Monday, November 19, 2007

Soul Mountain, by Gao Xinjian

At some stage last year, my English Professor mentioned this as being the most fantastic book he'd read during the year. The author, a Nobel Prize winning playwright, found himself mis-diagnosed with lung cancer. He learnt the truth about six weeks later; this provoked in him the desire to wander through China. As far as I can make out, most of his time was spent in Southern China (around Chengdu) and the Three Gorges/Yangtze River region. This was in 1982, so around a decade after the official end of the Cultural Revolution (although it might be said not to have finished until 1975).

This journey and the Cultural Revolution are vital events in this book - some of which is evidently travel narrative, although the whole is portrayed as a novel. It is impossible to draw a line between fact and fiction, at least in respect of the "I" who narrates. This "I" is a Beijing writer and playwright, who has had a mis-diagnosis of lung cancer, and who is in some kind of political trouble. "I" goes wandering around, to places within China where Chinese is a foreign language, in search of folk songs, of signs of the traditions which pre-dated the Cultural Revolution and might be on a mission to find Lingshan (or Soul Mountain). In the process, "I" finds many signs of the next revolution - China's late 20th century Industrial Revolution, which is causing just as much damage to social life as the Cultural one and far far more damage to the environment - this desecration is a major motif. The novel is of a highly nostalgic, albeit unfulfilled, journey.

I have been referring to this fellow as "I" because the point of view alternates between that of "I" and of "you". There is also a "she" (or, more probably, a sequence of them) and, later on, a "he". They may or may not be incarnations of the same entity (and, obviously, are all manifestations of the same author). I'm not going to go into the theory of why the author has chosen this mode. There is a sort of explanation given in chapter 52:
You know that I am just talking to myself to alleviate my loneliness. You know that this loneliness of mine is incurable, that no-one can save me and that I can only talk with myself as the partner of my conversation.
In this lengthy soliloquy you are the object of what I relate, a myself who listens intently to me - you are simply my shadow.
As I listen to myself and you, I let you create a she, because you are like me and also cannot bear the loneliness and have to find a partner for your conversation...
I never really got to the bottom of this, and am not sure that it works as a novel. We expect a certain degree of unity, and narrative continuity, and characters who don't get themselves stuck in irretrievable situations (such as on the edge of a mountain or middle of a river with no way forward or back) who simply show up in the next chapter as if nothing had happened. Again, there is a chapter (72) addressing these concerns - the "I" is confronted by a critic who complains it is not a novel and who then sets out his expectations of one.

But if I am struggling to see what the sum of the parts might be, I found that most of the parts were in their own way wonderful, even brilliant at times. As I see the relationship between these various "characters", "I" is the most focussed on realism: it is from him we get the clearest accounts of how China is, how it had been and what he fears it will be. He's a great one for talking to the various people he encounters and getting their story.

The "you" strikes me as being quite a bit younger - it is actually his idea to find Soul Mountain, as the result of a chance encounter (with someone who may well have been I) on a train: it represents freedom to him. He is not long on this path when he (i.e. "you") falls in with she and is interested. His chat up method is a curious one - he tells her tall tales, all of which involve rapes and murdered babies! She gets him to agree to stop, because these stories are freaking her out, and he tells her one about a female shaman which is even worse. She's initially restircted to factual accounts, but gradually develops story-telling to rival his (again, of women being put into awful situations) but about half way through, she (or maybe both of them) morphs into someone completely different, talking as if to a husband of longstanding about how badly he's treated her.

I think you have to just go with the flow of these eccentricities of story-telling: once I worked that out, I started to really love this book.



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