The Banished Immortal: A Life of Li Bai, by Ha Jin
Pantheon Books, 2019. 320 pages.
Reviewed by Anthony Madrid
If there’s one kind of movie I can’t stand, it’s “biographical” stuff about artistic geniuses. Hollywood only has one way of handling this theme.
• The artist has infallible judgment with regard to his or her art.
• The artist produces his or her art without any study or effort or preparation or anything like that.
• Whoever doesn’t fall down and worship the genius during his or her lifetime fails to do so because of personal wickedness.
• All the artist’s vile behavior must be forgiven, because it’s “the price we have to pay” for Great Art.
I do believe such movies contribute to the spoiling of many people’s characters. They make the vain vainer, and the mean meaner. The fact that this triumphalist narrative is supremely popular in all cultures at all times goes a long way to justifying the cynicism one meets in philosophers like Emile Cioran. Or Jonathan Swift.
Written biographies, however, have less excuse for taking this kind of approach. One has 300 pages to work with, after all. Your reader’s gonna put in ten or twelve hours; no one’s expecting a stream of sensual gratifications. What the reader wants is to learn something.
You see where I’m going with this. The Tang Dynasty poet Li Bai is a big culture hero. His status as an artist is right up there with Shakespeare and whoever. Unfortunately he lived in the Eighth century; the people who should have written memoirs about what it was like to be friends with him, or what it was like to be married to him, or what it was like to have him for a father—did not write any such books. Or if they did, those items are long gone. Consequently, almost all we have are lists of dates and names of places. In such-and-such year the genius went to such-and-such place. Now, if one collated such chronologies, and set ’em up the way it’s done in the backs of Library of America editions, you’d be looking at two, maybe three, pages of material. And it wouldn’t tell you jack. There’s almost nothing personal there.
So how are you gonna get 300 pages out of it? Basically: hook a bicycle pump to those names and dates and fsssht-fsssht-fsssht ’til you hit 300. Every time the Genius meets somebody, you can throw down an imaginative scenario wherein the person is of course long familiar with the Genius’s reputation and works, and treats the Genius with appropriate reverence. When the Genius gets married, naturally the lucky bride is a supremely intelligent and desirable being, who knows at once Whom She Is Dealing With. And anybody who fails to promote the Genius in the Imperial bureaucracy is a damnable double-barreled ass of the very first rank. And if not a dot of this is convincing, it doesn’t matter, so long as our purpose is to lay a wreath of fresh flowers on the Genius’s grave. But if one is impatient with hero worship, one…becomes tired.
Ha Jin is a respected storyteller, and so one is not surprised to find his jacket flap saying “With the instincts of a master novelist,” etc. And you know what, maybe he is a master novelist. But not here. Here, you and your mailman could write the same boring, schematic book in two or three months, if you didn’t have anything else to do. The construction “The chronologies all agree…” must come up at the beginnings of paragraphs at least twenty times. Felt like fifty. And the translations of Li Bai’s poems, which are interspersed throughout, are as plain and unmemorable as can be.
What to compare this book to? It’s like the introductions to New Age translations of Rumi and Hafez. The writer is willing to believe every corny legend under the sun, anything that glorifies the Poet. Granted, Ha Jin could never be as patently silly as Coleman Barks or Daniel Ladinsky, but that’s not saying much. To say Ha Jin has no more insight into his subject than they into theirs is the more fatal point.
ANTHONY MADRID lives in Victoria, Texas. His poems have appeared in Best American Poetry, Boston Review, Fence, Harvard Review, Lana Turner, LIT, and Poetry. His second book is called Try Never (Canarium Books, 2017). www.anthonymadrid.net