reviewed by Fionn Meade
|UNTIL THE NOBEL PRIZE turned him into a sudden celebrity, Gao Xingjiang passed relatively unnoticed in his Paris neighborhood, supporting himself mainly through the sale of austere black and white ink paintings for which he has a well-deserved reputation. Few would have guessed at the tumult that would ensue, as his ambitious and unruly literary work took center stage.
Despite being on the run from Chinese authorities due to the “oppose spiritual pollution” campaign of 1983 that threatened to land him in a prison farm for the second time, there is thankfully little demure or discreet about Gao Xingjian’s journey through the remote forest region of Sichuan province in Soul Mountain.
Having been misdiagnosed with fatal lung cancer earlier that same year, a disease which took his father’s life, there is an ironic sense of reprieve that accompanies the narrator’s imposed sojourn along the Yangtze River: “Fortunately, the doctor who gave me a wrong diagnosis saved my life,” explains the narrator. And the extraordinary novel that results is an untidy, eternally inquisitive exploration of the self that continually tacks back and forth amid the simultaneous experience of oppression and renewal.
As the first Chinese recipient of the Nobel Prize in Literature, it is hard not to linger over the biographical notes that tell of his three-year banishment to a re-education camp during the Cultural Revolution of the 1970s; of his having to burn over ten years of manuscripts for fear of further reprisal; of the ban of his plays Bus Stop and The Other Shore in the 1980s; and of his ultimate choice to leave China in exile in 1987, the manuscript of what would become Soul Mountain stowed away in his valise. His is undoubtedly a story of triumph, in contrast to the tragic fates of so many writers at the hands of 20th century regimes (Osip Mandelstam, Walter Benjamin and Isaac Babel spring to mind). And yet to dwell on the solemn political consequence of a writer so daring and bent on exorcism, is to reduce the work itself.
In flight from the conformity required by the Communist government, the narrator wanders deep into the regions of the Qiang, Miao and Yi peoples, whose landscapes and traditions are little known by the West. Following a chance conversation with a stranger at a roadside inn, the narrator soon sets out with a map drawn on a cigarette box for the mysterious Lingshan (“Soul Mountain”), which quickly transmutes itself into the destination that the narrator lacks but yearns for, “where wonderful things can be seen, where suffering and pain can be forgotten, and where one can find freedom.” Under the age-old guise of a quest (“how shall I change this life for which I had just won a reprieve?”) Gao’s syncretism is allowed to range where it pleases; his furtive travels bring him to numerous sites of the great Han Chinese civilization, whose lore he cajoles from local historians, farmers and storytellers, luxuriating in the cruel legends of bandit chiefs and their rebel concubines, ruminating upon spare temple couplets and masterful ink paintings, and more than once testing the refuge of ‘institution’ at Buddhist and Daoist monasteries only to realize he is “still seduced by the human world” and its myriad contradictions and anxieties.
The journey becomes a propulsive raid on history, the surrounding landscape and the narrator’s own imagination, multiplying narrative selves to include a “you” in direct answer to the “I” and eventually a distinct “she” and “he” as well. It doggedly tests the boundaries of an ever-expanding, excavatory self, making for a difficult book, disjointed and unabashedly narcissistic at times, but generously rewarding. Relentless in throwing off easy truths and sympathies, Soul Mountain, as a novel and ultimately quixotic destination, keeps the reader from any singular revelation or rapture and offers instead the exposed self in combat with itselves. A determined dissolution reminiscent of Beckett’s trilogy spurs Gao to return repeatedly to the novel’s definitive quandry: “While pretending to understand, I still don’t understand. The fact of the matter is I comprehend nothing, I understand nothing. This is how it is.”
“I have been a refugee from birth,” says the narrator in one of the few autobiographical admissions of the novel. “When my mother was alive she said she gave birth to me while planes were dropping bombs. The windows of the delivery room in the hospital had strips of paper pasted on them to stop them shattering… my birth probably predetermined my habit of being perpetually on the run in life and I have grown accustomed to upheavals and learnt to find a little pleasure in the intervals between.” The restless voice of a necessarily acrobatic storyteller, Gao Xingjiang is unlike any contemporary, deeply indebted to the modernism of Europe while irrevocably infused with the rich traditions of China. Soul Mountain is a most unusual and honest work, both confounding and redemptive.