In religion and folklore of Africa and of North and South America, the trickster is a familiar figure often distinguished by his cunning, skill, penchant for adventure and mischief, sexual energy, and frequently exaggerated body parts. True to his name, this mythic figure, which unites in his (or her) person traits of the divine, the human, and the animal, would exploit deceit and trickery to overcome all obstacles or opponents. In the struggle for survival, the trickster is both iconoclast and tribal/cultural hero; he destroys in order to transform and re-create.
As conceived by its author, the trickster of this tale is first and foremost a person of the capable imagination, and the reader is never quite certain whether many of his whimsical and outrageous acts are real or merely mental. Griever de Hocus, an irreverent exchange-program teacher at Zhou Enlai University in Tianjin, "is a mixed-blood tribal trickster, a close relative to the old mind monkeys; he holds cold reason on a lunge line while he imagines the world. With colored pens, he thinks backward, stops time like a shaman, and reverses intersections, interior landscapes. The lines and curves in his pictures are dance, meditation moves, those silent gestures in an opera scene." Griever liberates a flock of chickens from the knife of an open market butcher, winning for himself the abiding companionship of Matteo Ricci, a spirited rooster. On a crowded bus of the Chinese city, he demands from unresponding Communist cadres a seat for an old lady. " 'Confucius would give his seat to an old woman,' he insists. 'Communist cadres, on the other hand, took the best seats and called it a cultural revolution.' "
The story's constant reference to traditional Peking opera is etched in the names of the Chinese characters: Wu Chou (martial clown), a gatekeeper; Hua Lian (painted face), a blind caretaker of a park; Hester Hua Dan (flower maiden), a translator who had an affair with the hero. In specific echo to "The Journey to the West," the classic Chinese novel of pilgrimage which in turn has inspired several popular operas still in the repertoire, Griever is named the Monkey King, while a displaced hog-trader and a wanderer appear as Pigsie and Sandie.
When Griever intervened on the bus for the woman, "people watched him from a cultural distance, but their laughter was not unkind. Several children stared at his outsized nose." Cultural distance is indeed a prominent theme of the book: the chasms of language, appearance, behavior, history and world perception. It is a distance that separates the Americans from the Native Americans, the Americans from the Chinese, the contemporary Chinese from their ancestors and from their liminal counterparts--the socio-political or miscegenatic pariahs.
For the People's Republic, American educators, advisers, and traders seem to represent a new breed of secular missionaries--strident in their gospel of commerce, technology, and freedom, insistent in the gratification of their own inquisitiveness, and indifferent in the face of indigenous fears or desires. "Gloome wanted to know more about plastic surgeons; Jack and Sugar Dee continued their search for information about lesbianism in socialist states; Carnegie, on the other hand, proposed a heterosexual union with the translator." To such queries the obligatory reply of a cautious but not wholly uncomprehending proletariat must be: "Our new leaders have studied these problems and will report on them soon."
Much of the American experience of the New Post-Cultural Revolution China is related with devastating comic irony. The sights, sounds and smells of the land are often unerringly captured by the author's lean, laconic prose. Griever's ordeal of using a public toilet on the train should elicit the smiles and tears of recognition by all non-native travelers of China. The translated inanities of the Tianjin mayor's speech on national day are rendered flawlessly.
The adventures or misadventures of the hero continue to poke fun at both the ridiculous rigidities of socialist conventions and the romantic myopia of the visitor. Encountering a truckload of criminals (condemned rapists, murderers, and dope dealers), Griever, calling himself Sun Wukong, White Earth Monkey King, demands their release in the name of Wei Jingsheng, the celebrated editor still jailed (in real life) for his outspoken advocacy of freedom and human rights. When the authorities refuse, Griever hijacks the truck and frees the prisoners, only to have most of them shot by the pursuing soldiers.
In the antecedent Chinese classic, the human pilgrim's disciple was called Mind Monkey ( xinyuan ) not only because he was daring and imaginative, but also because restless intelligence, according to Buddhist wisdom, must be constructively harnessed. The obstreperous ape's good works did serve the human community. The American Version here seems useful only for creative parody, and one wonders whether these two notions of the trickster also betoken "cultural distance."