I received today the first volume (of five, for a total of 2500 pages, give or take) of “The Story of the Stone”, better known as “The Dream of the Red Chamber”. One of the four great Chinese classical novels and the one most known and famous among those four. All these four being “epics” in their own right, especially in size (but not just) since they all exceed the thousand pages.

This Penguin Classics edition has a good 40 pages introduction and it is the reason why I’m writing this. It presents an interesting case of “unreliable narrator” embedded in the book. Actually THREE unreliable narrators that existed for real and only known for their suggestive nicknames: Red Inkstone, Almond and Odd Tablet. With a fourth called Gao E who actually delivered the final edited work and got called liar by the majority of the critics. Obviously the original manuscript was lost, only 80 chapters on the total 120 were finished, and it’s not even sure if those 80 chapters were also rewritten and adjusted, or if the remaining 40 chapters were done from scratch, or followed an outline of the original author, or were instead written by the original author but before said guy went to rewrite and polish the first 80 (“All the evidence suggests that he finished the novel long before he died and was merely revising and correcting during his final years.”).

Essentially it’s a mess, made worse by the fact that there are allusions of it being an elaborate riddle to solve, or even a satirical commentary, but all so buried and successively adulterated that it’s now impossible to get the “true story” out of it. This all explicitly teased right in the text:

Pages full of idle words
Penned with hot and bitter tears:
All men call the author fool;
None his secret message hears.

In fact in China they are all over this like a national sport, writing every years piles of books whose only purpose is to reinterpret, redefine and speculate, over this one book, its history, its hidden meaning, its allusions, its author(s) and so on.

The other fun fact is about timeline problems and similar mistakes:

But the problem of inconsistency which troubled Gao E and continues to trouble translators is by no means all due to the anonymous author of the last forty chapters. Cao Xueqin himself must be held responsible for quite a few of the novel’s minor inconsistencies. This is partly due to the elaborate devices he used for distinguishing the facts of his family history – switching generations, substituting Peking for Nanking, and so forth – which make him peculiarly susceptible to slips about ages, dates, places, and the passage of time.

I guess this is the kind of necessary evil when an author embarks for something truly “epic” and recklessly ambitious, without the guarantee to see it through (in fact, considering the incompleteness, this is more a case of Jordan-Sanderson).

Let’s forgive Erikson for his similar slips, and remember that someone like George RR Martin, who expressly admitted of obsessing over these sort of things, is more likely to succumb than succeed in the process.

One Comment

  1. I wish to have this penguin edition for it’s not available in my country


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