Ilyon (trans. Tae-Hung Ha), Steven Brust

Samguk Yusa: Legends and History of the Three Kingdoms of Ancient Korea, by Ilyon (trans. Tae-Hung Ha): I was in Yenching, looking for books on Yi Sunsin, the famous Korean admiral who nearly single-handedly led the Korean navies to victory against Hideyoshi’s invasion, when I came across this translation of Samguk Yusa, written by the Son (Zen) Buddhist monk Ilyon. The Samguk Yusa is one of the few major historical accounts we have of the Three Kingdoms period in Korean history—not to be confused with the Three Kingdoms period at the end of the Later Han in China. The three states, Paekche, Silla and Koguryo, were distinct entities and existed in a shaky sort of equilibrium on the peninsula for quite some time. They shared ethnicity and, I suppose, basic culture, but each of the three kingdoms had its own character. Much of the regionalism in Korea today—the notorious hometown-based factionalism in South Korean politics, for example, and even the North-South split (although I hesitate to go too far with that example because the Korean War was still very much a product of Western power struggles)—can be traced back to the infighting that dates from this time period. In any case, the other textual source we have about the Three Kingdoms period is the Samguk Sagi, which is apparently a very factual account of the kings and queens and their accomplishments, etc. Samguk Yusa, on the other hand, recounts the legends of famous figures of the age and has extensive sections devoted to describing famous Buddhist sages, the miracles they worked, the temples they built, and many supernatural folktales about royalty and warriors. It also quotes poetry (hyangga and various Buddhist praises) that would otherwise be lost. It has, therefore, considerable literary importance in addition to historical information.

It’s probably impossible for me to remember all the names and stories in the Samguk Yusa, but they’ve settled into a comfortable jumble in the back of my mind, and I think I’ve benefited from the reading. Over the holidays, I saw an advertisement for a historical drama and asked my parents what it was about; to my surprise, I recognized the story immediately as soon as they began describing it because I had read it in Samguk Yusa. I came out of the book with a couple of vague impressions, most particularly that Buddhism as religious practice is very, very different from the philosophical way we encountered it when studying Eastern religions in school. It’s not only the Western perspective; it’s that we cover Buddhist thought more than Buddhist practice (the concept of desire as suffering and nonattachment as freedom from rebirth, etc.). Furthermore, we don’t really explore Buddhism in detail after the Mahayana split, and although most teachers mention the term bodhisattva, no one actually bothers to explain the whole intricate mythology that evolved around them. The way in which older deities were incorporated into the new religion as bodhisattvas, for example, very much parallels the way pagan deities became Christian saints. In fact, the spread of Buddhism, which Ilyon describes in Samguk Yusa as a series of biographies of blessed monks who brought the religion to Korea, is similar to the spread of Christianity. Disillusioned Western students like to claim that somehow Buddhism is free of the political corruption and dogmatism that they dislike in organized churches, and more than ever, I found that this common fallacy could not be further from the truth. Kings often suppressed one religion in favor of the other, burning books and killing priests/monks (depending on whether they were Taoist/Buddhist). Evangelists bringing the new religion were frequently martyred, and once Buddhism achieved ascendance, there was just as much abuse of power as in the sordid annals of the Church. Also, Buddhist religion became filled with rules about magic, about self-mutilation and self-denial, about heavens and hells, about hypocrisy and orthodoxy—all very familiar when compared to Western history. But the core message, of course, remained the same.

I’m not trying to make value judgments about Buddhism vs. Christianity here. What I’m pointing out is that this is human, that the forms religion takes, both ugly and beautiful, in human societies are no different from culture to culture, from civilization to civilization. What one must judge is not the mistakes, or even sins, that people have made in the name of religion, but the underlying message of the doctrine. Modern intelligentsia likes to criticize organized religion for its flaws; I think the criticism is valid but I think the problems are not caused by the nature of religion itself but by human failings and are universal to any social structure of authority. Other impressions from Samguk Yusa: the sheer romantic chivalry of the Hwarangdo, the surprisingly sexualized stories of encounters with the Buddha, the symbolic motifs associated with the birth of royalty (all about the eggs), the repeated appearance of sea dragons, the heavy influence of the T’ang dynasty, and the frequency of flying monks.

The Book of Jhereg, by Steven Brust: My blockmate recommended Steven Brust to me last year, and I started reading Jhereg in the bookstore and fell abruptly in love. It still took me a while to finish the first three though because they were all in one volume which cost $16. I finally caved in and bought it, which is why it took me this long to finish it. I have to admit that Steven Brust’s writing style does not particularly appeal to me—I don’t dislike it, but he’s a bit more blunt and prone to exposition than I prefer. But that belies the actual careful structure of his writing, which seems careless, but upon further thought has not only considerable thought as to plot points (Brust is the master of the intricate plot, something that I adore in fantasy fiction), but also worldbuilding. Dragaera has an incredibly complex social structure and history, and Brust knows exactly where and when and what is going on. His manner of worldbuilding is less showy than the Tolkien imitators who invent half-completed languages, but it is a lot more thorough and dazzled me quite thoroughly. I think also the very modern voice that he adopts for Vlad is also a little deceptive: it makes you think that this is a very, hm, self-contained, narrow-scope fantasy, but the level of worldbuilding soon shows that he is actually writing an epic, although without many of the conventions of the subgenre.

The book that shook me the most in this first volume was probably Teckla, especially because I’m reading Freedom & Necessity as well, and both of them are in many ways about the same idea. But I think Brust handles the theme masterfully in Teckla—I mean, the unreliable narrator has almost become a gimmick these days, but Brust completely masters the use of the unreliable narrator in a way that I’ve never quite seen before. I think the difference is that many authors make the unreliable narrator into a deliberate liar or a subjective perspective to the point of a disconnect with reality. But Brust turns Vlad’s unreliability into the very things that most normal people are uncertain about and cannot agree on—Vlad doesn’t lose his grip on objectivity when it comes to events and people, but what makes him unable to present an objective voice is a conflict in philosophy. The frustration he feels at his inability to find common ground with Cawti and the other Easterners is something that we all encounter when we meet someone who has fundamentally different assumptions about life.

I have more to say regarding Vlad and revolutions—I much prefer Brust’s stance here than the slightly less conflicted (although perhaps more nuanced) one he takes in Freedom & Necessity—but I think I’ll save it for later. I.e. once I actually finish Freedom & Necessity. I very much want to read the rest of the series; an LJ friend of mine tells me that I should particularly look forward to Phoenix.