'Mustard Seed Itinerary', by Robert Mullen (published by EnvelopeBooks)
In this intriguing book, the narrator Po Cheng is the eponymous mustard seed, going off on unpredictable and strange travels through a different landscape and time. It is in fact a long and detailed dream, where helpful characters turn up, disappear and reappear again, sometimes with different jobs or roles. Although the journey seems at first haphazard and dictated by chance, once he reaches the Celestial City, Po Cheng discovers a highly structured society. Everyone has their place, their role to play, and Po Cheng has to pass various exams and tests, to rise in the hierarchy, although sometimes he is promoted unexpectedly.
Everyone, that is, except the underground characters, the misfits and bohemians who manage to dodge the rules and, towards the end, the rebel insurgents. It is from the ranks of these misfits and mavericks that Po Cheng finds the most help, although, as he rises in the ranks and becomes one of the most powerful people in the Empire, the management of it all becomes exceedingly difficult, with the Imperial Army becoming outwitted by the rebels and in danger of deserting and joining them.
The journey is also through ideas and philosophies, sometimes pinned in public view, sometimes uttered by characters, such as Scholar Lü who declaims that poets 'thrived on disorder… ignored the norms, turned their noses up at tradition and were the purveyors of a fearful pestilence'. When Po Cheng asked: 'what sort of pestilence?', Scholar Lu replied: 'That of unbridled wilfulness'.
While at the Rest and Be Thankful Monastery, the teaching was that 'all is illusion' but Po Cheng felt that the monastery was not au courant with the latest philosophies (or fashions) refuting such an idea with the simple question: 'If all is illusion, then on what does dust gather?'
There are some lovely descriptive names: The Small Fulness Theatre Company, Bright Prospect Prefecture, Celestial Harmony Lodging House, Forest of Brushes Academy (for artists). Mottos, banners and signboards abound. The Good Physician Pharmacy has a motto of: Absolutely no Cheating! Not even of Children or the Elderly!
We recognise in such descriptions and assurances the same agendas as in modern advertising. My own motto to such signboards might be: Check that the paint on the sign is fresh and not cracked and dull!
And this is what happens, or it did to me. I started to think in aphorisms and sayings (if not quite haiku) as I became immersed in the vagaries, digressions and adventures of this fascinating world, following Po Cheng at first in his wanderings through the land, and then his settled role and existence in the Celestial City.
While this journey is ostensibly through a long ago time, we see familiar human dilemmas – how to negotiate the thickets of both actual forests, and those of ideas, how to discern the difference between facade and underlying reality; and traits – the tendency to inflate one's own character, while making judgements about others, to conform to authority, to accept passively the status quo and not think for oneself. But far from being a moral tract, this story has the lightness of touch of a Chinese painting. It's a story full of humour, plot twists, endearing characters, some who follow convention and others who defy it.
As the author says, 'dream journeys serve as voyages of discovery'. In his lifetime lived within one night, Po Cheng has certainly gained insight and experience, and offers his dream for us to enjoy and learn from too.
Morelle Smith is a poet and writer