In China Wakes by New York Times reporters Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn, a middle-aged Chinese literary critic reflects sadly: “I have difficulty writing anything of value. People of my generation, we weren’t properly educated. We grew up in a desert.” For three decades after the Communist victory in 1949, China was a wasteland and a prison. By government policy, as well as by its extreme poverty, the country was cut off from the rest of the world. Political regimentation was absolute: intellectual curiosity and aesthetic refinement were, in effect, crimes. A billion people mute or silenced for a generation and a half – undoubtedly a vast explosion of self-expression is imminent. We can hear early rumblings in Soul Mountain by the winner of this year’s Nobel Prize for Literature – China’s first.
The author, Gao Xingjian, was born in 1940. He majored in French at the Beijing Foreign Language Institute and worked as a translator during the 1960s. His early writings incurred official disapproval, so during the Cultural Revolution (which it would be truer to call the Anti-Cultural Reaction) he burned his unpublished manuscripts. After the death of Mao Zedong in 1976, things loosened up a little. The first play of Gao’s to be produced, Absolute Signal (1982), was a smash hit. But the pendulum swung back: his next play, Bus Stop, was banned and Gao was denounced as a “bad influence.”
Gao’s life then took a curious turn. He was diagnosed with lung cancer, to which his father and uncle had succumbed, and given a few months to live. After several weeks of preparing for death, he was informed that the diagnosis was mistaken. Soon afterwards, he learned that he was about to be arrested and sent to a labor camp. He hastily left Beijing for remote southwestern China, roaming for five months and 10,000 miles before the government’s “anti-spiritual pollution” campaign blew over. In 1987 he travelled to Europe on a writing fellowship and settled in Paris, where he was granted political asylum. He is also a noted painter; an evocative specimen, entitled “Meditation,” adorns the book jacket.
Soul Mountain was published in Taiwan in 1990; this is the first English version. It is a record of Gao’s wanderings in rural China, interwoven with dreams, reveries, folklore, imaginary conversations, and philosophical ruminations. The movement of its 81 chapters, or fragments, roughly follows the Yangtze River from west to east. The novel has no plot, though many of the individual chapters tell amusing or arresting stories. Nor are there characters, exactly: the nameless narrator sometimes calls himself “I” but just as often “you” (as in “You meander around for a while, then you admit to yourself that you’re lost”) or even “he.” There is a shadowy, sexy “she” who appears intermittently, usually to taunt the narrator or complain about men in general, and who is eventually seduced by his irrepressible storytelling. The narrator encounters fascinating people – shamans, spirit-women, Daoist monks and nuns, master singers, forest rangers – but only for the space of a chapter.
So what makes this novel “one of those singular literary creations that seem impossible to compare with anything but themselves,” as the Nobel citation put it? Images, rhythms, voices; the play of form, the flicker of ideas. The language of “Soul Mountain” is often startlingly poetic, especially in the early chapters, while in the vicinity of Lingshan or “Soul Mountain.” For example:
“A drifting mist comes, just one metre off the ground, and spreads out right before me. As I retreat, I scoop it into my hands, it is like the smoke from a stove. I start running but I am too slow. It brushes past and everything in sight becomes blurred. It suddenly disappears but the cloudy mist following behind is much more distinct, coming as drifts of swirling balls. I back away from it without realizing I am going around in a circle with it but on a slope I manage to escape from it. I turn around suddenly to discover that right below is a deep ravine. A range of magnificent indigo mountains is directly opposite, their peaks covered in white clouds, thick layers of billowing churning clouds. In the ravine, a few wisps of smoke-like cloud are rapidly dispersing. The white line below must be the rushing waters of the river flowing through the middle of the dark forest ravine.”
In counterpoint with this misty lyricism is a dry, faintly cynical, decidedly anti-heroic irony, which usually comes out during visits to city friends or recalling misadventures with authority, when the narrator was “subjected to criticism, made to listen to instructions, made to wait for a verdict, and then waited in vain for some kindly divinity to intervene, to move Heaven and Earth and get me out of my predicament. This divinity eventually emerged but wasn’t sympathetic and just looked somewhere else.”
The narrator, like Gao, is a loner and a skeptic. He is open to the beautiful, the sensual, and the mystical, but wary of ambition and ideology. The Communist regime is disparaged in passing, but in a tone which suggests that any distant bureaucracy is likely to be clumsy and cruel. The occasional greedy nouveau-riche businessmen whom the narrator comes across fares no better. The narrator is attracted by the “wise passivity” of Daoism. Similarly, Gao has recommended to his fellow writers an aesthetic of “no-ism,” or “ism-lessness,” of withdrawal rather than defiance.
At one point a couple of mountain people shake their heads over the planned Three Gorges Dam, a mammoth hydroelectric project that will destroy the Chinese Grand Canyon and the world’s third longest river. In this and many subtler ways, the novel juxtaposes the modern and pre-modern. A grave robber – one of the oldest professions – comes down with mercury poisoning, probably from modern embalming chemicals. The narrator shelters in a cave during a rainstorm and finds a Daoist novice reading pulp fiction. And for those readers – most, I suspect – who are drawn into some degree of identification with the narrator by those bewitching narrative voices, the book will be one long immersion in buried strata of history and the psyche.
What is a reader left with after this long, strange journey inward and downward? Much -- but nothing one can hold on to. “You should know that there is little you can seek in this world, that there is no need for you to be so greedy, in the end all you can achieve are memories, hazy, intangible, dreamlike memories, which are impossible to articulate. When you try to relate them, there are only sentences … .”