Max Yeh constructs a hitherto unknown correspondence between the Chinese Ming Emperor Wanli and Miguel Cervantes, author of Don Quixote

Max Yeh, Stolen Oranges: Letters Between Cervantes and the Emperor of China, a Pseudo-FictionKaya Press, 2017.

A Chinese American historian discovers six anonymous documents in Spanish and Chinese in places ranging from the archives of Imperial China to a rare book shop in Mexico City and constructs a hitherto unknown correspondence between the Chinese Ming Emperor Wanli and Miguel Cervantes, author of Don Quixote. Difficulties in translation and the years-long, perilous voyages undertaken by conscripted letter couriers highlight the intensive labor and sheer serendipitous luck required to make this seemingly impossible 17th-century exchange possible. This reimagined history brings together the disparate histories of the Emperor, Cervantes, and the historian, united through time by their deep interest in literature, philosophy, politics, and the burden of demented mothers. As he did in his acclaimed previous novel, The Beginning of the East, Yeh continues to remap literary conventions. Layering documentary evidence, conflicting translations, and cultural contexts, Yeh sends ripples through the idea of historical fiction in the vein of Jorge Luis Borges and Italo Calvino. Described as “a writer on a rampage, with an appetite for history,” by E.L. Doctorow, Yeh’s Stolen Oranges reimagines the relationships of the past and the present.

Stolen Oranges, a new novel by Max Yeh, is a whirlwind of a historical tale, recounting a series of letters written between Miguel Cervantes (of Don Quixote fame) and a Ming emperor as told by their discoverer–a Chinese American historian. I was first drawn to this novel by the back cover description: “this dazzling meditation on the intricacies of memory, language, and time.” And when it showed up at my doorstep, by the small size of the book itself, about the size of my hand.
I hadn’t even opened the book yet. Yeh’s story begins with the Chinese American historian, who is writing a historical book (which is to say that it reads like non-fiction, though it is fiction), introducing the circumstances that led him to discover and then translate a series of letters between Cervantes and Emperor Wanli. It is, in a particular style of history writing, a bit dense at times, but worth meandering through even if one, such as I, lack understanding of nearly all references to Don Quixote. But I found the gems to be in these letters that go back and forth. Both the Emperor and Cervantes’ letters offer ruminations on the promised topics of memory, language, and time in manner that is deeply philosophical, somewhat long-winded, yet mostly accessible.
Take this passage on words and language as an example:
Words are an empty palace we are born into, the hills and corridors to which, nooks and crannies, windows and doorways, were long ago constructed by innumerable and unknown builders and planners and workmen whose unknown and unknowable intentions and meanings are set in stone and wood and whose spaces form our whole lives, while we live so conformed under the illusion that we are ever building the palace the way we want it.
Perhaps out of context it is slightly less legible, but peppered throughout these fictional letters are intriguing nuggets about humanity. Though technically a novel, it is much more akin to a philosophy book, even more so than a history book. This is not what I would call an easy or fast read, but Stolen Oranges is rewarding for those interested in a well-executed deep dive into ideas and theories about language and being. - Lily

Image result for Max Yeh, The Beginning of the East,
Max Yeh, The Beginning of the East, FC2, 1995.

Columbus called the lands he discovered and believed to be parts of China "the beginning of the East," and his aberrations, delusions, and fantasies form this compels novel's spiritual center. The Beginning of the East is written from an intriguing point of view that is simultaneously Western and Oriental, by an American scholar who is heir to the Chinese Mandarin tradition.

Columbus called the lands he discovered and believed to be parts of China "the beginning of the East," and his aberrations, delusions, and fantasies form this compels novel's spiritual center. The Beginning of the East is written from an intriguing point of view that is simultaneously Western and Oriental, by an American scholar who is heir to the Chinese Mandarin tradition.
An earthquake in Mexico City shocks the protagonist of this Scheherazade series of connected tales into mapping the influence of the United States on the rest of the Americas, of Europe on the Native American cultures, and therefore, of Columbus on reason for political kidnappings, death squads, and tortures. That logic comes to him woven around the figure of Columbus and elaborated as an ironic and tragic theory of world history leading inevitably to his own alienation and victimization. He is forced to travel back to Europe and to Seville, the city where Columbus's adventure began. There, as he relives in imagination the voyages of the great navigator, his own life and energized by an immense momentum, the narrative travels both forward and backward at once, both east to a mythic Cathay and west to the New World, where the protagonist ends up in a desolate town in the New Mexico desert in the company of down-and-outers who are fated to relive, as we all are, the primal contact of east and west initiated by Columbus.
The metaphors of self in The Beginning of the East engender vast reverberations, worlds on worlds of complex and reciprocal resonances, rich with echoes and memories. The recognizable, the improbable, the lyrical, the philosophical, the fabulous flow together. As Montesquieu, the grandfather of this genre of the foreign visitor, said about his own work, everything is tired together "by a secret, and in a way, unknown chain."
"Like Henry Miller, Max Yeh is dismissive of literary convention. He's a writer on the rampage, but his appetite is for history, for political meaning, for ethical life. He's an origast, but of the intellect. He imagines American back to Columbus and forward again, mapping his own brain, and possibly ours, in what is finally an original and provocative book."—E.L. Doctorow
"For a fresh take on the myth and reality of present-day America, free of cant and pedantry, this book is invaluable. Its quality is clear: first class, untrammeled, an extraordinary work."—John Loftus
Some buildings leaned over and slowly sank like great ships, their windows flashing the clear, bright sky, tracing huge arcs with their rays of reflected sunlight across the faces of the surrounding buildings: others, touched by some powerfully magic wand, simply disintegrated in mid-air, their firmness all gone, became for a moment hovering forms of dust, shivering mirages of their former beings, and then collapsed into piles of rubble. Whole floors were sliced away, while those above and below remained intact, so that the buildings looked stunted brothers of themselves, the only sign of their past the loops of bent girders sticking out the corners where once there had been a fifth or sixth floor. Top floors became small garbage dumps, dull, colorless masses of broken glass, bent aluminum frames, bricks, rocks, tangles of iron rods, contrasting with the elegant glass and concrete structures that held them high in the air. Brightly painted walls, blue, brown, maroon, green, ochre, yellow, black, red, orange, turquoise, olive, grey, crackled, flaked, peeled, dulled, and aged, pieces of their masonry jutting out or fallen or falling. High up on these expansive and dilapidated cliffs, he saw bathrooms appear suddenly, shining yellow tile work, gold-trimmed shower stall, a bottle of shampoo still balanced on the stall's edge, a coat rack in the corner behind the toilet with its seat left up by the master of the house, a brown bathrobe blowing slightly in the warm breeze as if it were really real and not the doll house miniature it seemed, or he saw until the heave gas from the tanks on top the buildings slowly leaking down ventilators and stairwells and drain pipes found the hot water heaters in the apartments below and with a sudden blue flash of lightning followed by clouds of dust the buildings disappeared with their peaceful and comfortable dollhouse furniture, miniature bookshelves with even tinier books that actually opened, tinware pans, enameled stove, handknit rugs, small portraits and landscapes painted with human hair brushes hanging on the papered walls.

Max Yeh, described as “a writer on the rampage” by E.L. Doctorow, is the author of The Beginning of the East (FC2, 1992). He was born in China, educated in the United States and has lived in Europe and Mexico. He has taught at the University of California, Irvine, Hobart and William Smith Colleges, and New Mexico State University. He lives in the New Mexico mountains with his wife and daughter, where he works on a wide range of subjects including literary theory, linguistics, art history and science.


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