LEGENDS OF THE CONDOR HEROES VOL. 1: A HERO BORN
By Jin Yong, translated by Anna Holmwood
MacLehose Press/Paperback/ 372 pages/$29.95/Major bookstores
There are a lot of ways in which this ambitious translation of Chinese writer Jin Yong's beloved martial arts epic resembles its hero Guo Jing.
It gets off to a slow start. It is bumbling and can exasperate. But it is also earnest and brave, and one glimpses in it the potential to unlock something extraordinary.
Translator Anna Holmwood has taken on a ridiculously daunting task with Jin Yong's most famous work, a sprawling narrative set in the war-torn Song empire with a staggering cast of characters - hot-headed Taoist priests, a ninefingered gourmandising beggar, a blind murderess who can decapitate a man with her bare hands, and more.
As the Jin army invades from the north, two patriotic young farmers help Taoist priest Qiu Chuji evade capture. In return, he names their unborn sons Guo Jing and Yang Kang and vows to return to the village one day to teach them gongfu.
But after he leaves, corrupt officials arrive with orders to kill those who helped him. Soon, both families are scattered to the winds.
Guo ends up in the Mongolian steppes, raised in the company of the warlord Genghis Khan. Yang becomes the adopted son of a Jin prince, taught to see his own people as the enemy.
Stricken by guilt, Qiu makes a wager with the Seven Freaks of the South, a motley crew of fighters he has tangled with. He will find Yang, they Guo; each will raise the boy in their charge to adulthood and teach them gongfu. When both boys are 18, they will face off in a duel for their teachers' honour.
While the translated text does not always flow well, it is oddly in the most complex fight scenes that Holmwood's rendition excels.
The teahouse sequence in which Qiu and the Seven Freaks come to blows is masterfully handled. One never loses track of who is hitting whom or drinking wine in what fashion. Yet this depth of detail never costs the reader the thrill of excitement. It is impressive action writing.
Holmwood has made the controversial choice of literally translating some of the Chinese names, often to make the character more memorable to English readers.
This has mixed results. Macabre power couple Chen Xuanfeng and Mei Chaofeng become Hurricane Chen and Cyclone Mei, which makes them sound less like deadly villains feared throughout the land and more like Hong Kong pop stars trying to stand out through unusual monikers.
It is also a pity that Guo's love interest Huang Rong, the vivacious, quicksilver genius who is one of Jin Yong's finest heroines, will be introduced to Western audiences as Lotus, a name which carries much Orientalist baggage.
Despite the novel's flaws, there are truly stirring moments when the emotion of the original punches through.
In one poignant scene, Genghis Khan returns to the sworn brother who betrayed him the gifts that they exchanged as children, freeing him of their bond so that he can kill him as an enemy and not a brother.
Such moments are like a camera lens suddenly bringing into focus the heroic grandeur that so endeared Jin Yong's tales to generations. To be able to share even a fraction of that with a new audience makes this valiant attempt worthwhile.
If you liked this, read: The Water Margin: Outlaws Of The Marsh by Shi Nai'an, translated by J.H. Jackson and Edwin Lowe (Tuttle Classic, 2010, $34.24, Books Kinokuniya), one of the four great classic novels of Chinese literature, in which outlaw Song Jiang and his tribe of 108 bandits rebel against the Song government.