entirety, as has WJF Jenner, but I haven’t read either. The Waley is elegant but stately, as is the cover of my edition showing a jade carving in the V&A, and quite evidently a product of its time – its time being 1942. As well as being dated it’s by no means perfect – CT Hsia criticises it for not showing the ‘subtle psychological realism’ of the work. It’s also heavily abridged which is not necessarily a bad thing (I take CT Hsia’s word that the whole work can be ‘tiresome’ to the Western readers) but it does have a fundamental impact on the book – firstly as Waley effectively becomes editor as well as translator, choosing which episodes to show us; and secondly the necessity of having the origin story and conclusion means there’s lots of ‘Monkey’ and less ‘Journey’, presumably justifying the title change from Journey to the West to Monkey. By my count, only about a third of Waley’s translation is actual westward journeying.

Monkey King: Journey to the West
UK edition
Monkey King by Wu Cheng'en
US edition

And so, it seems, the Waley is being retired by Penguin, and in its place this new translation by the pre-eminent Julia Lovell, a scholar I really admire. It is also abridged, but complete with a new title: Monkey has been crowned Monkey King. If there’s anyone reading this unfamiliar with the story, we follow a monk, Tripitaka as he journeys to India to collect sacred sutras, accompanied by the magic and mischievous Monkey (the real hero of the piece) and disciples Pigsy (comic) and Sandy (strangely underused, the Eeyorish Winston Zeddemore of the gang), encountering all sorts of gods and monsters on the way. It is a road trip, a quest for spiritual understanding, and a satirical and allegorical comedy. Tripitaka, or Xuanzang, was a real historical character who, travels aside, almost certainly bore no relation to the character here.

Damon Albarn and Jamie Hewlett | Pitchfork
Damon Albarn’s Gorillaz-esque Monkey
Get Behind The Scenes Of THE MONKEY KING With Donnie Yen Going Apeshit
Donnie Yen as Monkey

I haven’t gone back to Journey to the West in many years (discounting Donnie Yen and Damon Albarn) so it was a real treat to come back to the text. There were a number of things that really struck me about it in this translation – it’s possible that these are things that I had simply not remembered or misremembered in years away from the text, but I think it’s more that Lovell’s translation really brings these features of the text out.

1 – It’s very funny

While Waley can be a little staid, adaptations of Monkey tend to come out more madcap and zany than actually funny. Yes, Monkey has an energetic, childish sense of humour, but he also develops to be witty, irreverent and eloquent, not to mention humane, spiritual, and a serious, devoted pilgrim and servant to his flawed master. Lovell translates with a punchy style that is tonally closer to comic English writing and really made me chuckle. Pigsy, for instance, probably the most outright comic character, has had a ‘full and frank pre-nuptial discussion’ and wanders off with a ‘touch of melodrama’.

Lovell finds humour in playing with the expectation of literary Chinese being translated into highfalutin English in the prose (with the occasional phrase like ‘for it was he’ delivered with a wink), puncturing pretensions with more informal modern language (‘don’t mention it’; ‘compadres’; ‘living their best lives’). When one demon says to Monkey ‘Extraordinary impudence. Prepare for a pounding!’, he responds colloquially ‘Fine by me, swing away’. It could have jarred, but it is skillfully done here and keeps it light and funny.

Before he left, Subodhi remade is earlier point more forcefully. “After you leave this place, you’re bound to get up to no good. I don’t care what villainy you perpetrate; just don’t tell anyone that you were my disciple. If you breathe a word of what I did for you, I’ll flay your wretched monkey carcass, grind your bones to dust, and banish your soul permanently to the Place of Ninefold Darkness. And I’ll only be getting started.”

“Right you are. If anyone asks, I’ll tell them I’m self-taught.”

Compare the final line of the above quote with Waley’s version which may be more accurate, but loses all the humour: “I certainly won’t venture to say a word about you,” promised Monkey. “I’ll say I found it all out for myself”.

As well as the pleasingly bonkers passages, the slapstick and burlesque, the puns, and the witty changes of tone, it’s also occasionally quite dark, such as the offhand way we are told one character ‘quietly committed suicide after all’; and when another is ‘happy to leave this world to become an infernal fruit courier’.

2 – It’s a great satire of officialdom

Disclaimer here: I’m a faceless bureaucrat in my day job. Perhaps it’s down to this that it particularly appeals to me now, but the satire of officialdom is excellent, and reminded me of reminded me of Yes, Minister here and there, helped by the translation embracing the language of the modern official without going full jargon. For instance, where Waley had Monkey ask “what class of appointment is it?”, Lovell has him ask “what grade am I in the civil service”, exactly the phrase I or a fellow Sir Humphrey might ask. The Jade Emperor now has a ‘director of communications’, for instance, while Monkey has a ‘social network’ and clerical errors mean that “from that point on, most mountain monkeys never got old, for the Underworld no longer had their names and addresses.”

3 – Episode selection is revealing

Like Waley’s translation, this is abridged. Both versions share the origin stories of the characters and the quest, but Lovell has chosen a different selection of episodes of the journey itself than Waley, only overlapping (I think) in the series of competitions with Immortals. Lovell has chosen more and shorter escapades. She has chosen at least one episode where a demon appears to be the match of Monkey or get the better of him, and several where Tripitaka’s shortcomings (in particular distrust and resentment of Monkey) are apparent, really fleshing out the characters.

Even in an abridged version the monsters, tricks, battles and transmogrifications can be repetitive, but Lovell has picked out some interesting ones that I didn’t know that are quite revealing of society at the point of translation. Take, for instance, the kingdom in which 1,111 little boys are preparing to be sacrificed, their parents too afraid to weep, whose ‘only outlet for protest is satire’ – child sacrifice aside, could that description not be life in any warzone, dictatorship or society in which people feel helpless?

Also take the passage in which Tripitaka and Pigsy become pregnant, narrowly avoiding suffering violent sexual attack, and require Monkey to go to Dissolving Maleness Mountain to get water from the Abortion Spring. Who knew that 16th Century Chinese satire could find an intersection with contemporary feminist politics?

4 – It’s moving and thoughtful

As with all great satires, it works because it has something strong and meaningful at its foundation. Some of the descriptions are beautifully poetic (‘rainbows of golden light shimmered through purple mists, evergreen grasses and ever-blooming flowers’), and I found the tragic family history of Tripitaka very moving. Somehow, the offhand way in which characters can travel between earth, the underworld and heaven, or can be killed and resurrected by gods and Bodhisattvas, adds a spiritual backdrop which deepens the sorrows which afflict some of the human characters. There is real heart in Monkey, and it’s very present in this version.

This extends also to the serious bits, the spiritual lessons and guidance that are dotted around. Monkey advises a king in total seriousness: ‘don’t worship false religions and respect the unity of the three faiths’. Unsurprisingly it is Buddha who imparts perennial wisdom, in particular about the cruelty and immorality of the world (but this doesn’t stop his attendants being venal themselves). Tripitaka is a fascinating central character – a monk on a sacred journey who doesn’t appear to undergo any spiritual development. That, of course, is the point: the scrapes and escapades the gang get into on this journey serve to prove Buddha right. The world is cruel and people are fearful and uncomprehending. Monkey, on the other hand, might be crass and might seek magical power and immortality, but he has ‘awoken to emptiness’ (his name, Sun Wukong), the state of the world at the beginning of everything. ‘To advance from emptiness, living creatures must first become aware of it’. It makes you laugh, makes you feel and makes you think – what more could you want?

5 – It’s not a Chinese Lord of the Bloody Rings

Pet peeve time. The promotional copy for the US edition of this describes it as a Chinese ‘Lord of the Rings’ and an ‘all-time great fantasy novel’.

Look, guys, I know you’ve got a book to sell. But firstly, this is the second book I’ve reviewed in the short life of this blog described as the ‘Chinese Lord of the Rings’.

And secondly: it’s not. That’s not an accurate description in form, tone, content, style, meaning… anything. The only thing they share is a journey at the heart of them.

I had this in the back of my mind when reading it, even straining for parallels between Monkey and Gollum. But it’s such a stretch, it would worry me that it would come as a disappointment to some readers attracted by the copy.

If you really need a Western parallel you don’t need to look far: Don Quixote, say, Gulliver’s Travels, Tom Jones, or the Canterbury Tales, which the UK copy uses. I don’t think you need to, but if you must: please don’t pretend it’s something it’s not.

Oh, and a final question for Penguin Classics editors: you now have superlative translations of Journey to the West, Dream of the Red Chamber and The Romance of the Three Kingdoms (honesty: I haven’t read that last one yet, it’s waiting on the TBR list). Come on, give us the full set – let’s have an exciting new translation of the Water Margin.

Overall, this is an important release and a major addition to the canon of English translations, and it’s wonderful to see such a playful, modern, dynamic and enjoyable version.

Thank you to Penguin and NetGalley for the ARC. Monkey King is out in the US on 9 February 2021 and the UK on 11 February 2021.

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