An Irishman's Diary


I see that to mark Chinese New Year next week, the National Concert Hall is presenting a Sino-Hibernian evening of music, including Bill Whelan’s Riverdance and an adaptation of Xian Xinghai’s Yellow River Cantata.

There’s a theme here that would not have been lost on James Joyce (131 tomorrow, by the way – if you’re reading this Jim, happy birthday). Nor is it lost on me. Because even before I heard the extraordinary news that Finnegans Wake has become a bestseller in China, it was one of my Western New Year resolutions to read it.

Not the whole book, of course. Promising to do that would have been like taking out an expensive gym membership in the first week of January. No. My modest aim was to get through just one chapter, while also making genuine attempts to understand it. And so, acting on expert literary advice, I chose Chapter 8.

A common mistake, apparently (insofar as attempts to read Finnegans Wake can ever be called common), is to start at page 1. There’s no good reason to do this. The book is like a Dublin tour-bus: it’s a continuous loop, so you can get on anywhere. Chapter 8 just happens to be one of the more accessible places to board.

It depicts two washerwomen gossiping on the banks of the Liffey. But rivers in general are its running theme. I’m told Joyce worked the names of 500 of the world’s waterways, big and small, into the text, many in the form of puns. So if nothing else, you can play spot the river while waiting for overall comprehension to dawn.

Chapter 8 has one other big advantage. There is a recording of Joyce himself reading a section (inevitably, it’s now on YouTube). Which is an extraordinary thing in itself.

He was half-blind at the time and so had to memorise it. But his delivery in a very exaggerated Irish brogue – supposedly the accent of a washerwoman, although it doesn’t sound like any washerwoman I know – emphasises the music in the language, which was written to be read aloud.

As for my attempts at comprehension, well, I have learned helpfully that a big influence on Finnegans Wake, especially Chapter 8, was a book by a Russian scientist and revolutionary, Léon Metchnikoff.

La Civilisation et les Grands Fleuves Historiques, published in Paris in 1889, was a history of the world, no less, with the influence of great rivers as a central motif. And since Finnegans Wake is a history of the world too, sort-of, Joyce imported some of Metchnikoff’s ideas into his own text, wherein all the planet’s rivers intermingle.

Thus the passage when his washerwoman is at one moment on the banks of the Liffey and the next has dropped something she was cleaning (a piece of pattern china) into the aforementioned Yellow River, or the Huang He as it’s called at home.

“Hoangho, my sorrow, I’ve lost it,” exclaims the woman, echoing one of that river’s nicknames. The Huang He is also known, more positively, as the “cradle of Chinese civilisation”. But its propensity for flooding has earned it the epithet, “China’s sorrow.”

The Yellow River Piano Concerto, which will feature at next week’s concert, has sometimes had a mixed press too. It began life as a mere cantata and is said to have been written in a cave in 1939 (the year Finnegans Wake was finally published), during the war against the Japanese.

It was only developed into a concerto in the late 1960s: proverbially interesting times in China. The Cultural Revolution was in full, Huang He-like spate then. And under the direction of the wife of Chairman Mao, a committee of musicians was tasked with turning the cantata into a four-part work of propaganda.

The result led one unsympathetic critic to wonder aloud how a country so great as China could have produced something like this. But having fallen from official favour in the mid-1970s, after the overthrow of Mrs Mao and the Gang of Four, the work has since risen again to become a much-loved part of Chinese repertoire.

It will therefore be central to the new year celebration at the NCH on February 11th, performed by the RTÉ Concert Orchestra and solo pianist Jue Wang. The first half of the programme also includes Li Huan-zhi’s Spring Festival Overture. Thereafter, the Chinese music will blend with Joycean seamlessness into a collection of Irish favourites, including Bill Whelan’s famous water-work, which first burst its banks almost two decades ago now, and shows no signs of drying up.