Discover more from Let's Talk Books
The horses of war are running again
A thousand miles with a melancholy 8th Century Chinese poet
Du Fu: A Life in Poetry
Translated by David Young
Much of my daily pleasure is due to translators. They are the rock stars of my life.
The irony of translation is that ancient texts from foreign languages can feel more contemporary than newer texts in your own. Nobody translates Charles Dickens into 21st Century American English. But every few years you can get an update of Gilgamesh or Ovid.
And so if a reader is looking to read a classic, but feels a bit intimidated by archaic prose, they would do better to go back further (picking a 21st century translation) rather than sticking to the last few centuries in English.
David Young's 2008 book of 8th Century Chinese poet Du Fu is a great example of the power of new translations. I read many books from the past, but rarely has it felt so present and real.
That is in part Young's work and partly the work of the poetic form of Tang poetry, in which distinctive sensory descriptions--images, sounds, the feel of cold air on your skin--are layered together to create a sense of transport. It's just enough detail to let your imagination take hold and run with it.
I felt the warmth of late night fires, the aches of hunger from famine, the tiredness of feet after a long journey, the lonely echo of a monastery bell, deep in the mist.
sharp frost, my belt snaps
my fingers are too stiff to tie it
around dawn I pass
the emperor's winter palace
army banners against the sky
the ground trampled smooth by troops
You can read a lot of medieval European literature and never get quite this sense of "being there" in the first person. Maybe only at the edges, and maybe only if you are trying.
Somehow, in the fewest possible words, Du Fu sweeps you up into his time--and you can really imagine what it must have felt like to live in a pre-industrial civilization. It's a remarkable feat of art.
You would've been cold a lot and dirty. And wet. Hungry. Chronically sick. Destroyed by floods. Exposed to the whims of violent and powerful men on horseback--who might, in a moment, take all your things, your land, your children, or press you into war.
But there would be good things too. Singing, poetry, music. Hospitality in times of war. Goofing off with old buddies in a boat under the moon. And a surprising amount of inebriation.
And maybe, if you were quite lucky, you would have a friend that could get you a warm, safe place to stay, a delicious feast, or beautiful clean clothes. Or you might see from a distance a rich man's beautiful wife, dressed in lavish gold and silks--like something out of a dream. And you might think about that moment for a very long time.
The other thing you need to know about Du Fu is that he is melancholy, through and through.
Du Fu fails his scholarly exams early in life and this wound runs through the rest of his work. As years go by, his friends move up the social ladder, and Du Fu feels like his life is a failure. And in a way he is right: He struggles to feed his children, the most profound sort of failure a father could feel.
Melancholy is my jam. Always has been. So I savored this sort of book. But even if you're not in the mood for a sad, lonely, shivering kind of book right now--when you need one, it sure is good to have.
Once I had no money and a lot of debt. Looking back, this didn't last very long. But it was one of the lowest moments of my life. I remember coming across a Louis CK recording where he jokes about having no money. I listened to that clip a lot during that time, and it helped get me through.
All that to say: If my life ever goes to shit, this book of Du Fu is the one I want in my backpack.
old and sick
this boat is all I have
beyond the mountains to the north
the horses of war are running again
I lean against the railing
tears running down my face
Thank you for reading this book review. Let’s talk books. Tell me what you think.
If you know someone who might like this review, share it with them.
If you want updates on future books, subscribe to my newsletter.
Thanks for reading Let's Talk Books! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.