Boey Kim Cheng, Gull Between Heaven and Earth, Epigram Books, 2017. 288 pgs.
The Chinese are never good at parting … There is a culture of return, of wanting to return to the jia xiang, the home village. There is no word for goodbye in Chinese. Zai Jian means see again.
—Boey Kim Cheng, Between Stations
Boey Kim Cheng’s debut novel, Gull Between Heaven and Earth, published by Epigram Books in 2017, is a fictional biography of the Chinese poet Du Fu (courtesy name Zimei, 712–770 CE). Put into comprehensive order through a process of academic conjecture and creative invention, Boey translates biographical details found in Zimei’s oeuvre into a narrative of the Chinese poet’s life: a cherished friendship with Li Bai (Taibai, 701–762 CE) and other luminaries of the age; a bureaucratic career derailed by spiteful rivals and internecine civil war; an abiding concern for the welfare of the hoi polloi and, most of all, his tendency to drift from one place to another.
For it is displacement, from both home and the imperial court, that inspired the most sympathetic and virtuous of Zimei’s poetry. Banished from the cloistered halls of the imperial palace after twice underperforming in the imperial examinations, Zimei explored the moral themes which grew out of his interaction with disenfranchised citizenry of Tang China (618–907 CE). In “War-wagons Rumbling,” a poem about the hardship inflicted onto the populace by conscription, Zimei transforms the drunken wailing of a hard-done-by veteran into a rebuke of Emperor Xuanzong’s (685–762 CE) incompetence and neglect. Likewise, in the novel, Boey attributes exile from the palace as the reason for the awakening of a poet whose preoccupation “hitherto … had [been] classical themes and composed verse on landscape and travels” to one whose art has come to discover a moral purpose.
The moral aspect of Zimei’s poetry further takes on a tinge of personal recrimination as he spends years exiled on the outskirts of Chengdu, for residence in the imperial city of Changan is inextricably tied to his perceived duty to country. The exile from Changan acutely reminds Zimei of his failure to qualify for high office, and consequently his inability to better the lives of the Chinese people. The cri de coeur arising after a storm’s destruction of the thatched cottage in which he had been prolific and happy, thus expresses more than Zimei’s personal anguish of losing his abode:
If I had a thousand-roomed mansion
to house the shivering poor and give them joy,
a refuge that no storm or flood can destroy.
O if such a mansion would appear right now,
I’d be happy to freeze to death in my broken home.
Zimei’s believes that his place is in the imperial city, helping the emperor set his land in order. Instead, stranded in some no-name village, far removed from the heart of the country, the moral poet and the displaced bureaucrat meet in helpless commiseration.
But if exile, as Boey suggests, is the prime impetus for the best and most virtuous of Zimei’s poetry, it is homesickness for Changan that perpetually plagues the exiled poet. And it is homesickness that drives him to uproot his family from their lives of relative peace and contentment in Chengdu, in the hope of return to the imperial capital. Despite their comfortable situation in the thatched cottage, Zimei is restless, and often longingly conjures from
the map of memory [a spectral vision of the Changan]: imposing Daming Palace and its inner court, the Imperial City with its sprawling complex of princely residences and gardens, and avenues wide enough for ten chariots to roll through abreast of one another; the East Market with its expensive emporiums and shops catering to the wealthy, and the West Market, where merchants from Persia and beyond unloaded their caravan of exotic goods, its bazaars and alleys alive with distinct colours and flavours, reverberating with foreign faces and voices; different quarters to the south, packed with temples, monasteries, shrines, mansions … the press of bodies, the cacophonous medley of voices, strange dialects and foreign words, the thick weave of smells and the astonishing variety of goods …
This unbridled effluence of images reveals a longing for the city that, while more imagined than real, is nonetheless sustained by deep roots of memory and desire. There is, after all, no word for goodbye in Chinese; all departures bear the promise of homecoming. Despite the long years of exile, Zimei cannot resist the sirenic, arresting call of Changan, home.
Now, first novels are rarely ever perfect, and this is true even for one as veteran to book-length print as Boey. Wuxia elements are sparsely and uncertainly featured in the novel: Taibai is the sole pugilistic character in a work primarily concerned with art, with friendship and with duty to family and country; his brief exploits that we encounter early in Gull hang conspicuously like afterthoughts in their later absence. Boey’s Zimei is perhaps a little too prone to the waterworks—though this would have been no fault if not for the deployment of somewhat repetitive descriptive language each time Zimei is overcome with sentimentality. But these are minor faults, and do not diminish Boey’s lyrical, elegiac portrait of Du Fu.
Reading Gull, I found myself wondering if Boey sees a little of himself in Zimei. As a writer, Boey discovered his themes from travel and exile. There is the same compassion for the downtrodden, as well as the accompanying wretched awareness that his art lacks social utility. In one of his early travel poems, Boey’s speaker laments, as he picks his way amongst the destitute of Kolkata, that
If poetry could drum up courage,
correct the economists, reform the politicians,
and bake a million loaves, my presence
would need no apology.
But who eats poetry?
Quite like Zimei, Boey is clear-eyed towards the powerlessness of his art to effect social improvement.
But amongst the many thematic similarities, most particularly, there is in Boey the same perpetual sense of unbelonging, the same dislocation. Like Zimei, Boey is this middle-aged waif who is always moving on towards another place, another life, another book, never quite settling. An emigrant who, despite having exchanged his Singaporean passport for an Australian one, nonetheless maintains in his literary creations an intimate connection to his past life in the country of his birth; the friends and family he had left behind; the old places, the old fights, the old rancour. They, not the new life he has found in his adoptive country, are the perennial subjects of his works. His works of the last two decades point at an unbroken umbilical link between his identity and Singapore.
But there is one key difference between Zimei and Boey, and that is the possibility of return for the latter. Zimei never makes it back to Changan in his lifetime, his exile being largely involuntary. Indeed, Zimei dies on a boat on the Yangtze while attempting his return to the city. Boey, on the other hand, while now more than halfway through his life and travels, is back in Singapore, this time perhaps for good: he was International Writer-in-Residence with Nanyang Technological University in 2013; he is now the University’s English Head—a position that seems a little more committal. This novel is his first book-length publication since his return.
Being the latest work in an oeuvre defined by nostalgia and longing and homesickness, there is something rather appropriate about Gull finding its home in Singapore. Readers who have enjoyed Boey’s writing over the years will be delighted to find in the novel the same elegiac poise and Yeatsian elegance that has been so characteristic of his poetry and his travel writing. They will be pleased that the man is once again perambulating these streets, resurrecting the old world: Change Alley, Robinsons, Shenton Way, and plying us with stories linked, directly or in spirit, to these places. But perhaps most of all, they shall be gratified simply by his return, because what family would not be happy to have its prodigal son back? There is, after all, no word in Chinese for goodbye.
Wong Wen Pu enjoys the poetry of T. S. Eliot and the fiction of Virginia Woolf.