The Walking Boy

by Lydia Kwa
308 pages,
ISBN: 1552636933

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Ying and Yang of a Novel
by Barbara Julian

The Walking Boy attempts to ascend a Himalayan mount of ideas, history, and Eastern exotica, but in language too pedestrian to reach the heights it aims for. On the other hand, the novel manages to sustain tension and an atmosphere of danger, while exploring a theme of "two-in-oneness"-in the sense of androgyny, and in the philosophical sense of the "myriad wonders" in the yin-yang of all things. The pacing isn't smooth, but it covers a lot of ground.
The stories of several characters are tied together by the journey of Baoshi the "walking boy", a novice monk, sent by his master down from the mountain on a quest to the wicked worldly city. The city is under the thumb of the bitter, aging empress Nu Huang. The loss of her favour can mean ruin, exile or death for the palace underlings who people this story. Among them is the Imperial Secretary, Wan'er, a determined poetess also, like Baoshi, marked out by difference and ambiguity.
The novel is set in eighth century China, a turbulent period when Daoism was displacing more ancient Buddhism and jockeying for spiritual position with its contemporary court Confucianism. The rapacious Empress happily plunders any tradition that promises what she craves-immortality. An army of alchemists are creating for her an "Eternal Spring" herbal potion, but Nu Huang is plagued not only by the maladies accompanying aging, but also by remorse. Victims of past cruelties return to haunt her, and Wan'er the Secretary is sent to fetch the exorcist-nun Ling to bring relief to the tormented tyrant.
The poetry of Daoist language is enjoyable here: the Moon of Splendour Gate leads to the Sweet Dew Hall in the palace, the Immortal Crane Event starts at the Hour of the Dragon, and so on, but an awkward lack of fluency in Kwa's own prose sadly lets us down. We ascend great heights only to drop like a stone. When the alchemists in their Repository full of vials and texts mix the Dark Sweet Root of Rain with the Fingers of Filigreed Bitterness, Kwa explains prosaically that "the codes and references must stand for those substances with most resilience against time-to allow the body to acquire the substances' indestructibility . . ." When the head alchemist hands the potion to Wan'er she woodenly declares, "Yes, thank you. Nu Huang will send you the payment as soon as I return."
While she's waiting at the monastery, Wan'er suddenly falls in love with the exorcist-nun, Ling. Later they continue their affair at the Empress's palace, but the reader has to work hard to imagine this love. "Wan'er is seduced by the nun's quirky turns of logic," explains the author. Is that what it is? After dispatching the Empress's demons, Ling finds time for a short tryst with Wan'er, during which she says, "I have a meeting with her Majesty-I will report to her-will you agree to subscribe to my account of the events?" How can we believe in these lovers?
When Baoshi walks down his mountain in the sunset, Kwa tells us that "the clouds have acquired a red tinge, a sign of approaching turbulence." Foreshadowing, no doubt, but we need more than a weather report worthy of Environment Canada. We must imagine for ourselves the threatening atmosphere of clouds banking up like the rounded bodies of dragons, the red streaks of sunset and mist darkening the valley like fire and smoke from their mouths.
Yet eloquent passages are to be found, as in this description of an old peasant woman: "A few rotted teeth are scattered like lost souls in the dark cavern of her mouth." There's the striking image of an Emperor who never hesitated to have traitors punished but "lacked the gall to face up to the nasty deeds his minions performed on his behalf, closing his eyes and stuffing up his nostrils in detached squeamishness, nevertheless still the one waving his commanding hands this way and that."
So uneven is the language that at times it seems as if there are two authors writing this book. There are delicate and suggestive passages of poetry written by Wan'er, but the dialogue is impossibly stilted. Helpful (but perhaps unacceptably ruthless) editing would have cut out most of the dialogue and injected more poetry.
Like their conversation, Kwa's characters seem wooden and without depth, but we soon realize that they are not so much characters as archetypes. As well as being a novelist and poet, Lydia Kwa is a practising psychotherapist, and we profit from looking at her characters as aspects of our own inner selves. We have here the Ruler (Nu Huang), the Seeker (Baoshi), the Sage (Baoshi's teacher Harelip), the Lover (Wan'er and various others), and the Artist (Ardhanari, Harelip's former lover). When examined at this way, the story reads like a Buddhist parable, a stylised construct meant for instructing listeners.
The organising idea is that all nature and all lives contain opposites: there is no yin without yang and vice versa. Baoshi, the walking boy, embodies this literally, for his body includes both male and female anatomy. He encounters Wan'er as she is travelling by horseback dressed as a man; he responds physically to her beauty with the organs of both genders. He represents the whole of human reaction and desire, and his odd physicality makes him empathetic, "more forgiving towards others." Instead of the immortality which Nu Huang desires, the real goal of both herbal alchemy and the alchemy of spiritual practice is this two-in-one totality.
The other interesting character is the Empress. She wants power but is guilt-ridden about the people she had tortured and killed along the way to securing it. Her remorse takes the form of the demons which Ling exorcises. We must imagine for ourselves her torment, however, for her diary is as stilted as her conversation. She describes in it her symptoms and her plots and devices. For longevity, she tells us, there is herbalism and "the bedroom arts", and for gaining earthly power there is murder. She complains, using an oddly modern expression, that "the uptight Confucians" of the Court object to a woman using any of them.
We get most from this novel by standing back from the plot and looking at the wider ideas Kwa is playing with. She uses a particular historical period to ruminate about the human condition. The Tang Empire Chinese struggled with poverty, tyranny, and cruel reversals in fortune visited on the high and low alike. They developed the shifting world views of Buddhism and Daoism to help explain and endure their fates. Kwa's picture invites us to compare their views with those of other conflict-ridden nations-say, those of the Middle East in Biblical times. The peoples of those harsh, desert places formulated Judaeo-Christian answers to similar questions. We're tempted to wonder at the differences, as well as the similarities, of the various religious responses to life.
At the risk of sounding like an uptight Confucian, I longed for a stylistically less awkward telling of the story, for a more Daoist-like flow of writing. Still, the novel does provide lots of food-or at least a pungent herbal elixir-for thought.

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