A FLOATING LIFE: The Adventures of Li Po by Simon Elegant

A FLOATING LIFE: The Adventures of Li Po

By
Email this review

KIRKUS REVIEW

Historical fiction about a legendary literary rascal, in a first novel by a Hong Kong-based editor of the Far Eastern Economic Review. Thirteen centuries ago, the Chinese poet Li Po pursued life with a ferocious appetite, being both admired for his verse and notorious for his untrammelled behavior at the court of the Emperor Hsuan Tsung and, later, on the loose pursuing his fortune in the T'ang Dynasty-era countryside. Writing in the roisterous spirit of the story's hero, Elegant probes the mythology of the poet in a series of linked tales told in the first person by Li Po to Wang Lung, who is the poet's cringing yet dogged young amanuensis. These stories are especially engrossing when they're most earthy and ribald--for instance, when the illustrious versifier, temporarily down and out, takes a job working as an assistant for a mute and ailing butcher's minion at a pig slaughterhouse. The tale of the doleful downfall of the exploited minion, Pigboy, and the sad lot of his hopeless animal victims (whom be secretly respects and loves) is visceral, violent, and unmercifully moving, a transparently moral and emotional interlude in a chronicle otherwise filled with purely rambunctious action. The structural looseness of Elegant's historical re-creation is appropriate to the picaresque genre, and yet a lack of depth in the author's portrayal of his protagonist does limit the book's impact and imaginative reach. As a wanton and a renegade, Li Po is great fun, but he's also somewhat narrowly drawn; it's hard to sympathize very much with a guy who's shown over and over again to be fundamentally foolish and stereotypically naughty. In the end, Elegant's work seems an entertaining piece of exotica that deliberately avoids deeper things, depending instead on cheekiness and some ingenious flourishes. The story of an ancient Chinese prototype of Charles Bukowski.

Pub Date: Oct. 15th, 1997
Page count: 288pp
Publisher: Ecco