There are people who sparkle at a dinner table and struggle on a hike. They have a spirit that is agile in repose and that turns awkward and short-winded when it has to manipulate legs, feet and a backpack across open terrain.
A few years ago, Mark Salzman wrote a graceful and trenchant memoir of the time he spent in China teaching English and studying martial arts. That, of course, may sound more like the hike than the dinner table. But “Iron and Silk” was a matter of discovering and responding to a culture, and of characterizing the people who revealed it to him.
Strictly as writing, these were portraits done in repose. They brought their own plots with them. Now, in his novel “The Laughing Sutra,” Salzman takes his sensibility on a hike across a plot of his own.
The results are mixed. Salzman borrows an old Chinese literary character, the picaresque and pugnacious Monkey King of Buddhist legend, brings him up to present-day China, and sends him on a trip to America in search of a lost sacred text. Monkey is imaginatively and appealingly re-created; his adventures are, for the most part, a strain.
Monkey’s trip is based on the old tale of Hsuan Tsang, a holy man who journeyed to India to bring back to China the sutras, or sayings, of the Buddha. In the original tale, the Monkey King was Hsuan Tsang’s loyal but awkwardly impulsive protector.
In Salzman’s novel, he is the troublesome protector of a young Chinese Candide who has been successively the disciple of a Buddhist monk, a reluctant Red Guard and a prisoner-worker for 10 years on a farm commune.
As a baby, Hsun Ching is thrown over a waterfall by a bandit who murders his mother. He is saved by a mysterious figure who brings him to Wei Ching, a monk who has spent his life transcribing the Buddhist sutras to preserve them. One is missing, the so-called Laughing Sutra. A wealthy American collector had acquired it and given it to a San Francisco museum. It is Wei Ching’s dream to get it back.
He brings up the foundling, teaches him the sutras, and imparts the hope that some day the boy may find the missing one. Hsun, who doesn’t much care for Buddhism but loves adventures, and particularly those of the Monkey King, is willing. However, the Cultural Revolution intervenes, and by the time Hsun gets past his years in the Red Guard and on the commune, Wei is near death. Out of loyalty and love, Hsun resolves to go to San Francisco.
Before setting out, he meets his mysterious rescuer, who introduces himself as Col. Sun. Sun is short and broad, with hairy features, yellow eyes and fangs; and he wears ancient leather armor. He is Monkey, of course.
The two hide themselves in a railroad car full of pigs to cross the border into Hong Kong. Col. Sun, who is prodigiously strong, gets them aboard a freighter by promising the captain he will put on a show of Chinese martial arts in San Francisco.
After other rambunctious adventures, in which they are eventually joined by a beautiful San Francisco museum worker named Alison, Hsun and Col. Sun manage to steal the sutra and get it back to China. The dying Wei recognizes it as a phony and bursts out laughing, thus justifying its name.
The escapades tend to be thin and contrived, as if dreamed up by a group of screenwriters to get their characters through a film. There is a repeated use of the stranger-in-America gag--Col. Sun, for example, has his ice cream heated so he can drink it. Most of the characters are barely sketches; Alison is a spunky ingenue, and Hsun could just about be a nice American boy with a Chinese trait or two added on.
Col. Sun is more complex and interesting. He is easily inflamed, and quick to use his formidable strength against his enemies. When he does, he gets headaches, as if the Buddha were once again punishing him for his excesses. He is blunt and arrogant, but curiously humble. Knowing himself to be ugly, he prides himself on his honor. “Loyalty is the only sort of beauty a man like me can hope to possess,” he tells Hsun.
It is a line of depth and subtlety. The legendary figure of the Monkey King has called up the kind of response in the author that his Chinese acquaintances did in “Iron and Silk.” Such a response is itself a kind of inventive imagination; a different kind than that needed to move made-up characters through a made-up plot.
Next: Judith Freeman reviews “White People” by Allan Gurganus (Alfred A. Knopf). THE LAUGHING SUTRA by Mark Salzman Random House $18.95, 261 pages