The Master: A Novel by Patrick Rambaud

Translated by Nicole and David Ball

The Master: A Novel
by Patrick Rambaud

The Master is a stark novel, the kind that is absent of luxurious words and descriptions, but whose minimal lines imply a lush intellectual interior may lie beyond the text, if the reader is willing to linger on the line just a little longer than necessary.

The protagonist is Zhuang Zhou (also known as Zhaungzi), an actual historical figure, a Chinese philosopher who lived circa 369 BCE to 286 BCE and contributed greatly to the philosophy of Taoism. He is the eponymous master of this novel. It begins with his childhood and recounts the fictionalized events of his life, with especial attention to Zhaung’s moments of philosophical enlightenment. Zhuang is propelled, by his choice or by the whims of others, from one kingdom to another, finding his life and livelihood tied to the court, a recipient of a benefice from the king. In some periods of his life he welcomes this privileged position, living the abstracted life of the mind. At other times he rejects this and delves into more material pursuits. His experiences lead him to write the piece of scholarship he is known for, The Zhuangzi.

The novel reads like an ancient epic moving swiftly from one event to another. It does allow the reader some interiority into Zhuang’s mind, but only his, and only insofar as it pertains to his judgements on morality and ethical behavior. This is not a personal account of the interiority of his life in an emotional sense; the reader should not expect entree into Zhuang’s feelings, so much as his intellectual musings on morality and correct ways ruler should govern. (Indeed, the reader may get the impression Zhuang was a less than stellar parent and romantic lover.) Rambaud delivers the character with a kind of detachment, as if merely filtering a series of observations for the benefit of the reader and for the reader to analyze and judge Zhuang for themselves.

The purpose of the novel seems to be less focused on the man than his scholarship. I have the distinct impression I am meant to walk away with a fuller view of what the sage intended for us to understand about Taoism. But I admit, I was less impressed with Zhuang’s heavy handed pedagogy and deliberate elusiveness, and so the lesson missed me.

As a result, this reader notices a pedantic aspect to the book, which while it performs the conventions of Chinese philosophical writing authentic to its setting and protagonist, may read as supercilious to the modern reader. But then again, the philosophy of ethics is about passing judgement and imposing moral watermarks on society, so… I am left wondering if a book on a topic like this can ever be written without an element of condescension baked into it. If so, Rambaud is excused from any accusation of arrogance; indeed, Rambaud’s role in this novel is exemplary otherwise.

Rambaud’s portrayal of Zhuang follows an expected patriarchal narrative that is likely accurate; we are not given any historical evidence that the real Zhuang was a feminist, after all. To portray him as such would have been inauthentic (if satisfying as a disruption, a revolution). We can understand Rambaud’s role here as a messenger. His prose is beautiful in its sparseness; with few words an image of Zhuang — not his physical being but his essence — is apparent to the reader, as are his friends who accompany him, betray him, befriend him on the journey of his life. Rambaud delivers the tensions of the social landscape of ancient China well, without romanticizing or Orientalizing the place or people. It is a harsh world: peasants live and die at the whims of their lords, people live and die at the whims of nature via its tantrums in the form of floods or droughts. Rambaud transports the reader to this moment and place well.

Overall, The Master is an enjoyable read, one that informs and does what historical fiction ought to do: transport the reader across time.

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