Second novels are expected to be disappointing; and if your first novel won a Nobel Prize, how can your second be anything else? “Soul Mountain” by Gao Xingjian made cultural history in 2000. It was the first and (till then) only novel by the exiled painter and playwright, and it so impressed the Nobel committee that Gao became the first Chinese-born writer to be awarded the Prize for literature. According to the Prize citation, “Soul Mountain” was “one of those singular literary creations that seem impossible to compare with anything but themselves.” Now that it has a successor, “One Man’s Bible,” it seems even more impossible (if that’s possible) not to compare them with each other.
“Soul Mountain” was a record of Gao’s journey to remote southwestern China in the mid-1980s, after he had made a successful debut as a playwright in Beijing but then incurred official disfavor. It was full of local color and character, poetic fragments and metaphysical meditations, shifts in narrative voice and prose rhythm, by turns lyrical, speculative, wry, and erotic. For all its playful wit and aesthetic sophistication, there was something tranquil and misty about the novel, a little like the style of traditional Chinese landscape painting.
“One Man’s Bible” takes place before and after that journey: partly during the madness of the late 1960s and early 70s in China, and partly during the comparative nirvana of the 1990s in Europe, where Gao was granted political asylum. The new novel is less lyrical and more dramatic than “Soul Mountain,” less philosophical and more political, its form less experimental and its narrative voice more stable. The overall effect is once again dreamlike and ambiguous, but the areas of light and shadow are a little more distinct.
The Chinese Cultural Revolution of the mid- and late 1960s was a vast and unprecedented eruption of collective insanity. After 15 years of intensive indoctrination centered on the adulation of the Supreme Leader, Mao Zedong, the youth of China were exhorted to seek out and destroy all potential opposition to Chairman Mao. Within the Communist Party and among educated people outside it, a certain disenchantment with Mao had set in, since they understood that Mao’s preposterous policies and colossal vanity were largely responsible for the horrendous famines of the late 1950s, in which tens of millions of Chinese died. So Mao launched a brilliant and unscrupulous pre-emptive strike. The result was a national orgy of harassment, persecution, slogan-shouting, beatings, impromptu executions, forced suicides, cultural vandalism, and hostility or suspicion toward anyone literate or over 30.
Gao Xingjian, in his mid-twenties, was a translator in Beijing at the time, working at a large State publishing house. Though not much interested in politics, he helps form a group of Red Guards – as the roaming gangs of ideologically intoxicated youths were then called – in order to counter another, particularly thuggish local Red Guard unit. But then a black mark is discovered in his background: his father had once owned a gun and is therefore presumed to have harbored anti-Party sentiments. (In this nightmarish society, guilt by association is the rule.) To avoid being denounced, he arranges a transfer to a teaching job in a mountainous district far from the capital. There he comes under the protection of Party Secretary Lu, a jaded veteran who has seen all ideological weathers. Life is tolerable, though austere. After several years Mao dies, the Cultural Revolution dies down, and Gao returns to Beijing, where he will begin to publish, be labelled a “bad element,” and set out on the internal exile chronicled in “Soul Mountain.”
Gao’s experience of these dark years is rendered episodically, in not-quite-consecutive fragments that alternate with scenes from his later life in the West and Hong Kong, mainly conversations with his French and German-Jewish lovers. The China episodes are narrated in the third person and the past tense: “They let him pass. He had just got on his bicycle when he heard the youth with the flat-top haircut behind mumble a few words and then being beaten until he was howling. He did not dare to look back.” The post-China scenes are narrated in the second person and the present tense: “’How did you escape?’ she asks, still in an offhand manner. ‘Do you know what “to simulate” means?’ you ask, forcing yourself to smile. … ‘So, you’re a wily fox?’ she laughs softly. ‘Yes,’ you admit. ‘When dogs are all around hunting you, you had to be more wily than a fox or they would have ripped you to shreds.’”
The third-person sections are more vivid – sometimes terrifyingly so, as in the depiction of brutal public “criticism” sessions or conversations with broken and disillusioned old comrades, one of whom remarks bitterly: “A cat’s life is actually better than a human being’s.” The post-China scenes, especially the many bedroom scenes, are slack by comparison. Why has Gao chosen this teasing, sometimes frustrating narrative form?
Perhaps to break what might have been, if sustained, an unbearable tension. But there may be another reason. Gao survived totalitarianism by eschewing seriousness. China made him a thorough anarchist, morally and aesthetically. The pressure of expectations bore so heavily on his previous life that he refuses to be bound now by his readers’ expectations. The discipline of his China years was so stifling that he will submit to no discipline now. He is an incorrigible joker, and all existence is his butt.
Is Gao a Chinese Solzhenitsyn? More like an anti-Solzhenitsyn. There is nothing playful, skeptical, fragmentary, or experimental about Solzhenitsyn’s novels. On the contrary, they are massive, self-assured, all of a piece, and immovably anchored in literary and spiritual traditions. Solzhenitsyn has Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Turgenev, and Pasternak behind him, as well as two thousand years of orthodox Christianity. Gao has almost nothing: there is no novelistic tradition in China, and no organized religion. Adapting Isaiah Berlin’s famous distinction, Solzhenitsyn is a hedgehog, Gao a fox.
Gao’s translator, Mabel Lee, has turned both his novels into elegant and haunting English prose. A quibble, though: “One Man’s Bible” does not seem exactly right as a title. “Bible” suggests external authority, revealed truth, something one accepts and lives by. One is normally not the author of one’s bible. What we actually have is one man’s testament or witness. “Bible” is perhaps more resonant and rhythmic. But it sounds a little odd in connection with this pagan, almost satyr-like, insistently irreverent and agnostic writer.