Thunder, sunlight, sweet dew, whirlwind
Tun-huang (1959) is perhaps Inoue’s greatest novel in his greatest genre. The NYRB edition reprints in the very fine 1978 translation by Jean Oda Moy (also the translator of Inoue’s most personal books in English, Shirobamba and Chronicle of My Mother), which has aged well except for the vexed matter of Chinese proper names: she used, of course, the older transliteration system, which may add to the confusion of any readers already familiar with Dunhuang (Tun-huang), the western Xia kingdom or Xi-Xia (Hsi-Hsia), etc.
Tun-huang has been an important city for millennia, on the Chinese end of the silk road, and the nearby Mogao Grottoes or Thousand Buddha Caves, filled with statues, paintings, frescoes, and inscriptions dating back to the fourth through fourteenth centuries, are one of the greatest art sites in the world. The cave now prosaically known as Cave 17 kept its secrets for close to nine centuries—from around 1036, when an incomparable storehouse of books and documents was sealed up inside for reasons that have never been determined, until 1907, when a Hungarian-British archaeologist, Marc Aurel Stein, learned about the library’s existence from a Chinese Taoist priest who had stumbled upon the cave a few years before. The library was of incalculable historical, religious, and cultural importance— containing, to name just one example, the world’s earliest known printed book, a diamond sutra scroll sixteen feet long with the precise date of printing on the colophon: May 11, 868—and for nearly twenty years a series of European, Japanese, and American scholar-adventurers negotiated with (or cheated) the priest to recover (or steal) thousands upon thousands of artifacts. The best telling of this unbelievable story is still Peter Hopkirk’s swashbuckling book from 1980, Foreign Devils on the Silk Road; the best reconstruction of the 11th-century events is Inoue’s novel.
No further historical background is needed to enjoy Tun-huang, since the book itself and Inoue’s preface give all the necessary information and the history they present is substantially accurate by the standards of today’s scholarship. It is true that sources other than the official Chinese histories would be less inclined to call all non-Chinese peoples “tribes,” or refer to Yüan-hao conquering a few large prefectures in what is now northwest China as “conquering Central Asia”; it may also be worth noting that the Uighurs mentioned in the book were not the same as the Uighur people of today, though some of them may have been the ancestors of today’s Uighurs. The Islamization of Central Asia had proceeded west of the Pamirs, and east of them only in the great oasis cities of Kashgar and Khotan at the western end of the Tarim basin, thus Inoue is mistaken when he writes that “the Muslims” invaded the Tun-huang area from the west—Khotan was growing into an important power, but its political ambitions in that period lay westward, not east toward China. Such quibbles aside, Inoue’s historical narrative is perfectly reliable.
It is also enchanting fiction, and I encourage anyone who has not yet read the novel to skip the rest of this essay and fall under its spell for yourself. It opens in a classic mold— young hero from the provinces shows up to make his name in the capital—when suddenly he falls asleep in the sun. His dream is a clever way for Inoue to give the necessary exposition, and when the hero wakes up it is a different book—a novel’s dream-world. Hsing-te is no longer strong and super-competent, as he is said to be before his exams, but physically weak and psychologically adrift. The battle scenes exemplify his new life: he slings the stones he has and then faints, tied to his horse, leaving the rest to fate. Like Stendhal, Inoue uses war not as a canvas for the hero’s expression of purposeful, heroic free will but to show how larger forces utterly overwhelm our puny claims to individual choice and meaning. Unlike Stendhal, though, Inoue doesn’t seem to see a conflict between greater forces and human action: Hsing-te feels carried along by fate, and at several key moments in the book he changes his mind for no reason, in a way that makes him seem absolutely real. Near the end, wondering why his life had turned out the way it did, “he could think of no undue pressures on him, nor any strong influence other than his own free choice. Just as water flows from higher to lower levels, he, too, had merely followed the natural course of events. . . . If he could relive his life, he would probably travel the same route given the same circumstances.” The textbook metaphor of determinism is here an image of perfectly free meandering, not opposed to personal choice.