Mark Salzman,
The Laughing Sutra
(Random House, 1991; Vintage, 1992)

Mark Salzman's interest in Chinese martial arts, calligraphy and art began in his early teens, and his interest led him eventually to teach English and study martial arts in China. He recorded his experiences in his nonfiction book Iron and Silk before turning his hand to fiction in his first novel The Laughing Sutra.

By the time he is 20, Hsun-ching has had more than his share of adventures. At 4 he is orphaned and rescued from death by a mysterious -- and rather furry -- stranger and left to be raised by a solitary monk, Wei-ching, who is dedicated to duplicating sutras, Buddhist scriptures. Wei-ching hopes to be able to read an obscure sutra called "The Laughing Sutra" but unfortunately, it has been taken to the United States. Wei-ching dreams of being able to send Hsun-ching to San Francisco to purchase the sutra one day, but reality interferes.

At the age of 10, the Cultural Revolution in China disrupts Hsun-ching's life as he is conscripted into the Red Guard. Just as quickly, he is captured by the People's Liberation Army and sent to be "re-educated" at a farming commune for ten years. Wei-ching is still alive when Hsun-ching finally returns, but he is very frail, and Hsun-ching is determined to get the sutra for his adoptive father. There's only one slight snag in his plans: In 1976, Chinese citizens could not visit the United States freely. Hsun-ching can only leave China and enter the U.S. illegally.

Wei-ching recommends to him a traveling companion: Colonel Sun, the strange man who rescued Hsun-ching when he was 4. Hsun-ching approaches Colonel Sun, who bears a suspicious resemblance to the Monkey King, a legendary figure from Chinese mythology, right down to the special iron staff he carries and wields with skill. Colonel Sun is helpful in plotting ways into Hong Kong and to America, but once the unlikely pair hits the streets of San Francisco, it's anyone's guess as to what happens next.

Hsun-ching encounters Alison, an assistant curator in the museum, and with her help they track down the missing sutra. Meanwhile, Hsun-ching and Colonel Sun encounter soup kitchens, dwarf tossing, art gallery openings and more about American culture than they ever wanted to know. In the end, Hsun-ching reaches his own kind of enlightenment; at the very least, he achieves inner peace.

Salzman writes with pure affection for his characters and their culture in a story which, while strongly plot-driven, employs two likable heroes with well-rounded personalities. The scenes are vividly depicted; Salzman has a remarkable eye for detail. The culture clashes experienced by the two are laugh-out-loud funny but never at their expense. Salzman's respect is evident.

If you're looking for a good relaxing read that will also nourish your mind, pick up The Laughing Sutra. It's a safe bet that you won't put it down again until you're finished.

[ by Donna Scanlon ]

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