The National Book Award–winning Chinese-American novelist and poet sketches the life of one of his native country’s foundational poets.
Jin’s (Creative Writing/Boston Univ.; The Boat Rocker, 2016, etc.) subject, Li Bai (701-762), better known to Western readers as Li Po, wrote about rural China with a melancholy grace; his work is suffused with long rivers ferrying travelers under watchful moons, leaving lovers and drinking partners behind. The creator of this poised and forceful (if somber) work was restless, constantly torn between wanting a secure government perch and wanting to abandon mainstream society entirely. The son of a merchant, he grew up in relative financial comfort, but because of a cultural distrust of businessmen, he found it nearly impossible to qualify for officialdom. Instead, he traveled, often for years at a time, all but abandoning his wife and children, writing poems that caught the attention of fellow poets like Du Fu and of royalty; for a time, he was a favorite of the Tang dynasty emperor. However, court life felt like a gilded cage, and his attempts at statecraft were dismissed as amateurish. Li Bai is an intriguing bundle of contradictions, but Jin seems to struggle with how to reconcile them. The author is a careful, deliberate stylist, which has made for finely understated novels and short stories. When writing nonfiction, though—especially regarding a subject like Li Bai, where accurate historical records are sparse—his writing becomes restrained, even wooden. Though Jin has accessed Chinese-language sources, his book is often frustratingly bereft of interpretive power or context. For example, the author barely examines the publishing industry (or word of mouth) that led to Li Bai’s rising stardom but fusses over picayune squabbles about his behavior at court. Jin’s fine translations of his subject’s poems are blessedly abundant, but he resists delivering deep interpretations of them.
Jin dutifully explores Li Bai’s status as a major, high-spirited poet but with little of the vigor of his subject.