Sunday, November 11, 2007

Book Review: "Empress" by Shan Sa

I really should've liked this one a bit more than I did.

"Empress" is a quasi-fictional autobiography in which the author, Shan Sa, attempts to reconstruct the life story of Wu Zetian, the only woman ever to rule China as emperor. Now, Wu is a controversial figure: on the one hand, she was - by most accounts - a scheming, manipulative bitch who could be quite brutal when she needed to be, and for a very long time she was held up as an example of how women can't handle power (because, as America has proven so nicely over the last eight years, men always do a bang-up job in the driver's seat). But on the other hand, the fact that she managed to achieve the impossible, especially in a culture so strongly oriented around tradition, is noteworthy, and there's a case to be made that her more extreme actions were a product of (and response to) her environment.

We'll never know if that's true of the real Wu or not, but I imagine that'd be a good starting point for a sympathetic depiction. Unfortunately, Shan Sa's version of Wu isn't very sympathetic. In fact, it's a bit difficult to know where Sa stands with regards to Wu at all because, having adopted Wu's identity (the novel is written in first-person), what Sa actually gives us is a thoroughly detached narrative, obsessed with lists and names and ice-cold, almost robotic categorization. She never really gets into Wu's head, her thoughts and feelings; Wu herself is almost a bystander in her own story.

Now, I'll grant that it's a very tricky thing to fictionalize a real person's biography to the extent that you presume to speak with their voice. But if you take that plunge, you might as well give your readers some sort of internal access, rather than spout a string of encyclopedic entries one could find on Wikipedia with much less effort. Who was Wu Zetian? What motivated her to do the things she did? How did she feel at those key moments in her life that defined her in the history books? Sa offers us no answers... in fact, Sa doesn't even ask the questions. The whole novel's written a step removed from the actual action (towards the end, Sa hints that Wu is telling us this story from beyond the grave, which drains what little dramatic impact might yet have survived the endless litany of specific details). As a story, "Empress" failed to engage me, because it's not actually about Wu Zetian at all. It's about the world Wu lived in, and while I'm sure that's of interest to a great many readers, it's not the story I could reasonably expect to find from a novel titled "Empress" that claims to tell Wu's tale.