The tradition of great oral epics survived on the Inner Asian steppe perhaps as long as any other place on earth. At the dawn of the 20th century scholars managed to record bards singing stories that might have been five centuries or more in the retelling, embellishment and polishing. Jangar is one such epic, belonging to the Kalmyk people, once the left wing of Genghis Khan’s armies, now a minority people in the Russian Federation. Russian-educated Kalmyks collected these tales, and their work somehow survived the Russian Civil War and Stalin’s ferocious persecution of the Kalmyks and their literature. Translated into English for the first time by Saglar Bougdaeva, non-Russian, non-Kalmyk readers can now appreciate these tales.
Long related orally, the Sanskrit epic Mahabharata is believed to have been composed in written form between 300 BCE and 300 CE, the epic narrates the tale of greed and compassion between two clans, the Kauravas and the Pandavas, and has life lessons that transcend any particular civilization. The family feud over a kingdom speaks of sacrifice, love, lust, and enmity.
“To satisfy Divine Justice, perfect victims were necessary, but the Law of Love has succeeded to the law of fear, and Love has chosen me as a holocaust, me, a weak and imperfect creature” wrote Korean-American artist Theresa Hak Kyung Cha in her 1982 debut novel Dictee. Only two months after its publication, Cha was raped and murdered on her way to meet her husband and friends for dinner in New York City. She was 31 years old. Cha’s novel is haunting, tragic, and defiant. Written in multiple languages and in a style both enigmatic and experimental, its accessibility is comparable to James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake. Dictee is widely recognized today as a critically important text of postmodern, postcolonial, Asian-American literature and has enthralled scholars of Asian American literature since its publication. Forty years later, University of California Press has produced a restored version of Dictee. With the original cover and high-quality interior layout as Cha had designed them, this book is the most aesthetically appealing edition of the five that have been produced.
The Kushnameh is unique, literally. Only one copy of the “Epic of Kush” exists, sitting in the British Library. Hardly anything is known about its author, Iranshah. It features a quite villainous protagonist, the tusked warrior Kush, who carves a swathe of destruction across the region. And it spans nearly half the world, with episodes in Spain, the Maghreb, India, China and even Korea.
The Medieval Iranians, no less than we today, sought answers to questions about far-away countries and events of old. We consult Google or Wikipedia. They looked into epic poetry and romances. Since literature in those days had both to entertain and instruct, the stories they read about Korea, China, Khazaria and Spain also spoke of monsters, wizards and moon-faced beauties. The biggest difference between their curiosity and ours is that they emphasized wisdom over knowledge. Even a legend can be rich in initiatic truths.
Hakkenden is a classic work of Japanese literature: the story of the eight warriors, born from Princess Fuse and the dog Yatsufusa, has been adapted to manga, movies and anime. And its tropes continue to pop up in Japanese popular culture today.
English literature of the 19th and early 20th centuries saw a profusion of lengthy, serialized novels by people such as Dickens, George Eliot, Thackeray and Elizabeth Gaskell. On the continent Marcel Proust wrote his seven-volume A la recherche du temps perdu, which took him fourteen years to write (1913-27), and of course there’s Tolstoy with War and Peace and Dostoevsky with The Brothers Karamazov. These authors were rank amateurs compared with one Kyokutei Bakin (1767-1848), the Japanese writer who managed to churn out what must be the most mind-bogglingly monumental novel in the history of literature, the Hakkenden, the first part of which, presented here (the translator promises a complete version), came out in 1814.