Saturday, January 25, 2020

Review of A Bond Undone by Jin Yong

A Bond Second is the second volume in Jin Yong’s (aka Louis Cha) The Legend of the Condor Heroes series. Thus, don’t bother reading further unless you’ve read the first volume in St. Martin’s Press’s new translation, A Hero Born.

The Legend of the Condor Heroes initially published in instalments, later as a novel, and now in English in volumes, A Bond Undone picks up events directly where A Hero Born left off. Lotus Huang and Guo Jing continue their star-shaped courtship, fighting their way through a variety of kung fu masters and illusions. A good portion of their fight is through Cyclone Mei, the deranged woman looking to get revenge for her lover’s murder. Mei’s kung fu skills so powerful due to her knowledge of the Nine Yin Manual, a host of villainous characters follow in her wake, trying to get their hands on the manual to learn its invaluable contents. Naturally, it’s Guo Jing who unwittingly comes in contact with the sacred manual, and who must fight even harder to stay alive.

If A Hero Born was an action-packed novel, then A Bond Undone is practically non-stop. Scenes are introduced with the barest minimum of details before feet and fists start flying, page after page after page. While often approaching maximum capacity, Jin does a good job delineating the scenes so as not to confuse the reader. It is Hong Kong action films in written form (and likely much of their inspiration), but each scene, for as fast as it moves, remains focused. (It should come as no surprise the book has been adapted multiple times for Chinese television.)

I have read a lot of Chinese in English translation, and in A Bond Undone Gigi Chang continues rendering a high quality narrative. The specifics of the Chinese language making it not the easiest transition, Chang continues to show her skills at producing a narrative that maintains flow and navigates the extremely tricky disparity between the two languages, while still ringing natural to English speaking ears. I have read some truly bad translations, and this is anything but. There are, however, things that are untranslatable, which leads to:

It states in Wikipedia that Jin’s novels appeal to high and lowbrow tastes (I paraphrase). Given what comes across in the English translation, this is a bit of a puzzler. The books seem straightforward action-romance with a bit of the supernatural, nothing overtly literary about them. This means that the appeal to higher senses must be in the literary allusions and wordplay lost to English in translation. Any hint at a line uttered by an ancient Chinese poet, or subtle reference to a Confucian anecdote goes in one eye and out the other of 99.9% of English readers without their knowledge. Supporting this is the fact St. Martin’s press is marketing the Condor novels as Tolkien-esque. Thus, while reams of academic papers have been written on Tolkien’s oeuvre, that is not how his books are primarily read. The same mindset should be applied to the stories of Lotus Huang and Guo Jing, and their kaleidoscope kung fu battles through Chinese history.

In the end, if you enjoyed what A Hero Born offered in terms of high-flying kung fu action spread across multiple characters and highly imaginative fighting styles, then A Bond Undone is the extremely consistent second volume of the larger novel, Legend of the Condor Heroes. Gigi Change has done a magnificent job rendering the Earth Shakes Heavens, Seven Dragon Palm, Lotus Sprouts Strong, and all the other specialty moves and ideas into English, making for another fast-paced, entertaining experience.

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