Friday, November 25, 2011

Gao Xingjian's "Soul Mountain": Book Review

This existential, postmodern, mystical quest is based on the writer's 1983 trek into southern China. After he learns his diagnosis of lung cancer is false, he seeks renewal as he searches for "Lingshan," the allegorical and actual goal of his title. While a novel, it feels based on fact, and as Gao Xingjian mixes reverie, folktales, adventure, and history, it provides a look at the deforestation, modernity, and lack of will to keep to old ways of self-discipline and customs as the Communist regime erases the traditions of mountain peoples. 

Chapters flow easily, over all sorts of subjects. Erratic in nature, often shuffled about, the manner of this relating may annoy Western readers. We can't catch all the references, I reckon, caught in translation at least. Still, enough of the texture of how life's lived far from cities keeps one's interest. Watching a Miao tribe's boy-girl dance-mating ritual, the writer reflects how "the human search for love must originally have been like this. So-called civilization in later ages separated sexual impulse from love and created the concepts of status, wealth, religion, ethics and cultural responsibility. Such is the stupidity of human beings." (228) The writer wonders how much culture's needed anyhow, under a system bent on eradicating it, on ignoring it.

Such editorializing happens a lot. I didn't mind it, but many chapters drifted, and my level of attention varied. This novel comes and goes, like its characters, not wishing to impose a fixed meaning on it all. "In fact human life amounts to this"-- so one woodcutter for a Daoist temple shrugs about his precious seclusion. 

What's innovative is how the author elaborates his own narrative voice. He adds to the "I" a "you" even if talking to himself. Then, "he" is created out of the "back of the head" as "you" turn away. "She" often arrives in the narrator's plot, as real bed-mate, as imagined folk seductress, as magic temptress, as symbolic mate. Memory and sense conjure up many of her representations, and she shows the "I" and "you" how to get out of one's self, one's mind, one's body, if for a while. 

The journey's a metaphor for life. Five hundred pages, and what happens? Can even personalities survive the pressure of fiction, anymore than fact? A critic arises, castigating the writer's attempt to ape the West in this narrative experiment. "You've slapped together travel notes, moralistic ramblings, feelings, notes, jottings, untheoretical discussions, unfable-like fables, copied out some folk songs, added some legend-like nonsense of your very own, and are calling it fiction!" (453) 

The pace slackens more than hastens. You adjust to it, as with life, or you fight it. Not every page draws me in, but none pushed me away. Despite the distance from the references and contexts, enough comes through this translation (rather British, by an Australian professor) to make this worthwhile as a leisurely companion. It ends in a burst of otherworldly revelation that caught me off guard. Not sure if it's an easy resolution or an inspired conclusion, but I found it memorable.

Well, it works, if not as a gripping, page-turning thriller, but a meandering, wandering, reflective passage of the later 20c in time and a slice of southern Chinese space as felt and seen and heard. Given it's for a Chinese readership, consider how much is suggested in a simple sentence about the rule of Mao: "Organizations and colleges came under military supervision and people discontented with their lot all became contented." (322) Composed in Parisian exile a few years later, this helped him win the Nobel Prize for literature in 2000. (Posted to Amazon US & 5-8-11.) [P.S. Compare to two accounts that also took place ca. 1985, Ma Jian's travels in "Red Dust" and Colin Thubron's "Behind the Wall"-- both reviewed by me since.]

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