Book: Legends of the Condor Heroes I: A Hero Born
Author: Jin Yong
Translated by: Anna Holmwood
Publisher: MacLehose Press
Pages: 394; Price: Rs 399
If you loved ‘Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon’, can’t wait to catch those Jackie Chan, Bruce Lee and Samo Hung films for the umpteenth time and worship the martial arts, then ‘A Hero Born: Legends of the Condor Heroes’ is just the book for you. And for those of you who loved ‘Game of Thrones’ or ‘Lord of the Rings’, this has been described as the Chinese equivalent. Mind you, it is not Chinese LotR or GoT, but much more. It is an epic that bridges the fantastical with the real.
Louis Cha, who wrote under his pen name Jin Yong, is famous for his epic wuxia novels. Wuxia, literally translated as martial (wu) chivalry (xia) or "martial heroes", is a genre of Chinese writing that deals with the adventures of martial artists in ancient China. And Yong mixed martial arts, romance, history and fantasy in perfect measure.
Set in the 13th century during the turbulent years of the Song Dynasty, ‘A Hero is Born’ is a coming-of-age tale about a simple and slow, but fearless, Guo Jing. He is trained by his shifus, The Seven Heroes of the South or "Seven Freaks of Jiangnan", a group of seven martial artists. His journey introduces us to historical figures like Genghis Khan among whose nomadic warriors Guo grows up. It is also about a divided China and a rapidly unifying Mongolia under the Great Khan.
Having grown up on a steady dose of Shaw Brothers’ and Golden Harvest wuxia films I loved the fight sequences and the naming and description of such strikes and parries as Search the Sea, Behead the Dragon; Seize the Basket by the Handle and Sword of Mutual Demise.
The story is pacy and there are no dull moments. There are also many strong women characters that help elevate the novel. The book extols virtues like benevolence, loyalty, courage and righteousness and does a fine job of promoting these desirable qualities.
But where the translator, Anna Holmwood, has done such a good job of keeping to the spirit of the original during the fights, she fails in the naming of characters. There is inconsistency in that aspect since some characters retains their names from the original, but others are translations. Most of the characters' given names are translated literally – for example, Yang Tiexin is translated as "Ironheart Yang", and Huang Yaoshi is translated as "Apothecary Huang", which takes away from the book.
The translation too, in some parts, is inconsistent and can be distracting. Also, the lack of a map that we use as reference in fantasy novels like LotR is a drawback. Ultimately, despite its drawbacks, the translation does accomplish what it set out to do – bringing Jin Yong's martial arts world a little closer to English-speaking readers.