Alai, , trans. from the Chinese by Howard Goldblatt and Sylvia Li-chun Lin. . Houghton Mifflin, $24 (448pp) ISBN 978-0-618-11964-6
Tribal intrigue among neighboring chieftains in early 20th-century, pre-occupation Tibet drives this witty first novel (and first book in a projected trilogy) by an ethnic Tibetan writing in Chinese, exuberantly translated by Goldblatt and Lin. The first-person narrative follows the comic vicissitudes and nutty coming-of-age of the Maiqi clan's Second Young Master, known far and wide as an idiot. Second Young Master, whose warlike older brother is being groomed to take over the family's vast landholdings in what is now Sichuan province, falls in and out of favor with his parents, who are never quite sure if his simple pronouncements mean he's a true idiot or a sage. Young Master attains manhood by sleeping with his mother's maid, makes friends with the son of the family's indentured executioner and learns much from such visitors as the Han special emissary, who promises to enrich the Maiqi chieftain if he will plant opium poppies. Poppies are planted, swelling the family's coffers, but also attracting the jealousy of nearby chieftains. Young Master finally proves himself by maneuvering cannily with chieftains on the borders of the family estate, returning with "untold riches" and a beautiful wife; later in life, he is enmeshed in the battles between White and Red Chinese. Basing his portrayal of Young Master on a legendary Tibetan wise man, Agu Dunba, Alai creates a character endowed with enormous heart and humor. His story makes for a murky history lesson, but it succeeds marvelously as a wacky and immensely enjoyable portrait of a thoroughly unusual figure.
Reviewed on: 02/11/2002
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