Saturday, December 15, 2007

The Call of History

"Within these halls, the relics told their tales and slipped their secrets." So I wrote in The Jade Owl, a short snippet of an undulating paragraph about the tales that historic artifacts tell. And back in 1971, I first heard the coukoo sing history's sweet tales from the podium. First, as mentioned, from the leader of the Hungarian Revolution, Bel Kiroly and then from Mary Giles, a consummate lecturer on Ancient history, a woman who brought the old Roman threadbares to life. Sumerians glowed and I remember doing a paper on Hathor's mirror that sat on a velvet drape at the Brooklyn Museum. Within these halls, the relics told their tales and slipped their secrets. Yessum. It was history for me. And then there was Professor Hyman Kublin, who specialized in Japanese history. Ah! Japan.. The land of The Mikado (not really), but I was hooked forever . . . well not forever. Until Prof Kublin introduced me to the larger well—CHINA. Her blossoming fathomless sea of rich history, relics, lore, customs and immoveable presence. I couldn't get enough of her . . . never have . . . never will.Destiny knocked, and I cared little for the practicality of making a living as a Sinologist. I was still with that company that kept me fed (and would so 'til this day). I had scant notion of the job market or the glut of Sinophiles (unemployed ones).

Still, China dominated all, including my writing. Suddenly hundreds of story possibilities came my way. So what did I do? I took a western-style tale and bent it a la Chinese. But it was an important tale. It was called Vagrant Hollow and it was my first mature novel. It concerned a Sung dynasty student and bureaucrat; and the death of his teacher. A murder mystery in 12th Century China. Why not? It was frought with action, obsession and a twist ending (so twisty, it defied logic). Most important, it gave birth to my oldest fictional companion, Li K'ai-men (the scholar-official), whose story it tells. Little did I know then that Li and his ilk (his descendant Little Cricket figures important in later work), would burst through several works for the next twenty five years. I also scrawled a few Chinese themed short stories, one of which Laughing Dog reflected my skills as a Sinologist. It was sort of the Papago Wedding of the Chinese set. It also figured large in the scheme of my writing forming (with Li K'ai-men) the basis for my play (1999) Fishing With Birds and the first sections of my novel (2002) Nan-ya. Yes, these were fecund times. I was also writing papers, the real work of the historian. I had made my commitment to it. I would walk in the wake of Marco Polo. I would do it, because . . . because the relics told their tales and slipped their secrets. I would tell the world. Finally, a reason for living.

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