GULL BETWEEN HEAVEN AND EARTH
By Boey Kim Cheng
Epigram Books/ Paperback/ 277 pages/ $26.64/ Major bookstores and shop.epigrambooks.sg/ 4/5 stars
Tang dynasty poet Du Fu is widely considered one of the greatest Chinese poets - one of the greatest poets, for that matter - of all time.
Nobody would have been more surprised by this than Du Fu himself, if we go by his characterisation in Gull Between Heaven And Earth. Boey Kim Cheng peels away the veneer of veneration to portray a highly insecure man in the throes of a mid-life crisis, while his country collapses around him in civil war.
This is the novelistic debut of Boey, already one of Singapore's most acclaimed poets, and his prose retains the lyrical beauty of his poetry. In his hands, Du Fu - referred to in the novel by his courtesy name (a name adopted in adulthood) Zimei - is eminently relatable.
There are high expectations of Zimei, coming as he does from a line of illustrious scholars, but he flunks the Imperial Examinations twice and ends up scraping by, self-effacing and unfulfilled, as a lowly civil servant.
When the country descends into civil war due to the An Lushan rebellion, his family starves and his fifth child dies in infancy. Guilt-ridden, he watches as his family become refugees, reduced to farming or hawking herbs to get by.
Connoisseurs of Tang poetry will delight in seeing Du Fu's contemporaries, such as Gao Shi, Cen Shen and Wang Wei, make cameo appearances.
But the peer that looms largest over the narrative is the drunken Li Bai, who will recite a poem one minute and kill a man the next.
Zimei idolises the flamboyant Li Bai - courtesy name Taibai - to an almost unhealthy degree. Despite having met only a handful of times, his hero worship of the other poet comes to eclipse the other more enduring relationships in his life, such as that with his wife Yangzi.
A patient spouse who remains beautiful in a "winnowed way" despite the ravages of poverty, she remains nevertheless on the periphery of her husband's cultural life.
Poetry is a man's world and the women in it - from the decadent concubine Yang Guifei to the virtuously scarred Princess Ning Kuo - are ciphers for sin or suffering. Though there is an opportunity to make more of her in the novel, Yangzi remains more paragon than real woman.
Boey's writing evokes powerfully not just the luminous beauty for which Tang poetry is known, but also its pain: Zimei's daughter biting his shoulder out of hunger as he carries her on a refugees' exodus; the crunch of a corpse's ribs as he stumbles onto it in a ravine of bones.
This elegant elegy translates Du Fu's world into the contemporary language of ours with deceptively effortless grace.
•If you liked this, read: The Memory Eaters by Janice Tay (Straits Times Press, 2017, $19.80, major bookstores), a poetic fantasy set in alternate feudal Japan, in which an ageless creature who consumes memory decides to help the man whose memories she accidentally devoured.