King Gesar

An excerpt: The Shepherd’s Dream

Alai

Illustration by Hugo Muecke

Restless and anxious.

Those drifting, floating clouds. Anxious and restless.

The shepherd had had the same dream many times. And every time it ended at the moment when the most revered Bodhisattva entered the celestial gate. Even in the dream he could tell that he was feeling restless, that it was not the man pacing outside the gate, but he himself who was anxious, for he wanted to know what would happen next.

In his dream he had looked deep into the celestial court, where he'd seen a sparkling, clear, upward slanting jade staircase. The steps closest to him were sturdy, those farther away appeared soft and light, yet the end of the staircase did not disappear in the clouds but, unable to bear its own weight, it appeared to tip over at the very top . . . he could see no more. Once, at the edge of a summer pasture, he had climbed a five-thousand-meter sacred mountain that wore a helmet of snow and ice. At the peak his field of vision had again ended abruptly, for the mountain had seemed to tip over into the clouds that roiled beneath its cliffs. Beyond it lay another world, not this world; but what that world looked like was something he would never know, not in this lifetime.

He dreamed that at a certain moment that other world would crack open before him, like a cave – the words, 'crack open like a cave', appeared in his head. In life he was an illiterate, dim-witted shepherd, but in his dreams he had become more astute. Strange how such a literary phrase popped into his head just when he was anxiously waiting to see what happened next. Just as he thought of it, there was a crash, the sound of torrents of water sluicing down the rocky surface of steep hills as icy rivers melted on a summer day. The noise woke him. He opened his eyes to discover that he had been sleeping on a hill sheltered from the wind by Siberian cypresses. The sheep were scattered across the grassy floodplain, where they were licking up tender grass, flaring their nostrils to capture all the scents in the breeze, exposing the pink flesh inside their noses. When they saw him wake up, they raised their sad faces and called out to him:

Baa—

Still half dreaming, compassion rose up inside him, for he was reminded of the people who had been manipulated by the demons.

He gazed up into the sky, and the crashing sound in his dream burst forth again, like thousands of mounted riders galloping toward him. Above him appeared the far end of his own world. A great crevasse had opened up under the thick layer of snow on the gentle slope of the sacred mountain, between the ice and the steel-gray rock. With a muffled rumble, the deep snow slid slowly down until it reached the fractured ridge, then the heavier snow became an avalanche while the lighter powder rose in the air. Wind buffeted his face, the chill purity of the air driving out the last shred of sleepiness. This was the avalanche he had been expecting, a clear sign that summer had finally arrived. Purple gentians bloomed all around him on the grassland, and giant buds formed on the fuzzy stalks of snow lotuses.

But he paid little attention to the flowers, for he was thinking only of how tomorrow he would take his sheep closer to the foothills, where the grass was lush and green and the danger of avalanches had passed. The roar of the avalanche had startled the sheep, and, reminded of something, he looked up at the floating clouds. Waking up had cleared the last vestiges of his dream from his mind, but a feeling of agitation remained, like a dark cloud on the horizon. On this day, however, his dream came back to him clearly, and he saw the story that had played out on this very land. For thousands of years, bards had told the story – on the grassland and in farming villages. He himself had heard it many times, the story of a hero, King Gesar. But they had been poor storytellers, who could only remember fragments of the story. He had heard rumours of famous bards in faraway lands who could tell the whole tale. Now, as he recalled his dream, he realised that he had seen the beginning of the magnificent story.

Silence reigned in his world, and yet he could hear thunderclaps in the mountains. He shuddered, as if struck by lightning; sweat poured from his body. What power had let him witness these opening scenes, which had eluded so many storytellers? Without knowing the beginning, other bards could not tell the whole story – the beginning, the story proper and the ending. The shepherd's uncle was one of these bards. He was a farmer in a village two hundred li from the shepherd's home, and in his spare time, he carved sutra printing blocks out of pear wood. He would sit in the lotus position under the shade of a plum tree in the middle of the yard and send wood shavings curling down between his fingers. Lines seemed to be etched even more deeply into his face. Sometimes he would sip light liquor and sing fragments of King Gesar of Ling's tale. His song had no beginning or end, for he knew only how to describe the hero's mount, the weapons he wielded, the warlike helmet he wore and the powerful magic that enabled him to kill people like flies if he lacked compassion for them.

'What happens next?' the shepherd had asked his uncle many times.

'That is all my master told me. I don't know anything else.'

'Who taught your master?'

'No one. He saw it in a dream. He was sick with a high fever, and babbling when he dreamed about it.'

'Couldn't he have dreamed the rest?'

'Jigme, my dear nephew, you ask too many questions. Did you come all this way and nearly cripple the little donkey just so you can ask me foolish questions?'

Jigme just smiled.

*

In the courtyard of the farming village, with its several plum trees, Jigme watched as his uncle placed a length of pear wood on his knees and began carving the outlines of words with a sharp knife, reciting something as he worked. Jigme had not wanted to stay inside with his cousins. His younger cousin, who was in high school, had told him that the gamy odor he'd brought from the fields was disgusting. He was puzzled; he did not smell bad out on the pasture, it was just in this squat, hot village with its cramped view that he had to admit that he carried the smell of the sheep and cows.

'Jigme, don't worry about the smell. It will be gone in a few days,' his uncle said.

'I want to go home.'

'You must be disappointed by my story. But that is my master's fault. He said he dreamed the whole tale but could not remember much after he awoke. He told me he could not even retell half of the half he had dreamed.'

Jigme wanted to tell his uncle that he'd had a similar dream, one he had always forgotten upon waking, but that this time, startled awake by the avalanche, he could recall it all. The main figure had yet to appear, but he knew that it was the beginning, which was why he had been roused from his sleep by the magnificent avalanche. His desire to continue the story was why he had traveled the two hundred li with a gift-laden donkey to see his uncle.

'Something is bothering you, Jigme,' Uncle said.

Jigme held his tongue, for he now felt that he must keep the dream a secret, that dreaming of the tale had been a divine revelation.

Uncle moved to the side to give him half of the shade cast by the plum tree and said, 'Come, sit here.'

He sat down and Uncle placed the wood on his knees. 'Hold the knife like this. No, too straight, tilt it a bit. Now carve, give it a bit more force. Good, very good. Keep going, more, more. See, like this, and a syllable appears.'

He knew the syllable, it was the first one on the list of combinations, one that even the unlettered knew. People said that it was the origin of human consciousness, the mother of all poetry, like the first wind that blew over the world, the first drop of water from the melting river ice, a fable for all prophecies, and, of course, the prophecy of all fables.

'My dear nephew, with so many people around, sometimes the gods simply cannot take care of us all, and that is why you feel out of sorts. When that happens, think about this syllable.'

'I don't know how to carve.'

'Then treat your heart as the best pear wood and imagine yourself holding a knife carving out this syllable one letter at a time. As long as you think about it and say it, gradually there will be only this syllable flickering in your consciousness, and that will bring you tranquility.'

On his way home, he said to the donkey, 'I'm thinking about that syllable.'

The syllable was pronounced Om. When that sound is made, everything that turns, water wheels, windmills, spinning wheels and prayer wheels, begins to spin. And when everything is spinning, the world turns.

The donkey did not understand, but ambled along with its head lowered and its eyes cast downward. The road made a sharp turn by a sparse grove of pine trees. Swaying its narrow hips, the donkey disappeared momentarily from his view as it made the turn. So he raised his voice and spoke to two parrots perched on a wild cherry tree: 'Think about the syllable.'

Startled, the birds fluttered up, clamouring, 'Syllable! Syllable! Syllable!' and flew away.

He quickened his steps and found his donkey waiting for him by the side of the road. It gave him a dispassionate look before setting off again, the bell on its neck jingling as it plodded ahead.

For a long time after that, Jigme spoke to all manner of living things that appeared along the way, telling them, in a half serious, half bantering manner, of how he was focusing on that syllable – serious because he hoped it would help him return to his dream world and not forget it upon waking, and bantering because he could not bring himself to believe in it. Mocking it helped him prepare for the inevitable disappointment. But deep down he hoped it would work magic.

He said it to a lizard he found sunning itself on a rock as they crossed a valley.

He said it to a marmot that held its front paws together and stood up on its hind legs as it looked into the distance on a mountain pasture.

He said it to a deer that looked proud of its wide antlers.

But they all ignored him, or scurried off in panic, as though fearful of his muttering.

He spent that night in a mountain cave, while his donkey grazed near the opening.  Moonbeams flowed like water on the ground nearby; in the distance they were like a mist. It felt like a night made for dreams. He recited the syllable before falling asleep, but knew as soon as he awakened that the dream had not come.

As the road rose higher and higher, the sky turned brighter. He had planned to spend the second night in town, in a hotel, but there was no place for his donkey. The hotel clerk led him out to the yard behind the building, where cars, large and small, were parked on the tarmac.

The clerk looked puzzled. 'You seem to have traveled a long distance. But people usually take the bus when they do that. We have a bus stop in town. I can show you how to get there.'

He shook his head. 'There are no seats for my donkey.'

He searched for a spot on a hill outside the town where he could spend the night. It was barren land, so he slept beneath a steel tower whose base served to block the wind. He built a fire against the chill night air. He made tea and roasted a little meat, wishing he had bought liquor in town. He did not plan to dream here, for it did not look like a place for dreaming. From the dreary hill he could see the flickering brightness of the town below, and when a wind blew over, the steel tower hummed – Om Om.

Curled up under a wool blanket, unable to fall asleep, he gazed at the tower rising up into the starry sky. With that tower, the people in the small town could listen to the radio and watch television. They could make phone calls at the post office, with its many small rooms in which they sat with a handset, flailing their arms as if dancing, talking animatedly, though they could not see the person to whom they were speaking. As he listened to the incessant Om Om from the tower, the noise became like the congregation of their voices, all their words jumbled together into a hum that made him dizzy. He tried to recite the syllable, the first of all sounds, but it merged into the Om Om from the tower. He pulled the blanket up over his head, blocking out the starlight and the sound.

To his astonishment, he found his dream again, but this time it was unfamiliar. He saw a mysterious, crystal-clear light at the tip of the tower, and the light grew stronger.

It was not the steel tower. It was a crystal tower in the celestial court.

He still felt anxious and unsettled.

But this time, he was anxious because he did not want to be startled awake.

translated from the Chinese by Howard Goldblatt and Sylvia Lin



Read translator’s note

Alai (b. 1959 in Sichuan Province) is a Chinese poet and novelist of Rgyalrong Tibetan descent. He was a onetime editor of Science Fiction World. His Red Poppies: A Novel of Tibet (2002) has been translated by Howard Goldblatt and Sylvia Li-chun Lin, and his novel King Gesar, also translated by Howard Goldblatt and Sylvia Li-chun Lin, will follow in August 2013 in Canongate Books' Myths series.

Howard Goldblatt is a contributing editor at Asymptote. Authors he has translated from the Chinese include virtually all major contemporary novelists. Recent translations include Wolf Totem by Jiang Rong, Su Tong's Boat to Redemption, and, with Sylvia Li-chun Lin, Bi Feiyu's Three Sisters, all winners of the Man Asian Literary Prize. He and his wife divide their time between South Bend, Indiana, and Boulder, Colorado.

Sylvia Lin is a contributing editor at Asymptote. She teaches modern and contemporary Chinese literature, film, and culture. A winner of the Liang Shih–chiu Literary Translation Prize, Lin is the co–translator of Chu T'ien-wen's Notes of a Desolate Man, which won the 1999 ALTA "Translation of the Year" award, as well as co-translator of Bi Feiyu's Three Sisters, which won the 2011 Man Asia Literary Award. Her publications include Representing Atrocity: The 2/28 Incident and White Terror in Fiction and Film (Columbia UP, 2007), a co-edited bi-lingual anthology, Push Open the Window: Poetry from Contemporary China (Copper Canyon Press, 2011), and a co-edited collection of essays, Documenting Taiwan on Film: Issues and Methods in New Documentaries (forthcoming, Routledge 2012).


The protagonist of one of the longest epics in the world (one published version consists of one million verses), King Gesar is a Tibetan Odysseus or Hanuman. His adventures have been sung since the 12th century, and were first published, in Chinese, in 1716. For Canongate's Myths series (which also featured Philip Pullman's The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ and Jeanette Winterson's Weight, her take on the story of Atlas), Alai was commissioned to write a version of the Gesar epic. His version, King Gesar (2009), not only tells of the King's miraculous birth, troubled childhood, and rise to the throne, but it also concerns a half-blind shepherd, Jigme, who reluctantly finds himself transformed into a Gesar storyteller. We translated a slightly edited version, set to appear Aug 2013 from Canongate Books.


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