Nothing good lasts forever, whether we are talking about the Garden or this novel itself… Volumes 4 and 5 are thought to be written by Gao E a generation after Cao Xueqin’s untimely death. There has been rampant speculation since the appearance of these last 40 chapters in 1791 as to how faithfully they followed Cao’s original intention and how much material Gao E had to work with in editing it all together. I wish that David Hawkes, the translator of the first three volumes, had continued to translate these final two volumes. I would then be able to say more definitively whether the author’s voice or the quality of the writing changes that greatly. I do not believe that our new translator, John Minford, is quite as skilled as Hawkes. I guess this means that someday I will have to read a version completely translated by the same person, perhaps Gladys Yang’s.
Anyway, back to the story itself. We continue to see the struggle between lineal descendants as Jia Zheng has returned to make Bao-yu study. Everywhere the family is falling apart and the conflicts play out as expected: young vs. old, mistress vs. servant, husband vs. wife. In the first 80 chapters there was an interplay between characters’ (major and minor) storylines that helped me feel the texture of their everyday lives. Incidents would ebb and flow until some great event occurred which stopped everything. Gradually the plot would get rolling again but in a different direction than I had assumed. This no longer happens. Things go about as one would expect. Again, this is the price we readers pay for having these last 40 chapters assembled at all. The previous volumes each took me at least two months to read. I frequently had to stop due to feeling overwhelmed by the richness of detail and characterization. With this volume I was able to read as compulsively as I had always wanted but never got exhausted. The writing is now heavy on dialogue, and none of it particularly rich or layered (as I said before, I cannot say for certain whether this is due to Gao E, John Minford or both, though perhaps if David Hawkes had continued as translator he might have improved on the original however slightly.) The upside is that I finished the book in ten days.
When characters do have inner thoughts they are always of something established in the first 80 chapters (Aroma wonders what will become of her as a concubine, Dai-yu feels like an outsider, etc). And although I felt chapters 80-90 were somewhat clunky, I settled into a groove and enjoyed the second half of this volume. Or perhaps Gao E had better notes or fragments to work from, since Cao had perhaps finished 110 chapters and tended to lend them to his friend/relative/editor Rouge Inkstone in increments of 10. We will never know. Despite my previous complaints, there is one relationship that continues to develop, that which is between Nightingale and Dai-yu. Nightingale’s mad dash around the Garden during the critical time for Dai-yu was incredibly suspenseful and heartbreaking. I’ve always been surprised at how emotional I can get about these characters, and I am even more surprised that I continue to be moved by Gao E’s chapters. Although chapters 80-90 struck me as a bit flat, the chapters leading up to the wedding have been presented quite believably by presenting the complicated motivations and actions surrounding the grand substitution. Although I was never a huge Dai-yu fan, I appreciated her aesthetic and pitied her situation. However, I probably would have wanted my son to marry Bao-chai, and not for jade and gold reasons, but because she is very solid and sensible. My favorite character continues to be Tan-chun, who embodies the best qualities of Dai-yu and Bao-chai. I was surprised and comforted to see her at Dai-yu’s deathbed. I hope she makes it out okay, but I don’t have high hopes for anybody at this point.