My Life as Emperor, by Su Tong, trans. Howard Goldblatt

A boy king learns about life the hard way
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The Independent Culture

My Life as Emperor begins with a word to the reader. We must not, Su Tong tells us, take his epic story of the Xie dynasty in China too literally, or look for parallels in history. "The world of women and palace intrigues" in the novel is, he tells us, "a scary dream on a rainy night; the suffering and slaughter reflect my worries and fears for all the people in all worlds."

My Life as Emperor begins with a word to the reader. We must not, Su Tong tells us, take his epic story of the Xie dynasty in China too literally, or look for parallels in history. "The world of women and palace intrigues" in the novel is, he tells us, "a scary dream on a rainy night; the suffering and slaughter reflect my worries and fears for all the people in all worlds."

Su Tong's advice should be heeded. The world he so vividly depicts has the timelessness of a classical Chinese court painting, and at least as much cruelty as a traditional romance. Readers brought up on the Chinese historical novels of Pearl Buck or the quasi-historical sagas of Mary Renault will revel in the serpentine atmosphere and voluptuous prose.

This first-person account begins with the accession of the narrator, child-emperor Duanbai, to the throne. He is supported by his redoubtable grandmother and his birth mother, the Empress Dowager. But his half-brothers and stepmothers are hostile. Duanbai's games become increasingly sinister. His favoured companion is the effeminate eunuch Swallow, with whom he has an ambivalent relationship.

Wandering around the sad city streets and deprived country hamlets of his realm in disguise, he treats what he sees as entertainment. In a chilling sequence, he orders the execution of a faithful soldier, driven by aesthetic aversion to the sight of the mutilated warrior. At 14, he has the hubristic illusion of great power. He is gradually made aware of his status as a puppet in the hands of older and more seasoned statesmen. His licence for limitless cruelty only lasts as long as it suits his supporters.

Su Tong describes, with great skill, the mistakes the teenage emperor makes in choosing his enemies. Duanbai is deposed as a young adult by one of them: a usurper, himself doomed to failure, waiting in the wings.

With Duanbai exiled to the badlands of his dominions, the novel changes form, becoming increasingly like a parable. The dethroned emperor learns to recognise heroism, loyalty and love in the person of his eunuch companion. The fleeting nature of passion is embodied by the reappearance of a former concubine, now a greedy prostitute. His childhood fascination with circus performers leads him to learn tightrope-walking, and a new career with a troupe.

War, disease and strife strip him of all except a copy of Confucius and his newly-acquired craft. Su Tong skims over his hero's days in the circus. But the acrobat's art, like much else in this powerful and elegant novel, is revealed as metaphor. We are left with images of a peaceful monastery and "a strange monk standing on a rope between two pine trees, either walking rapidly or striking a one-legged crane pose".

The reviewer's 'Turqoise' is published by Saqi

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