Whew, it took me an entire year, even longer than Ada or Ardor and Ulysses put together, but I did it: I have completed reading a 70 chapter version of Water Margin!
Short version: the novel is engaging and exciting and rich enough to make me forget about the endless and obsolete description of politeness rituals and a few disgusting things.
A little footnote: I have read the shortest version - there are several ones, sometimes going as high as 120 chapters, but the 70 chapters version is supposed to be the true one, as later chapters may have been added much more recently (they are still old but the core part of the novel is extremely ancient).
And last but not least: what I have read is the French translation. I am able to read in three different languages (four if it's not too complicated), and I purposedly chose the French version. Why? Because the English version is somewhat controversial (there are several of them and none seem entirely satisfactory) whereas the French version has been praised as one of the best, if not the best, of all translations of this novel in a Western language. (there is no translation of the novel in my third language).
And I have to say, it is totally true: the French translation is absolutely awesome. Apparently, it was made by a French sinologist who devoted his life to this work, and he deserves the Nobel prize of Translators for his incredible work. He kept the language sounding ancient, kind of medieval, and yet very funny and easy to understand. His use of a delightfully picaresque vocabulary contributed to a wide extent to my enjoyment reading it. So kudos to him!
Now about the novel itself:
Although remarkably long, you very quickly get into it. I was hooked from the start. The introduction tells a story that is detached from the rest of the novel: how a man unleashed the soul of 108 demons which will, later on, be sort of patron saints to the main characters. Then the book properly starts with the silly and funny way the main antagonist made it to become the practical ruler of the Empire.
Song Jiang, the original equivalent of Tir or Riou, will not appear until dozens of chapters! The first important, main characters that you will follow in the novel are Lu Zishen, who shares the same star as Viktor and looks very much like him: a big strong man who is also funny , brave, and reliable! Another hero you will follow for a while in the early stages of the novel is Wu Song, who shares the same star as Valeria. Like my beloved swordswoman, Wu Song is an extremely skilled fighter and a loyal person. By the time you will be introduced to star #1, these two will have given you pages and pages of action, fights, bravery, and betrayal.
For a long time actually, Song Jiang is only the second in command. Water Margin's version of Odessa is Chao Gai, and he will only meet the same tragic fate much later in the book. If you were to play a videogame version of Water Margin with Song Jiang as the main character, you would only become the leader of the army way after the castle was filled with people.
Another very important guy is Wu Yong, who bears the star of Mathiu, and interestingly, he speaks just like him, showing how the authors of Suikoden I were still very close to the novel. Wu Yong says all the time "as your humble strategist..." like Mathiu does (or would have done if the translators of Suikoden had been as serious as the French guy who translated the novel).
Last but not least, a very important character in the novel is Li Kui, who shares the star of Fu Su Lu and is comparable in terms of brutal force. However, unlike Fu Su Lu who is a marginal character (pun intended), Li Kui is involved in many, many, MANY of the adventures in the novel. He has a very strong personality, brutal and impulsive, in sharp contrast with the other characters who tend all to be very polite and cold-headed, which is probably why he appears so often.
I have to say, roughly two-thirds in the novel, I thought it was becoming a bit repetitive: the same plot started over which would persuade another very skilled fighter to turn to the bandits of the marsh. Another disturbing thing is some of the horrendous crimes they commit: although they are most of the time faithful to their ideal of bringing "heavenly justice" on Earth, there are a few occasions where they really do horrible things just to force a skilled man to join them, like burning an entire neighborhood or even killing a child. Actually, these occurences sounds very much out of place because the rest of the novel is very dignified and honourable.
THere is one thing that makes it difficult to read: the names of all the characters sound very similar to someone who is not used to Chinese culture. In this very review, I talked about Wu Song and Wu Yong... in the beginning, I had to constantly check who was who. I actually used a funny way to distinguish them: I printed the SoD list with the name of the characters from the novel and the name of Suikoden I & II characters. This allowed me at some point to associate them with the familiar face of Suikoden characters. Interestingly enough, even this association did not prevented me from constantly picturing the scenes in a Medieval Chinese environment: descriptions are so vivid that there is no way you could imagine it to happen anywhere else! The stunning countryside, the busy towns, the lakes and mountains, the mansions, everything is very well depicted and you feel transported far away in an exciting world.
Oh they also spend their time eating - all the time! And their meals are so well depicted that on many occasions I ended up eating Chinese food because reading the novel made me crave it!
The characters are huge, I mean, they are bigger than life. As I said, they eat banquets on any occasion, have a strong sense of honour, value each other's honour... It is very refreshing compared to contemporary fiction, which too often depicts self-assumed losers and their self-degrading antics.
For you Suikoden fans, there are a few interesting parallels: Luc's star is a magician who can control the wind, Varkas & Sydonia's stars are a pair of leaders from a band of outlaws, Krin's star is indeed a little rascal who can jump on roofs to sneak inside houses, Tengaar & Hix's stars are indeed associated but not as a couple, they are brother in laws and good friends... Similiarily, Eileen's star is the valet of Lepant's star. There are only three females in the novel's SoDs: Kasumi, Ayda, and Hilda. The stars of the three pirates in Suikoden I are also three friends who are familiar with boats.
I will be looking for a longer version, just to see how it goes, and will keep you guys informed. Actually, as usual when I love a novel, I get accustomed to the company of its characters in my routine and I have to say I will miss them. I think I will read it again someday.