Barry Hughart’s Bridge of Birds

Bridge of Birds is an old favorite that has been sitting in a corner gathering dust for way too long. I recently hauled it out, dusted it off, and gave it another read, and it’s still as good as it was way back when.

The village of Ku-Fu, after a disastrous silk harvest, has been hit by a most unusual plague: all of the children between eight and thirteen have been stricken and are lying on pallets in the local monastery in a comatose state. Anyone outside that age range is fine. Number Ten Ox is charged by the abbot with going to Peking to find a wise man who can figure out how a plague learned to count. What Ox comes up with is Master Li Kao, who admits “there is a slight flaw in my character.” And thus the adventure begins.

The odyssey takes us across Hughart’s very imaginative China where we meet a range of villains and unsuspected heroes as Li Kao and Number Ten Ox pursue the Great Root of Power, which is the only thing that can cure the children. There is the Ancestress, who once upon a time made herself the real ruler of China by poisoning her husband, the Emperor, and most of his sons. But she only has part of the cure. And then there’s the dreaded Duke of Ch’in, who lives in a castle atop a labyrinth inhabited by a monster (sound familiar?). He’s another who has only part of what’s necessary to save the children. There is Key Rabbit, the Duke’s tax collector, and his wife, Lotus Cloud, who, for some reason, men worship. And Miser Shen, who turns out to have a flair for crime after he bankrupts himself showering gifts of jade and pearls on Lotus Cloud. (It seems the only things that will catch Lotus Cloud’s attention are jade and pearls – gold and gems are inconsequential.) And there’s the Old Man of the Mountain, who’s a real piece of work but who provides an essential clue.

And I can’t forget the three faithless maidens, ghosts who were duped by a peddler who may have been divine, and who, it turns out, are the necessary ingredient in solving the real mystery.

And after each episode, Number Ten Ox and Li Kao return to the village with high hopes, but to no avail: there is progress, but no cure.

It’s really hard to describe this one – an odyssey, for sure, but with a strong admixture of Sherlock Holmes by way of the Keystone Kops – there’s that kind of madcap nonsense throughout the story as Li Kao and Number Ten Ox slowly unravel the mystery of the plague, and stumble on to a greater mystery that needs to be solved. There are places where I actually found myself laughing out loud, which happens rarely – very rarely. It’s an immediately absorbing book, not only because of the actual events, but because of Hughart’s style: Number Ten Ox is an artless narrator who readily admits his major attribute is his physical strength (hence his name – he was the tenth son), and who provides a striking contrast to Li Kao: their meeting point is their shared determination to solve the problem, whatever it takes.

This one is a delight from beginning to end, but it’s not all high comedy: there are touching moments, and if the climax doesn’t bring tears to your eyes from its sheer beauty, you’ve missed something.

(A note: It was a number of years after first reading Bridge of Birds that I discovered it is the first book of a trilogy. Although it stands on its own quite nicely, I’m now committed to hunting down the succeeding volumes. You just can’t get enough of Li Kao and Number Ten Ox.)

(Del Rey [Ballantine], 1984)

About Robert Tilendis

Robert M. Tilendis lives a deceptively quiet life. He has made money as a dishwasher, errand boy, legal librarian, arts administrator, shipping expert, free-lance writer and editor, and probably a few other things he’s tried very hard to forget about. He has also been a student of history, art, theater, psychology, ceramics, and dance. Through it all, he has been an artist and poet, just to provide a little stability in his life. Along about January of every year, he wonders why he still lives someplace as mundane as Chicago; it must be that he likes it there.

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